Pivotal Moments

For no particular reason I spent some time today reflecting on pivotal moments that have changed my life in dramatic ways.  Moments that changed the trajectory so drastically that I cannot retroactively anticipate what my life might have been like had I chosen “the road not taken.”

I’m not necessarily referring to large decisions that take a great deal of planning, such as college or a career move.  Clearly those things have an impact on a person’s life.  However, in that kind decision making process there are additional plans that need to fall into place, along with a significant amount of psychological preparation for the change to come.

I’m referring to moments that were either beyond my control, resulted from a chance meeting, or required a simple yes or no at a moment’s notice.  I’m sure the list could be quite lengthy, and some I have likely forgotten.  I decided to narrow it down to 4, as they are probably the most significant events in what I would consider to be my independent adult life.

— Losing everything I owned in a fire in 1999.  I had no insurance.  I was an irresponsible kid floundering through college with no real plan.  Then I lost everything.  A few months later, my girlfriend left me.  It was one of the lowest periods of my life, and really about the time when I started drinking to cope with it.  That worked for a little while.  Even though I didn’t see it at the time, there was a silver lining:  I owned nothing, and was accountable to no one.  I could literally do whatever I decided I wanted to do.  So that’s what I started doing.

— Showing up to work on a non-paying independent film set to work as a grip in Dallas in 2001.  I had already been doing the job for a couple of weeks, but on this particular day I was exhausted and dealing with a pretty bad head cold.  My job wasn’t terribly important.  I didn’t have any experience, and there were other grips.  I was basically just volunteering out of curiosity.  I intended to call the director to let him know I’d be skipping that day, but I kept hearing my Dad’s voice rattle around in my head about finishing what you start and keeping your commitments.  Begrudgingly, I showed up looking like hell.  While there, I met my future best friend Ethel Lung.  She was working as an extra and had a great sense of humor.  We stayed in touch, started a band called The Ethels, moved to Los Angeles together on a whim in 2002, recorded one album, and ended up with a song featured in an episode of “How I Met Your Mother.”  Ethel didn’t know how to play any instruments when we started rehearsing, and since it was just two of us, she became the drummer.

— Agreeing to assemble a band to accompany the live show “Mortified” in Los Angeles in 2006.  I had doubts about my abilities to lead a large band like an orchestra, and my (more skilled) music writing partner Gordon Bash was out of town on tour.  My first instinct was to say no to Dave Nadelberg, the show’s creator.  I just didn’t have the confidence.  But after some coaxing by Gordon, and a couple of hours to think about it, I said yes.  The first show wasn’t exactly pretty.  But Anne Jensen, one of the show’s producers, became my future wife.  Lol Tolhurst of The Cure joined the group a few months later.  We went on to perform for 8 more years, and after Anne and I relocated to Texas, the group continued to play music for a show that is now in a dozen cities all over the globe.  Because of my participation in Mortified, I was inspired to get sober once and for all.  At the rate I was going, I don’t know that I had much time left to get that done.  Anne and I now have two great kids and a lot of incredible memories.

— Agreeing to teach someone to box for the first time in 2010.  A personal trainer acquaintance asked me if I could teach his gym manager to box.  I honestly had no idea.  Even though I had several years of boxing and kickboxing training under my belt, I never fought, and had never in my life taught anyone to do anything as far as I could recall.  I wasn’t even a personal trainer.  I was a part-time musician, part-time bartender/waiter.  Again, I wasn’t sure if I had the confidence, but I said yes anyway.  Christie trained with me for over a year, and became a pretty solid boxer and legitimate sparring partner.  That experience led me to become a personal trainer — a job I still have and love.

If you could pick 4 pivotal moments, what would they be?

 

Advertisements

Can You Squat Like This?

This is my client Robert.  He is 57 years old and suffers from a degenerative disc condition that wreaks havoc on his vertebrae.  Still, he is able to sit on his calves with a straight back, while keeping his weight on his heels.  Why does this matter?  Bill Burr does a hilarious bit about this in his special “Let It Go.”  You can YouTube “Old Man Face” and it comes up.

But in all seriousness, being able to squat and hinge the hips are two markers that will determine how the second half of your life will go.  If you are already starting to brace your legs with your hands to get up from a couch, your hips aren’t hinging properly.  If you bend over to pick up groceries with straight legs and a curved back, you are losing the ability to squat and hinge together.  It is just a matter of time before you either A) Can’t get up from a seated position on your own, or B) herniate a disc and end up in the ER.

If you are on the precipice of having difficulty doing either of these two basic movements, ask a fitness trainer or physical therapist to help you get back on track.  Your quality of life depends on it.

