Pumping Irony

Craig Cox, EL’s managing editor and resident geezer, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

Experience Life Magazine

Immune to Logic

I’ve been battling a bit of a cold for the past few
weeks, somehow managing to keep it at bay with a regular regimen of sleep,
vitamins, and the occasional intervention of Echinacea and homeopathic aconite.
All in the service of buttressing my 59-year-old immune system. As the Zen monk
said as he fell from the 20-story building: “So far, so good.”

 

I’ve always been of the opinion that a hale and
hearty immune system is the key to a graceful aging process, but suddenly I’m
not so sure. A recent piece in The New
York Times
suggests that a powerhouse immune system might just backfire on
you — especially if you’re trying to beat back the common cold.

 

The writer, Jennifer Ackerman, is an expert in this
area — or so her resume would suggest. She’s the author of Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, and she argues that
it’s a too-aggressive immune system — not that pesky cold bug — that causes
those sniffles and sneezes. She points to a 1984 study at the University of
Copenhagen that compared the nasal tissues of people suffering from severe
colds with samples from those same people after they had recovered. “To the
scientists’ surprise, none of the samples showed any damage to the nasal
tissue,” she writes.

 

“Here was a new insight in cold science: the symptoms
are caused not by the virus but by its host — by the body’s inflammatory
response. Chemical agents manufactured by our immune system inflame our cells
and tissues, causing our nose to run and our throat to swell. The enemy is us.

 

“Indeed, it’s possible to create the full storm of
cold symptoms with no cold virus at all, but only a potent cocktail of the
so-called inflammatory mediators that the body makes itself — among them,
cytokines, kinins, prostaglandins and interleukins, powerful little chemical
messengers that cause the blood vessels in the nose to dilate and leak,
stimulate the secretion of mucus, activate sneeze and cough reflexes and set
off pain in our nerve fibers.”

 

So, it appears that my highly functioning immune
system isn’t really fighting off the cold bug that’s been hanging around our
house. It’s actually creating the symptoms I don’t quite have.

 

Oh, wait. Here’s the kicker:

 

“There’s another intriguing paradox here. Studies
suggest that about one in four people who get infected with a cold virus don’t
get sick. The virus gets into their bodies, and eventually they produce
antibodies to it, but they don’t experience symptoms. It may be that people
like this are not making the normal amounts of inflammatory agents.”

 

I think I get it now. Maybe I’m one of those people
who get a cold that’s not created by our own highly functioning immune systems
because my immune system isn’t really functioning at a high level, but at a
level that doesn’t quite create cold symptoms, making it possible for the cold
virus to enter my body and also not create cold symptoms.

 

Glad I cleared that up. I’m feeling better already.

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Experience Life Magazine

Sixteen Tons

There’s a scene
in Shane, one of my favorite
westerns, in which the gunslinger Shane (played by Alan Ladd) and the
homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) do battle with a gnarly old stump in
Starrett’s dusty front yard. They go after it with axes for a while and, when
they see it’s weakening, they just start pushing on it like nobody’s business.
Starrett’s wife, the lovely Jean Arthur, implores her husband to “hitch up the
team” to finish the job, but Joe will have none of it. It’s personal; kind of a
test of his manhood.

 

That scene has
come to mind on a couple of occasions this past week, as I’ve been digging out
some fence posts in my own homestead. These aren’t any ordinary fence posts. As
my neighbor, Joe (just a coincidence), put it the other night, when he found me
staring dejectedly into a 4-foot hole embracing one of these posts, “Harry put
those in. He didn’t mean them to be moved.”

 

Harry would be
Harry Johnson, the previous owner of this house, who sunk those posts back around the time Shane was playing in the theaters, when concrete must have been cheap and plentiful. This particular
post is one of four Harry planted to hold up a grievously ugly chain-link fence
back by the garage, where My Lovely Wife would like something more dainty.
Hence, the harvesting of the posts. Or the attempted harvest. The lower 4 feet
of Harry’s 8-foot steel pole is encased in concrete and, after two prolonged
episodes with MLW’s ancient garden spade, I can move it around in the hole
pretty well, but can’t quite muscle it up to the surface.

