Zennis

 

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, and let’s be honest, there aren’t many of you, you’ll recall a post about a 10-K.  In a nutshell, I compared life planning to a government mandated corporate fiduciary responsibility and transparency document for investors. In retrospect, that analogy may have targeted a niche audience that we in the “business world” would call, too small to break-even.  However, despite that, the intention and call for personal exploration that underwrote it make it worth revisiting, if only for me.

In it I talk about revisiting what’s important to you, since as the cliché says, “time is short”.  There is only so much time available to accomplish what it is you want.  That is, until Ray Kurzweil solves the whole mortality problem through the Singularity or some other mechanism – possibly involving mole rats… but I digress.

360_singularity

I made a list of important things that came up for me.  One of them was to be ranked by the USTA (the United States Tennis Association).  I didn’t have the (tennis) balls to actually pick a ranking to shoot for – i.e. #1 seemed to ambitious/arrogant and #100 would seem like I’m not really committed/invested.  Actually, my sports reel highlight ambition is much less grandiose.  I just want to play in a tournament that actually determines my play RATING.  In tennis, skill levels are defined by ratings from 1.5 = total beginner (baseball-tennis memories anyone?) to 7.0 = world-class player.  At my best, I can play at a 4.5 level which is better than your average bear…. playing tennis.

bear

When I was younger and more obnoxious (hard for some to believe I know) I used to think that I enjoyed tennis because I was “good” or that I was “competitive” and I would win more often than not – which somehow proved how worthwhile I was as an athlete and as a person.  The fact that I didn’t bother to train consistently however, also proved just how committed I was to any of those things.

What I didn’t consciously realize was why I still wanted a USTA rating in the first place -not until I hit my first tennis ball in 2 years recently.  I had the opportunity to hit with a teaching pro – a talented woman who had made her mark in the southern tennis region of the US back in her day.  She has been teaching for over 40 years and her level of experience and patience is admirable.  Add to this, the fact that she recently had her spine fused to overcome a nasty and painful back condition and her dedication and perseverance become borderline inspirational and heroic.  But it comes down to this – she just loves tennis.  She loves playing it.  She loves teaching it.  She loves being on the court in almost any capacity.  And standing on the court with her, I realized why I love it too.

I don’t and probably never will have her level of skill and experience. I don’t think I will ever derive the joy she gets from teaching, but there is one thing I do get – the joy and wonder of hitting the perfect ball.

One of the “advantages” of not playing regularly for a few years is that the technology of the game changes.   One such change came in the form of a new robot that this pro had purchased recently for training students – the ball machine.

I’ve used ball machines off and on through my adult life, but this one was top of the line.  It was a giant, green box and held at least 100 balls.  It launched projectiles at almost any speed, with wicked spin.  Basically it is the pinnacle of relentless punishment and training futility that one experiences hitting against a wall.  But at least this torturer had a “safe word”.  And it was “remote”.   With a press of a button from across the net I was feeding myself topspin forehands, sliced backhands and overheads.  And when my stamina gave out and I was gasping for air and blood, a button press gave me the reprieve I needed.  It was glorious.

robot-playing-tennis-17827407

Most of my shots were ugly and in poor form.  My fitness, already wanting, was also ill suited for the hot/humidity of Florida’s gulf coast.  In short, anyone with a discerning eye could see that I had a ton of work ahead of me if I was going to get into any sort of competitive shape.  But amidst all the mishits and horrible foot placement/body positions were a few moments of perfection.  At unexpected moments, my mind would quiet from all the cacophony of self-doubt and expectations.  In this cathartic, brief silence my mind and body aligned in concert to a single purpose – chaotic motion coming together in a quantum moment of being Present and resulting in the most satisfying THWACK and subsequent ball action.  In those moments, hitting a ball was almost effortless – it seemed like cheating.

It was like the feeling that is described by Zen masters, where there is nothing else but the Now and Life is about being Present every moment.  THIS is why I love to play tennis and ultimately will be rated.  Because being Present is so hard in general that when you experience it, you want more of it.  For some people, this experience may be in martial arts.  For others, it may not be in sport at all, but maybe in programming, where you have a particularly ingenious solution to an intractable problem.  Life just WORKS in that moment – and then it’s gone.  And while some may spend their lives in 坐禅attaining this, I’ve chosen tennis among other methods.  What I’ve realized is that being Present doesn’t just happen – it takes practice – work.  But it’s work worth doing and ultimately/ironically it is the people who take pleasure in the thing itself and not the result who find the greatest success.  Roger Federer embodies this way of being.

fed.bh

Who knows, maybe I will be ranked someday, but it won’t really matter because I’ll just being enjoying/seeking every moment of Presentness I get while playing.  I wonder what else on my list Being Present will transform for me.  I’ll be sure to report back to the 3 of you when I find out.

Hey, at least this one wasn’t about your 1040 tax return – that’s NEXT week!

meditate

 

Roving Packs of Dogs

On the ever growing list of threats to my health and safety, I now add roving packs of dogs. This is the first addition since dengue fever bearing mosquitoes, added about a week ago.