The Funhouse

Don’t let the mirror determine how you feel about yourself on any particular day.  All mirrors are funhouse mirrors.  They distort what you think is an objective image of yourself, and then feed on that day’s sense of self-worth.  It can quickly devolve into a fiery crash if you’re not careful.  For example:

You didn’t sleep well last night.  Money stress is lurking around the mind’s back alleys.  You had an argument with your spouse before work.  Negativity is a magnet.  The day’s first look in the mirror is going to send staples and knives in the direction of that magnet.

“Why are you so fat?  You look ridiculous in these stupid clothes.  Great, another gray hair.  You look like Tales From The Crypt.  Is that cancer?”

You are destined to carry that image of yourself into the rest of your day as it plays ping pong with the other stressors in your life.  It will impact your interactions with co-workers and loved ones as the inner-dialogue negativity magnet continues to pick up needles and rusty nails.

“Glad to see Julie is wearing shorter skirts to work…the kind that whores wear.”  “Oh, I see.  The Keurig machine is out of water.  Again.  Thanks honey.  It’s obvious you want out of this relationship.”

The day becomes unproductive as the negative distractions pile on.  Another night of lost sleep.  Another barbed remark toward your spouse.  Another look in the mirror in the morning, and you’re in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the fattest, ugliest, most unlovable human being ever born.

The mirror is a reflection of everything that is going on inside.  You cannot see yourself objectively.  While a look in the mirror may seem like a clinical evaluation about whether or not your new diet is working, it can easily and destructively become derailed by a culmination of regret and worry.

For some tips on how to escape this cycle, see https://ificandoit.blog/2017/11/07/recovering-from-life-pt-3/

 

 

A Hotel Room Workout For Travelers

When I traveled for work, not every hotel was equipped with a gym.  Occasionally I would take a jog to explore the surroundings, but I’m a “strength first” type of guy.  Often I had to use whatever was available in my hotel room, which typically wasn’t much.  I like to keep things simple with 5 basic movements that can be progressed or regressed dependent upon ability. Usually I would do it as a circuit, but it can be done however you like.  These 5 movements will hit every major muscle group, and they still make up the bulk of my training today.

The exercises are listed in order from easiest to hardest.  I like to keep repetitions between 8 and 12 with a slow, 2 and 2 pace.  3 to 5 sets per movement.  You can mix up the exercises as you like.  If you’re not sure what an exercise is, a quick search will provide instruction.

HIP HINGE:  Hip Bridge, Straight Leg Hip Bridge, Single Leg Hip Bridge, Straight Single Leg Hip Bridge

SQUAT:  Bodyweight Squat, Lunge, Bulgarian Split Squat, Pistol Squat

PUSH:  Pushup on Knees, Pushup, 1 arm Pushup on Knees, 1 arm Pushup

PULL:  Generally you’re limited to the One Arm Dumbbell Row.  I would either use a heavy piece of luggage instead of a dumbbell, or fill a bag with full water bottles.  Use the bed as a bench.

ABS (For Time):  Plank on Knees, Plank on Hands, Plank on Elbows, Side Plank

There are thousands of exercises to choose from in each of the 5 categories, but all of these have served me well over the years, and anyone can learn to do most of them.  Especially when space, equipment, and time are limited.

A Simple Exercise Approach If You’re Over 40.

These days it takes me a little longer to get up off of the floor.  When I attempt to sprint, I curse the practical joker who put concrete in my shoes.  My shoulders are beginning to feel like my knees, and my knees feel like a migraine.  At 42, I’m not an old man, but my body is approaching middle age with an ego that still thinks college dorm life is a real possibility.

I have done a lot to my body over the years.  There was a time when I didn’t notice any real consequences from the abuse.  I assumed that I had dodged all of the bullets.  Turns out that the ramifications of that abuse wake up all at the same time, sometime after 40.  Disc compression from high school football.  Worn out knees from distance running.  Dodgy shoulders from kickboxing.  Several years of drug and alcohol dependency.  I don’t regret any of it.  Even the substance abuse.  While I am not proud of that particular decade, I learned a lot of priceless lessons while fighting for sobriety that I may not have learned otherwise.  When my clock runs out, the “bucket list” won’t be very long.

Even into my mid-30s, I wanted to be as strong, fast, and powerful as my genetic limits would allow.  I pushed, and pushed, and pushed.  But it’s harder to recover from that kind of training now.  At this age, living as healthfully as possible, I’m still not faster than the chain-smoking 23 year old me.  My goals had to change.  I’ll never be a professional fighter.  I’ve injured myself twice while training for powerlifting competitions.  My knees won’t allow running on pavement anymore.  Most of my goals were about serving me anyway.  I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with that, at least in terms of athletic endeavors.  Competition can be healthy, particularly if you’re competing with yourself.