 

MLW has
responded with her best rendition of Jean Arthur, encouraging me to “hitch up
the team” (which, in modern terms, means calling a contractor friend of mine to
get the number of this guy named Schmitty who owns a front-end loader and could
take care of Harry’s posts in no time flat. But I’m feeling a little like Joe
Starrett — that post has gotten the better of me and I feel like I’ve got
something to prove now — so I’m putting off that call.

 

Besides, I’ve
got other fish to fry. MLW has been after me to patch up a crack in the house’s
foundation before the ground freezes, so yesterday we went to the hardware
store and picked out the nicest long-handled shovel we could find for under $15
and I set about excavating around the southeastern corner of the foundation,
which as fate would have it, required that I unearth another of Harry’s
well-planted fence posts in order to get at the crack.

 

I’m used to
these sorts of family handyman setbacks, I should note; a surprisingly high
percentage of these little household projects I undertake feature some obstacle
or other (besides my own ineptitude) that I had not initially expected. It’s
just the way it is. In this case, Harry’s post and its requisite 700 pounds of
concrete was tightly hugging just the part of the foundation where the crack
appeared. So, I started digging and a while later had an impressive pile of
dirt amassed nearby. Harry’ post, however, remained firmly rooted. I dug some
more, this time employing some of MLW’s gardening tools to unearth the earth
between the post and the foundation. Each time I dove in with the hand trowel
and dandelion weeder, a slice of Tennessee Ernie Ford‘s 1955 hit, Sixteen Tons, played in my head: You load sixteen tons / what do you get? /
another day older / and deeper in debt.

 

This seemed to
spur me on, though, and eventually I was able to break through a clod of clay that
revealed the bottom of Harry’s handiwork. I backed out of the hole (St. Peter don’t ya call me / cause I can’t
go / I owe my soul / to the company store)
and the post fell harmlessly
away from the house.

 

This was good, I
thought, noting that Harry had perhaps run short of concrete on this project –
only about 3 feet of cement wrapped itself around the post. And the hole was shallow
enough that I could push down on the top part of the pole and maneuver the
concrete-encased part nearer the surface.

 

This is where
Jean Arthur and MLW would have me hitch up the team, of course. But where they
might’ve seen a big old chunk of Harry’s concrete, I was looking down at a
terrific opportunity to channel Marty Gallagher and deadlift that sucker right
up to terra firma. So, I got my feet set on either side of the hole, tested my
bum knee a little, then went into a squat, grabbed hold of a small piece of
pole sticking out of the cement and, taking one deep breath, lifted it up and
out. It wasn’t what I would call effortless, but I think Marty (and Joe
Starrett) would’ve been proud.

 

Harry? Not so
much.

Experience Life Magazine

Dock of Ages

A week ago, this
knee thing had me a little worried, but it’s been improving pretty steadily in
the past few days, to the point that Saturday’s annual taking-in-the-dock
ritual didn’t even do it in.

 

I think I’ve
written before about this little exercise: yanking heavy metal stanchions out
of the frigid water, pulling up decking and beams, all while trying to avoid
toppling into the drink. My workout buddy (and son), Mr. Parkour, joined me
this time, happy for an opportunity to flex his newfound muscles in a daring
new venue. We were joined by My Lovely Wife’s brother, S.P., who has sort of
taken over the overall project in the absence of his brother, K.P., who bore
the burden himself for several years before deciding that maybe somebody else
could get up early on a weekend morning and drive four hours north for the
opportunity to deconstruct a dock that he maybe trod upon only a couple of
times during the previous six months. I could go on, but you get the picture.

 

It’s an
interesting thing, these family cabins. Minnesotans love the idea of decamping from their urban or
suburban homes for the rustic charm of a northwoods refuge, but when you really
get to thinking about it, it’s like having a second house, which means somebody’s
got to take care of it: cut down the weeds, fix the sump pump, clean up the bat
guano, etc., etc. We’re lucky, relatively speaking (get it?), since this is a family cabin, and thus shared by several
families who would prefer not to own a cabin themselves. That way, each of us
can put off regular maintenance projects in the hope that someone else who
actually makes it up there at some point will pick up the slack.