The backstory is this: inspired in part by Movematt, I decided that one of my goals during my time in Costa Rica is to become a physical specimen of a human being, able to jog up flights of stairs and rearrange living room furniture.

To that end I’ve started a twice a day workout schedule that includes a combination of running, swimming, sprinting (sand & hill), and pullup and pushup variants. 3 of those activities take place on the beach (running, sand sprinting, and swimming), which is conveniently located 2 blocks from my house. I drag myself out of bed every morning make my way down to the beach and begin my routine, and generally by the end, I feel pretty good in a terrible, gasping for air, utterly exhausted kind of way.

But today was different; today, towards the end of the jog segment of the run when I begin to transition to sprint intervals, I looked up to find that loping along besides and around me in a not-unthreatening manner were about 3 medium sized black dogs who looked like clones of each other, (a white 4th dog seemed to be a bit of an outcast and was also much less preoccupied with me). My 3 surprise running companions jogged easily alongside me darting in and out at my legs and dashing away when I turned to face them. You’ve probably seen this behavior in nature documentaries where large ungulates are being pursued by seemingly lazy wolves.

Now, the dogs were definitely in semi-play mode, but the thing about roving packs of dogs is that they play rough, and if you show any sign of weakness they will begin “playfully” biting your face off.

Thankfully, I’m not totally ignorant of dog psychology, so I realized that speeding up would probably be a bad idea. Contrary to what you see in movies and TV, outrunning dogs is one of those things that doesn’t happen in real life unless you have a very substantial head start and a safe end point. Instead I slowed down a bit, which helped to ease some of their obvious agitation at my quick movement, and began doing my best to exude alpha vibes. Alpha vibes is my term for a subtle shift in carriage that is meant to say 2 things: 1: “I am your superior,” and 2: “if you mess with me, it will go poorly for everyone involved.” I got a lot of practice with this growing up in New York.

The dogs were fairly incorrigible but, after a few minutes of my extra lazy jogging pace, they lost some interest in me and went back to dive tackling each other across the sand. My mind was still on my workout, and not wanting to lose my momentum at that critical moment I made the snap decision to begin my first sprint then.

70 heart pumping meters or so later, I looked up and angling in gleefully were the black dogs, slavering jaws wide, white teeth gleaming against the sand. One was right next to me and took a bounding nip at my left thigh…

Druid wolf pack chasing bull elk; Doug Smith; December 2007

Now, admittedly, this was my fault. Sprinting like that in plain view of these obviously aggressive dogs was just asking for trouble. Still, if I let roving packs of dogs dictate my workout, where does it stop? What if next time they want to borrow some money, or take my girlfriend to the movies? Where do I draw the line?

The leaping nip was an obvious test of my alpha-ness. If I let it slide the next step would be a full on bite and would likely be proceeded by my being dragged around the beach loudly lamenting my ongoing mauling.

Well, I don’t know about all that, but I definitely knew that I didn’t want strange dogs thinking it was cool to bite me. So I stopped cold and turned on the nippy dog and yelled “hey!” in my most forbidding voice, as if to say, “you just crossed the line, dog!” that got his attention and he backed off. I walked him down a few steps just to drive home my point and that seemed to get my point across. They almost instantly lost interest in me and sped off down the beach to harass some guy sitting in the surf.

At no point in time was I overly afraid of being attacked by these dogs. But I was worried that they would totally mess up my workout which would suck. If I had gone sprinting down the beach like a frightened deer, as wolf evolved predators, the dogs wouldn’t really have had a choice but to chase me and eventually try to take me down. It’s instinct (see video above). So I had to address the situation before it got out of hand.

All told, this should add an interesting element to future workouts, for better or for worse.

I also got chased by a French bulldog a bit further down the beach, but that was less worrisome.

French_Bulldog5

The Badass Gardener

The gentleman you see here in this picture is crossing between a large ledge and the landing of a flight of stairs up to the second floor. Each floor in this building is a bit taller than standard height, so he is probably a solid 6 meters above the ground below. Every day he can be seen working outdoors, climbing heights to replace light bulbs, hanging out high windows to clean them, and pretty much anything else you’d expect a groundskeeper to do. He is considered exceptional by all of the students and staff in the building as he does all of these tasks casually, and because he is easily in his 70s or 80s.

It’s pathetic that he is considered so remarkable.

Don’t get me wrong, the guy is awesome. He’ll spend all afternoon bent over in the courtyard hand pruning the grass and still stand upright and cheerfully bust out a你好 (hello) to anybody passing by. It is – by definition – “backbreaking labor,” but he is completely unfazed. If I was to define fitness in terms of capability relative to one’s age, this man is the fittest dude I know. I hope that one day when I’m his age I have such high quality of life.

So, what’s with the pathetic part? He clearly deserves credit for his self-cultivated spryness. By nature of the word remarkable, it means that he is far and away the exception. It is pathetic that few people are like him; people of any age. When I walked by this scene of him returning from sweeping that ledge, a small crowd had gathered and were gasping and cringing as he walked across his little bridge. The facial expressions of his spectators ranged from horror to awe. His facial expression? The same casual yet jovial expression he wears all day long. I really think that if there was any way to somehow quantify the fear felt by his audience, it would vastly outweigh the amount of fear he has felt his entire, long life doing this type of stuff.