Something changed after I became a parent.  Anne and I got started late.  Parker is 5 and Max is 2.  This peculiar sense of mortality and danger emerged in a way that hadn’t existed 20 years ago.  I jumped out of small airplanes a few times.  Now I won’t get in one.  I’m more cautious when I climb ladders.  I am continually on the lookout for sharp objects.  Everything shifted from a focus on competition, to a focus on surviving an emergency.  I don’t obsess about every possible danger in life, lest I become agoraphobic.  But there is an awareness about things that simply weren’t on my radar before.  Am I fast enough to push one of my kids out of the way of a speeding car?  Am I strong enough to lift a store display rack that falls on one of them?  Can I catch and overpower a kidnapper?  Can my ribs withstand a flying elbow from a 5 year old who attacks me while I’m napping on the floor?

Thankfully, at this point in my life, I can safely answer yes to those hypothetical situations.  But I don’t want to take it for granted.  I also can’t afford to train like a Navy SEAL to single-handedly stop a Red Dawn (aging myself) that only hits our house.  There has to be a realistic balance somewhere.  Most possibilities in life exist on a spectrum:

Church Softball <—> The Olympics

A cold <——> Ebola

Ronald McDonald <——> It

It is impossible to prepare for every emergency.  But people often lose their lives in emergency situations because they simply aren’t fit enough to remove themselves from the danger:

*Unable to break a window in a submerged car.

*Loss of balance while standing on a roof.

*Unable to move out from under a heavy object.

*Unable to climb to avoid danger on a lower level (flooding, dogs, Ronald McDonald)

So what kind of fitness should we seek to maintain in order to survive emergencies that primarily require fitness as a survival tool?  This is not an exhaustive list, and while these are bare minimums, it is a good place to start.  If you can achieve any of these standards without much effort, but struggle on others, then spend time on the most difficult movements:

— At least 1 solid chest to floor pushup with a perfectly planked body.  1 perfect pushup is a lot more challenging than 10 sloppy ones.  (A 50 lb box has fallen down the attic ladder and you will suffocate if you can’t push it off of you, or squirm your way out from under it).

— At least 1 kipping pull-up.  It is very challenging for most women over 40 to do one strict form pull-up.  But I’m talking about being able to climb over a fence or wall, in which you’ll be using your feet and legs to assist you.  You gotta get over that wall by any means necessary.  It doesn’t matter how pretty it looks.

— At least 1 partial range dip.  You’ve pulled yourself to the top of that wall, now what?

— A smooth, balanced Turkish get-up on each side of the body using only your bodyweight.  If a bookshelf falls on top of you, getting out from under it by maneuvering away from it is a lot easier than trying to bench press it.  The get-up is a great way to learn to coordinate the entire body.

— At least 30 bodyweight squats, a little above parallel is fine.  Your legs should always be stronger than your arms.  If not, you will eventually have a problem.

— Drag yourself across the floor 15 feet using only your elbows.  You fell and broke your hip.  Nobody can hear you.  The phone is in the other room.  Incidentally, if you’re over 65, store your phone where you could reach it from the floor.

— Deadlift 45 lbs with perfect form.  This is not a heavy deadlift, and it is unlikely that you’ll have to deadlift your way out of an emergency, though you might have to one day lift something off of someone else.  However, perfecting deadlift technique by practicing with a light to moderate weight will help prevent future emergencies (throwing out your back while doing yard work).

— Walk for 2 hours.  Your car broke down in the middle of nowhere.  There’s no signal and you haven’t seen a car since morning.

There are an infinite number of physical standards that you can apply to any potential emergency.  Soldiers, firefighters, and police officers obviously have to maintain a more rigorous set of standards.  But this list will give you a fighting chance if you’re surprised by something in your day to day life.  When was the last time you tried a pushup?  Feel free to add to the list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recovering From Life pt. 3

…cont’d from pt. 2

So, what does all of this mean?  It means that we all have a tremendous amount to overcome in our day to day lives before we even get out the door.  Our pre-programmed, but outdated, survival behavior is interfering with our ultimate desire for “happiness” and “peace.”  Throw in modern stressors that our evolutionary mechanisms are not equipped to address, and we begin to work at full capacity just to make it to the end of the day.  It’s as if we’re being asked to program a computer with a hatchet.  A hatchet is a useful tool that served our ancestors for thousands of years.  But it isn’t useful for programming computers.

When I was struggling to get sober in the early 2000s, people kept telling me that if I could learn to live in the “now” as often as possible, most of my problems would begin to take care of themselves…including my drinking.  I genuinely didn’t know what that meant.  Most of the time I was obsessively worrying about what was going to happen, or regretting what had already happened.  If there was a “now,” it was, “Now I’m drinking.”