 

The annual
taking-in-of-the-dock, however, is not something you can put off until someone
else forgets to do it. Come December, Woman Lake will be encased in a large and
powerful sheet of ice, which tends to convulse angrily during the colder months
of the year and, we’ve always been told by our elders, would snap that dock
like so many matchsticks should we be so foolhardy as to leave it in the water.
So we go up there each fall to rescue the dock, which MLW’s father pretty much
designed and built with his own two hands, making it a kind of pilgrimage, I
suppose, except that most pilgrimages are once-in-a-lifetime journeys with some
spiritual significance and this one has more to do with the fear and loathing
engendered by a large sheet of demonic ice that I’ve frankly never actually seen
in operation — which might qualify as a spiritual crisis if you really take the
time to think about it, but I’ve never really seen it that way.

 

It is, however,
a helluva workout — and I mean that in a good way. I could see somebody like
Jon Hinds at the Monkey Bar Gym in Madison throwing a dock into a swimming pool
and getting his clients to take it apart without getting wet: wrapping a long,
thick rope around the stanchions and yanking them out of the water, hauling
4-by-4-foot decking and 16-foot beams — a lot of pulling and lifting and
squatting and lunging. We worked up quite a lather in the 90 minutes or so it
took the three of us to dismantle the monster and stacking the parts up in the
boathouse.

 

S.P., who’s a
cycling and swimming fanatic, remarked when we were finishing up that his
father had to give up on taking in the dock at a certain point because he just
wasn’t fit enough to manage it. I didn’t say anything at the time, but it
occurred to me as Mr. Parkour and I were heading home that I could be making
this pilgrimage and hauling in that dock every fall, well into my 70s, if I
stayed in shape.

 

I’m going to hit
the gym tomorrow anyway.

Experience Life Magazine

A Healthy Pessimism







The problem with
optimism is that it gets you all optimistic.
And then you do something you have no business doing. Last week, my knee (yeah,
that knee) seemed to be gradually improving, so on Friday I figured it would be
OK to grab my umbrella and hoof it the short mile in the rain to work. I
probably could’ve climbed on my bike, but why not test the knee out and see if
my optimism was warranted?

 

Bad idea.

 

By the time I
got to the end of the block, it was already barking at me and demonstrating with
each excruciating step the difference between wandering around the house and
trekking a mile on an unforgiving sidewalk. I tried shorter strides, longer
strides, a little pitiful shuffling, then finally settled into a sort of
Bataan Death Limp that got me over the bridge and up the hill to the office.

 

Runners are
accustomed to hearing about the damage their knees can suffer from the constant
pounding on the pavement, but I’ve never heard the same said of walkers or bicyclists
or guys who are just standing around. After Friday’s little adventure — yeah, I
hobbled back home after work, too — I spent the weekend trying to undo the
damage by bicycling several miles and generally flexing the recalcitrant joint whenever
I found myself standing still. It doesn’t seem to be helping very much.

 

I know this
doesn’t make for scintillating reading; though it should prepare all my younger
readers for the stark realities of late middle age, when conversations
routinely seem to tilt toward pharmaceutical discoveries and
diplomatic descriptions of recent digestive functionality. That, at least, is
something of a public service. Besides, blogs are by nature confessional, and I
have to confess that this whole knee thing has now moved beyond the interesting phase.

 

Typically, when
this sort of thing has cropped up in the past, I would simply back off on the
activity in question and it would heal up in due time. I waited out a nasty
rotator cuff injury that way several years ago. Couldn’t throw a pillow across
the room. Stopped trying to throw stuff for a while. Cleared up. Can now throw
lots of things across a room. When the bursitis in my knee first flared up a couple
of years ago, I stopped running and it cleared up.

 

So, I’m embracing a little pessimism. I’ve told my
tennis buddies that I’m out for the rest of the season, with an eye toward
getting back on the court next spring. That should give me enough time to rehab
this thing. Back to Dr. Needle on Thursday for more magical therapy. And no
more walking to work for the time being. Any other ideas out there — short of knee replacement? I’m all ears . . . though you should know that I’m a bit hard of hearing.







 

Experience Life Magazine

Knee-Jerk Reaction







My knee has been
killing me lately — a result, I’m guessing, of packing and schlepping a
houseful of stuff from our former abode to our current home, a project that has
occupied me and my family since my last dispatch more than two months ago. That
and ripping carpeting, demolishing (with some regret) a basement full of knotty
pine paneling, painting walls, etcetera, etcetera. I’ve been staying away from
the gym, until recently, as well, since all of this packing and schlepping and
ripping and painting adds up to some pretty brutal workouts (thus the knee
problem). My Lovely Wife mentioned the other day that she’s lost more than 10
pounds since we embarked on this latest chapter (AKA “The Last Move”) in our
lives. That works out to about $20,000 a pound, based on the cost of our new
pad, but, hey — whatever works, right?

 

Anyway, my left
knee — the one that hasn’t been surgically repaired — has been swollen and
stiff for quite some time. I think I’ve mentioned the whole “baker’s cyst”
trouble I’ve had with this joint (it’s a form of bursitis, I think, though I’ve
never had it examined — see earlier post). It’s just more of the same, but it’s
lingering in a way that’s become annoying. I can’t play tennis, for example;
indeed, the only form of recreation that actually works is bicycling, and even
that’s a bit iffy.

 

It’s been so
annoying that I’ve actually briefly considered seeing a doctor and maybe
getting the thing scoped — just cleaning out whatever’s floating around in
there and getting back onto the tennis court. For all its flaws, one thing
Western medicine does well is repair joints.

 

Or maybe not. I
read a piece in The New York Times
that called into question the wisdom of knee surgery. According to recent
research at Sweden‘s Lund University, physical therapy may be just as effective
as surgery in repairing a torn ACL.

 







Despite a widespread belief
that surgery leads to a stronger knee, the results showed that surgically
reconstructing the A.C.L. as soon as possible after the tear “was not superior”
to more conservative treatment, the study’s authors wrote. The findings
suggest, the authors concluded, that “more than half the A.C.L. reconstructions”
currently being conducted on injured knees “could be avoided without adversely
affecting outcomes.”

 

Talk about
getting your world view validated!

 

So, last week, I
told my acupuncturist about my problem, and she stuck some needles in the crook
of my right elbow as well as various other places, and I laid there on the
barcalounger for an hour while my left leg buzzed and tingled in an intriguing way.
When she pulled out the needles, the swelling had gone down noticeably. I was
astonished; she just nodded and smiled. I’ve read that acupuncture is
particularly effective against any sort of inflammation, but still…

 

I came home and
announced to MLW that I’d been cured, which was a slight exaggeration, but it
sure made any thoughts I might’ve had about going under the knife fade away.

 

(I should note
here that MLW is treating her chronic knee trouble — which is way more serious than anything I’ve had
to deal with — through a treatment program called Feldenkrais. Read more about
that here
.)

 

Buoyed by my
small needle-induced triumph, I returned to the gym last night and climbed on
one of the go-nowhere bikes and pedaled for a pretend 5 miles (about 20
minutes). Nothing too intense, mind you. Just a ride in the pretend park with
pretend scenery, the pretend wind at my back — it’s always at your back at the
gym; I like that part. No hills, either. Tires always inflated properly. Still
pretty boring, though. Then I lifted for another 30 minutes, just as a way to
get the endorphins flowing again, and left feeling pretty good. (Endorphins do
that.)

 

It’s a little
stiff today, but not bad. I’m beginning to think it’s actually on the mend. I’ll
get back to Dr. Needle in a couple weeks for another round of acupuncture intrigue, and
meanwhile continue trying to work out the kinks at the gym. I’ll keep you
posted.

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Experience Life Magazine

I May Be Crazy, but . . .







I’m not a guy
who visits the doctor very often (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but I do
enjoy reading about the Big Medical Breakthroughs that seem to surface in the
newspaper every week or so. It’s comforting somehow to know that there are
folks out there working 24/7 to cure the various horrific diseases that afflict
the populace.

 

Last week’s Big
Medical Breakthrough was a story about researchers who have discovered a more
reliable method to diagnose Alzheimer’s. In case you missed it, you can read
about it here
. It seems that every pharmaceutical company is experimenting with
a new drug to cure what everyone agrees is a terrible disease (I’ve seen it up
close in my late father in law, and it’s not pretty), but the key is to
diagnose it and treat it in its early stages. Trouble is, doctors aren’t very
good at diagnosing it (which validates my view above, thank you very much).