Over time, it became clear that I couldn’t think my way out of the problem.  A neuroscientist or psychologist can probably explain this more articulately than I can, but our very existence is defined by paradoxes.  If we try to stop thinking about something, we will only think about it more.  If we “try” to sleep when we’re having trouble falling asleep, we are doomed to stay awake.  Broccoli doesn’t taste like doughnuts.  Sitting on the couch feels better than exercise.

Another paradox that I find truly baffling:  With most things in life we instinctively know exactly what to do.  We know it intellectually, but there’s a little monster inside that keeps steering us in the wrong direction.  I knew that a 12 step program could help me get sober, but instead I switched from vodka to beer.  I knew that if I changed my eating habits I could probably win the battle with chronic acid reflux, but instead I just took more medication.  Again, this is probably something on which a psychologist could enlighten me, but for now it’s merely a puzzling observation.  I do, however, believe it is somehow tied into the conflict between modernity and our outmoded survival mechanisms.

We know from experience that if we actively focus on spending our conscious time in the moment we are actually in, rather than in some moment in the past or future, things generally go more smoothly.  Much less anxiety or pangs of regret.  But it feels so tempting to nurse an old resentment or drive the possibilities for disaster right off of a cliff.  Those thought patterns are always harmful.  Yet we persist.

How exactly do we go about staying in the now?  It is pretty simple really.  Despite the immense complications associated with human evolution, and the aspects of our minds that we do not yet understand, it is possible to override the discordant noise that constantly hums in the background (or foreground depending on the kind of day you’re having).  There is nothing new or groundbreaking here.  But as our lives are dominated by paradoxes, most of us do not take advantage of these tools.  We don’t make time for them because we are overwhelmed by everything else that we know we must do.  But here’s another paradox…the more time we spend using these tools, the more time they produce.  It becomes self generating.

Time is in many ways an illusion.  Many theoretical physicists have debated the concept of time as a purely human construct.  I’m not going to delve into this debate here, but there is no question that our perception of time is impacted by our quality of mind in any given situation.  “Time flies when you’re having fun!”  Conversely, many of my personal training clients insist that I am lying to them when I say that they’ve been holding a plank for only 30 seconds.

Twenty four hours is twenty four hours.  But the rate at which those hours seem to pass are largely determined by how present we are throughout the day.  If we spend our time at work dreading a difficult conversation at home, it will feel like we can’t get anything done.  If we spend time with our kids dreading all of the work we have to do on Monday, it will feel like we aren’t in our children’s lives.  However, with a few simple tools we can shift our perception in such a way that time seems to expand.  But we have to make time for these things first.  If we only get to them once we’ve worn ourselves out with all of the other “stuff” we have to do, we will never get to them, and we’re right back to where we started — out of time.

There is no shortage of scientific information available that explains the “how” and “why” pertaining to these tools.  I am just going to share my own personal experience with them.  These tools help me stay sober all the time, and at peace most of the time:

1 — Daily meditation using the Headspace app.  I am fairly new to this.  Maybe 3 months in.  Focus has sharpened.  General demeanor has softened.  I find that I am able to apply the principles while driving and literally experience nothing but the act of driving.  It is a very new and foreign feeling.  Traffic frustration has just about vanished.

2 — Martial arts, or any other complex high-skill sport.  It is nearly impossible to get lost in distracting thoughts while performing a highly technical movement.  Exercise alone is certainly beneficial to the mind as well as the body, but it is the intense concentration associated with a highly technical physical activity that brings the perception of time into “right now.”

3 — A skilled hobby.  Like exercise, hobbies of any kind are terrific on any level.  But I’m referring to hobbies that take a great deal of practice in order to master the activity.  Woodworking or learning a musical instrument are good examples.  Again, we’re trying to bring the mind down into the thing we are doing, rather than letting it carry us up into the clouds.  The more technical the hobby, the more anchored the mind becomes.

4 — Keeping a journal.  This can be about anything.  There is something liberating about writing thoughts down.  Things that spin in our minds throughout the day tend to stop spinning once written down.  It’s as if we’ve moved them from our mind into a separate storage facility.

5 — Once per day, take contrary action.  It can be completely random.  If you order coffee every day, pick tea one day.  If you turn on the news first thing in the morning, turn on some music one day.  This may seem silly and arbitrary at first.  But I find that when I get into the habit of mixing up mundane things for no reason, it feels much more natural to find another option when it really matters.  For instance, when I’m having a bad day and I want to take it out on my family.  Or someone cut me off on the freeway and I want to pay them back.  This is a “wax on, wax off” approach that works when our instincts are getting pushed around by stress.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear any tools that you use to keep you “in the present.”