 

So now comes Dr.
Daniel Skovronsky and his company, Arvid Radiopharmaceuticals, with what
everyone seems to agree is a promising new process to identify Alzheimer’s.
Here’s how The New York Times
described it:

 

Dr. Skovronsky thought he had a way to make scans
work. He and his team had developed a dye that could get into the brain and
stick to plaque. They labeled the dye with a commonly used radioactive tracer
and used a PET scanner to directly see plaque in a living person’s brain. But
the technology and the dye itself were so new they had to be rigorously
tested.”

 

So, just to review: If your
doctor thinks you may be displaying symptoms of Alzheimer’s — which doctors
admit they really can’t identify with any reliability — they would just inject radioactive dye into your
brain
(emphasis is mine) to see if just maybe their hunch was correct.

 

Now I don’t know about you,
but I grew up at a time when radioactivity was considered kind of a dangerous
thing. We didn’t stock Geiger counters in our kitchens or anything like that,
but even as a schoolchild I knew that if I ran into a stranger on the street
corner who asked me if he could inject radioactive dye into my brain I
should run home right away and tell my mom.

 

I searched the Times story to see if maybe the reporter
might have raised the tiniest bit of concern over a process that involves injecting radioactive dye into my brain
(emphasis mine again — sorry) but found no such reservations. After all,
Skovronsky had tested his dye:

 

“Hospice patients were going
to die soon and so, he reasoned, why not ask them to have scans and then brain
autopsies afterward to see if the scans showed just what a pathologist would
see. Some patients would be demented, others not.”

 

The dye worked, much to
Skovronsky’s delight. And I’m happy for him — I really am. He was able to show plaque on the brains of those (now
dead) patients who had Alzheimer’s. But, unlike the doctor and his co-workers,
I’m not breaking out the champagne just yet. In fact, I think it would be fair
to argue that if you really wanted a reliable indicator of whether someone was
not quite playing with a full deck, you’d just ask him if you can inject some
radioactive dye into his brain. Those who politely decline, I would venture,
still have all their marbles.

 

But what do I know about
modern science? Maybe injecting radioactive dye into someone’s brain is not as
big a deal as I think it is. Maybe I’m just kind of wimping out on the whole
radioactivity thing. You know: Man up,
dude! Take your radioactive dye in the brain like the rest of us, ya big baby!!
It could just save you and your loved ones from the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s
in your old age. Or not.

 

All that may be true, but
while I’m still relatively lucid, I think I’m going to steer away from Dr.
Skovronsky’s approach and keep going to the gym (had a great workout last
night, BTW; still sticking to my post-it note plan described earlier). As noted
in our “Build a Better Brain” piece from a few years back, that seems to be
the most reliable way to stay sharp.

Experience Life Magazine

If the Shoe Fits . . .







OK, so after
last Monday’s meandering rant about my tendency to meander around the gym with
no particular workout program or plan, I’m happy to note that on my next trip
to the gym I came equipped with not just an idea of how I might punish myself,
but with an actual crumpled-up post-it note on which was scrawled the names of eight
specific, punishing exercises:

 

Kettlebell
swings

Renegade row

Shoulder presses

Sidebridge

Glute bridge

Weighted squats

Tricep
extensions

Weighted lunges

 

Many of these I
had never before attempted, a fact that became painfully obvious at some
inopportune moments (as well as the next morning). Plus, to make the workout
even more distinctive, I decided to try wearing my Vibram FiveFingers barefoot
running shoes. 

 

A couple of
summers ago, I pulled on these skin-tight, toe-isolating rubber-backed foot
gloves and took them for a spin around a nearby soccer field. It was cool to
jog around without worrying about puncturing my feet on some foreign object,
but after a while it became clear that my toes lacked the rugged individualism
necessary to thrive in their own confined space. They seemed to prefer hanging
out together.

 

Anyway, I’ve
been reading a lot about primitive workouts lately, and the whole idea of
scampering along woodland trails without the hindrance of modern footwear is
pretty intriguing. So, in the spirit of mixing things up, I sat down on the
bench in the locker room and began coaxing my communal toes into their own
individual habitats. This is not as easy as it might sound. The FiveFingers are
tight — really tight — and my toes are not easily separated. So, I’m sitting
there like a 2-year-old with his first pair of gloves doing my best to line up
my recalcitrant toes with their prospective new homes and recalling with some
fondness the ease with which I can normally slip on a pair of sneakers. I’m
also thinking I could use a good pedicure — but I’ll spare you the details.

 

After much
persuasion, all 10 little piggies seemed to have found a home, and I strode confidently
out into the gym. An easy 10-minute warm-up on the EDM got my heart pumping a
little and I moved over to the stretching area where I secured one of those
too-thin yoga mats and consulted my list. The big toe on my right foot was
throbbing a bit already, declaring its desire for freedom, but I launched into
a lively set of kettlebell swings nevertheless. This is, by the way, just a
terrific cardio workout — it never fails to get my heart rate up into the 140s.
I highly recommend it. The renegade row? Not so much. I’d seen this move
described in an upcoming issue of a certain fabulous health and fitness
magazine
and figured, How hard can that
be?
The idea is to basically get into pushup position while holding onto a
dumbbell in each hand and simply lifting the dumbbell to your chest a few
times. What I discovered was that it’s not that easy when the dumbbells refuse
to remain stationary. Mine were maybe five-sided, but it would’ve helped if
they’d been square.

 

Shoulder presses
are old hat to me, though I felt a little feeble after my renegade rolls. And I was able to work through
three sets of side and glute bridges, which are basically modified planks. Weighted squats (I used a 40-pound dumbbell) are just plain killers for me,
and tricep extensions — especially while standing — always leave me pining for
more leisurely pursuits. But nothing sends me reeling like any type of lunge
activity
. I like to think it says something about my tranquil nature that I
avoid lunging at all costs, but
anyone who happened to catch a glimpse of me wobbling all over my mat would’ve
simply concluded that I have a no sense of balance. And they would be correct.

 

I have enough
difficulty remaining upright while lunging without any weights in my hands, but
put a couple of 25-pound dumbbells in my mitts and I’m all over the place.
(Note to self: Yoga might be a good idea.) And I’m not making excuses, but by
this time the aforementioned big toe is not at all happy with its surroundings and
I’m wondering whether I may need an emergency pedicure by the time I rip these
stupid anti-shoes from my oppressed feet.

 

Still, it’s a
helluva workout I’ve just completed, and I’m feeling jazzed enough to crank out
a couple sets of one-legged pushups before heading back to the locker room to
liberate my toes.

 

This all brought
up an interesting question for me that had nothing to do with pedicures: Is
this sort of programmed, non-machined and weight-roomed routine a better
workout than what I’ve been doing all these months?

 

To answer that
question, I consciously reverted to my old routine when I hit the gym last
night (with real shoes, BTW): 35 minutes on the EDM followed by a whole bunch
of push-and-pulling on the resistance machinery. The verdict? Get back on the
mats. It’s way more interesting and it’s going to work way more muscle groups
than anything I can do on the machines. Yeah, I’m going to look pretty foolish
from time to time, but what’s new about that? I figure as long as I can wear
real shoes I’m good.

Experience Life Magazine

I Wonder as I Wander







A while back, I
read a quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was asked something about
what one needs to live a satisfying life. His response: “Routine.” I was
thinking about that last night as I was bouncing from one station to the next at
the gym. I really need to settle on a specific routine rather than wandering
around so aimlessly.

 

It’s not that I
don’t have some idea of a regimen. I always do about 30 minutes of cardio on
the Elliptical Death Machine (I’ve been avoiding the stationary bikes lately
for some unknown reason — oh wait, I know why: They’re even more boring than
the EDM) before descending into The Pit or wandering among the push-pull
machinery. And I almost never
stretch, if almost never doing something can be seen as part of your routine.
And though I always leave the gym feeling more awesomely manly than when I
entered (who doesn’t, right?), lately it feels like I’m not really moving in
any particular direction.

 

Plus, I don’t
like the feeling of standing in front of the dumbbell racks with no real clue
of what I’m going to do next. All around me, gigantic guys in sleeveless shirts
(if you’ve gone to all the trouble of getting a tattoo . . .) are muscling up
impressive poundage as if each particular exercise actually fits into some sort
of plan, and I’m standing there
scratching my head, trying to remember the difference between a Bulgarian Split
Squat and a compound row. The last thing I want to do is imitate what some
freak of nature next to me is doing with those 60-pound dumbbells or
impulsively slap a bunch of iron on a barbell and find myself hideously
overmatched.

 

Several months
ago, I had a pretty decent free-weights routine going: barbell squats, dead
lifts, bench presses, tricep extensions, bicep curls, and overhead dumbbell
presses. But the barbell squats killed my knees, the deadlifts hurt my back,
and one gracious P.T. suggested maybe I should modify my approach for the good
of my overall longevity. She was right, of course, because I’m still alive, but
I’ve been kind of lost in the wilderness since then.

 

I could seek out
one of the other kind P.T.s (she’s since moved on) for advice, but that’s not
really the cut of my jib. I like to figure things out for myself, especially
when it comes to endeavors such as gym wandering, during which I prefer to stay
under the public radar (yes, I know, I’m writing a blog about it, but try to
ignore the incongruity; if I can, so can you). Besides, I have hundreds of
articles about workouts in the magazine’s archives I can draw upon, if I so
choose. But then, of course, who wants to wander around the gym carrying some
Xeroxed pages from the magazine? Where would I put them while I do my Bulgarian
Split Squats? And who’s to say I could accomplish even a poor rendition of a
Bulgarian Split Squat?

 

Anyway, you get
my drift: In order to do something different at the gym, I need to arm myself
with some new information — and then actually follow those directions. It’s a
tall order for a guy who’s sort of come to the realization that the biggest
draw at the gym is its flat-screen TVs–where else can I catch The Biggest Loser or Sports Center? The only TV at my place
is controlled by my 22-year-old daughter, and I pity the fool who gets up in
her grill while she’s watching Numbers.
But, maybe it’s time to push the envelope a little. I’ve got nothing to lose
but my self-respect.

Experience Life Magazine

Questions and Intentions







I’ve been having
a little trouble getting to the gym lately, so a recent article in Science Daily that delved into the
mysteries of motivation caught my attention. The piece describes some
interesting new research at the University of Illinois that suggests we should
be asking ourselves whether we’re
going to get something done rather than telling
ourselves to do it.

 

“The popular
idea is that self-affirmations enhance people’s ability to meet their goals,” said
Professor Dolores Albarracin. “It seems, however, that when it comes to
performing a specific behavior, asking questions is a more promising way of achieving
your objectives.”

 

In other words,
when I got ready for work this morning I’d be more likely to squeeze in a
workout after work if I questioned my ability to do so. At least that’s what
the research indicates. You can read all about it here. That’s not how I tend
to operate, though – at least not consciously. Take this morning, for instance.
I had a good night’s sleep and woke up feeling like I could conquer the world,
so I’m thinking, Hey, why not squeeze in
a workout tonight?
– which is different from thinking, Geeze, am I ever going to get to the gym again? and also not quite
the same as, By golly, I’m really going
to go to the gym tonight!

 

While the U of I
researchers found that questioning one’s ability to achieve a goal rather than stating their intentions was more
likely to spur their study subjects to positive action, my approach this morning when I stuffed my gear into my backpack
sort of falls into a gray area between declaration and doubt. It’s more like a
vague intention than anything else. And maybe that means I could get waylaid
between my office and the locker room by the slightest distraction, like an
invitation from My Lovely Wife to meet her at our local bistro right after work.

 

Which raises an
interesting point: When was the last time I went to the gym without letting MLW
know what was up? And was that in the form of a question or an assertion? This
morning, it was simply an announcement: Hey,
I’m going to hit the gym after work.
Does that make it less likely that
I’ll actually follow through? Should I call her and ask permission as a way to fuel
my motivation? Should I suddenly begin pretending
to doubt my own intentions so I’ll be able to fight off any inertia (that
doesn’t seem to be weighing on me at this moment) and go work out like I have
every intention of doing anyway?

 

That ought to be
enough questions to get me through several workouts.

Experience Life Magazine

A Pretender at Parkour







Mr. Parkour and
I paid a visit last night to Gleason’s Gym, a sprawling gymnastics center
artfully hidden in a suburban industrial park just south of the city. This was
not my idea, but I tagged along with my housemate/former child out of curiosity
and a faint notion that I should be supporting his newly won interest in
fitness. You’d understand if you saw him swinging on the clothesline pole –
these days he’s inhabiting a body that seems to be electrically charged. He’s
just got to have a place to expend all this energy.

 

And it’s hard to
imagine a better place for him than Gleason’s. At our local gym, we have plenty
of cardio and resistance machinery to work various muscle groups, but this
place is more like a giant parkour playground, with climbing ropes,
trampolines, springboards, and all manner of large padded obstacles to test the
aspiring free-runner.

 

MP pointed out
his parkour guru standing at the end of a long runway where two young men were
joyfully launching themselves into back flips and landing in a pit filled with
foam cubes. One of MP’s lifelong dreams, he has confided to me, is to complete
a back flip on solid ground. For someone who does not aspire to much, this is a
serious endeavor.

 

But first
there’s this climbing rope dangling from the ceiling in a way that’s not what I
would call inviting, exactly. It’s
more like that kid in seventh grade – the one your mom never liked much – who
enjoyed jumping off the roof of his garage and loved to cajole you into joining him. Before I could really ponder the challenge
(and briefly relive some of the horrors of junior high gym class), MP was
happily ascending, hand-over-hand. No big deal.

 

I’m not nearly
as competitive as I once was, but there’s something about seeing your own
progeny – someone who not that long
ago held your hand when climbing the back steps – do something you can’t
imagine doing yourself that makes it imperative that you go ahead and do it. So,
I grabbed the rope and started up – hand over hand, no wrapping my legs around
it for extra oomph. Three or four feet later, I descended, doing my best to
appear nonchalant. Just a little warm-up.

 

MP was charitable,
of course, offering some tips and encouragement (interesting how the father-son
dynamic can shift) before escorting me over to the trampolines. I quickly
noticed that these did not feature a large bouncing surface; the well-worn “X”
upon which I focused my attention was centered on a mesh
fabric that measured perhaps 4 by 8 feet. So, while MP was soaring skyward, I bobbed up and down in a more
exploratory manner, carefully eyeing the “X” and noting the nearby sign that
cautioned bouncers about flying over the safety net.

 

It’s possible
that at some point in my distant past I frolicked on one of these, but I found it
hard at that moment to imagine the allure. There was a certain exhilaration when airborne, a kind of weightlessness.
What made it tough to enjoy, though, was the knowledge that I was just as
likely to hit my “X” the next time down as to veer wildly off course and find
myself bouncing on a less merciful surface somewhere below.

 

“It’s really a
type of meditation,” MP assured me, as I searched in vain for some equilibrium.
In fitness circles they’d call my futile bouncing an exercise in proprioception
- perfecting a sense of balance and knowing where your body is in space. It
seemed to me more like an exercise in fear management.

 

Years ago, when
MP was a toddler, I read an article about a parent who spent the day mimicking
the movements of her 2-year-old. She came away from the experience amazed at
the exertion it required. I was reminded of that as MP led me from one station to
another around the gym: swinging on the high bar, leaping from balance beam to
balance beam, vaulting over and through various padded obstacles. He
demonstrating the proper technique, me attempting to avoid injury.

 

At one point, he
exploded off the mat to the top of a padded three-step stair. I crouched and jumped to the second step with little difficulty. Feeling my oats, I announced I
would go for the top. Unfortunately, the stairs were not anchored to anything,
so when I landed just short of the top step, the whole thing tilted over and I
fell backward and conked my noggin on the (thankfully) padded floor. Note to
self: Do not try this at home.

 

Eventually, we
made our way into an adjacent room, where MP located a couple of mats upon
which he would attempt his back flips. I offered to spot him, and he showed me
how to position my arms at his back and knees. Then, he crouched low, swung his
arms, and sprung up and back, landing on his feet – though not completely
upright. The next one was better, as was the next and the next. Each attempt
seemed to generate more energy than the last: crouch, swing, spring, flip,
land, smile.

 

The flips were
not perfect, but his smiles were. And, as we meandered back through the main
room, I tried unsuccessfully to recall a workout that gave me that much joy. Of
course, I’m not 19; there’s probably some major endorphin disparity at work
here. Or maybe it’s more about taking risks, trying something new.

 

So, when I spied
that climbing rope on our way to the door, I jumped up, grabbed hold and
started pulling myself upward with a real sense of purpose. I made it about
two-thirds of the way to the top (full disclosure: I was using my legs, too)
before I ran out of gas and inched my way back down to terra firma.

 

Mission
accomplished? Sort of — except my hands still hurt.

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