What was really obvious in his movement was that his lack of fear had a lot to do with the fact that he was supremely confident in his ability in the task at hand. He knew exactly how to move his body in a way that maintained his balance, even while carrying stuff, across the makeshift bridge. He also knew exactly how to move his body up onto that bridge and back down from the landing. He didn’t have to give it any thought, he just did it and he will undoubtedly do it or something like it again in the near future.

Does this make him exceptional? Unfortunately, yes. The vast majority of people lack that confidence; they lack the ability move their body in non-standard and potentially dangerous situations confidently enough to accomplish the task. Why do we lack that ability? Well, I already mentioned confidence, but the root of the issue is a lack of knowledge. Without the knowledge of movement, there is a lack of experience. A lack of experience translates into a lack of confidence which in turn becomes the lack of ability.

There is good news however. I know the gardener’s secret. He has spent his 70+ years on Earth constantly moving. He doesn’t take his body for granted, he uses it every single day. You will never catch him in the elevator and you’ll never catch him using gym equipment. He doesn’t have to practice crossing that particular bridge in order to confidently and competently deal with it, he simply has the complete toolbox of root skills that he can apply to any situation. Everybody that reacted to this picture with a gasp or a “wtf, old guy?” needs to seriously reevaluate their physical capability. He didn’t get to the point of such high capability at his advanced age by making it a goal to wow people, he just lived his life moving.

He has lived his life as a badass and we should all take a lesson.

Working Out Sucks.

Working out sucks.  Stop doing it.  Seriously.

That might sound like some odd advice from the section of FYMP that professes to be the physical well-being side of the house, but those three words are essential to be able to understand every blog post that comes after this. In the cartoon above, Calvin is confused not only why adults don’t play, but also the definition of “play” offered by his father. Calvin’s father is also in turn confused, and clearly disappointed, by his own explanation. I think it would be more accurate to replace the word “exercise” with “working out” as it is more conventionally used for what Calvin’s dad is referring to and elicits a more specific visual. That being said, working out sucks.

I exercise anywhere from three to seven days a week depending on the circumstances and I agree, working out sucks. How does that make any sense? Have I just come to terms with the Sisyphean task that is working out in order to achieve a level of fitness or a physique that I want? Hell no. I don’t work out. I used to, but over the years I’ve been giving it up in favor of what Calvin would more readily recognize as play. The best part about removing “workouts” from exercise? Exercise becomes fun again.

Just as in my previous post about running in pants, you’re probably suffering from a classic case of “you’re doing it wrong.” I’m going to play the same assumptions game and make a few guesses about what your workouts look like. First, there is a seemingly endless list of specialized equipment, starting with clothes, shoes, accessories (those gloves match your purse?), not to mention the seemingly endless list of extra tools you can buy (think late night QVC-style TV) and finally the numerous racks, machines and ‘bells of all sorts that can only be found in a specialized place. That specialized place is the target of my second assumption: after dressing up in a workout outfit, you probably got in your car and drove to a gym (if you ran or biked there, good on you, but you’re still doing it wrong). Third, once inside this workout facility, you likely engaged in the standard workout structure: warm-up, stretch, workout, cool-down, stretch more, leave. This workout structure likely has a name. Some of us old folks probably remember the Sweating to the Oldies-style regimens and nowadays the kids buzz on about Zumba, CrossFit, HIIT, The 300 Workout, and so on. That’s a list I would hate to ever have to make comprehensive (speaking of Sisyphus…).

But wait, there’s more! On to number four: chances are pretty good, especially if you’re of the male variety, there is some sort of supplement involved. That can include anything from pre-, intra-, and post-workout supplements, pills (or “tabs.” Ugh, stop saying “tabs.”), powders and anything in between. Raise your hand if you have some Breaking Bad-shit going on in your locker or kitchen; you’re not alone. Next up, many folks these days are finishing their workouts with logging. Lots and lots of logging. Who knows how people ever managed to do anything before smartphone apps, GPS, Nike chips in shoes, calorie in/calorie out websites, etc., etc., etc.  And don’t forget, Facebook. Raise your hand if you have ever created or witnessed a workout related post on Facebook; you too are not alone.

Did I leave anything out? There is indeed something missing from this party – fun. While not everything listed above is inherently bad, none of it sounds particularly enjoyable. Therein lies the greatest obstacle when it comes to establishing a fit lifestyle: you will naturally stray from things that are not enjoyable. The one piece of human anatomy that decides enjoyment level is the same critical piece of human anatomy that likely 99% of people who “workout” forget during exercise. THE BRAIN. This is critical so much that I’m going to go all caps-lock on it again. THE BRAIN. Now, I will readily admit that researching, memorizing, recording and analyzing all of the workout regimens, sets and supplements of many people who work out is nothing short of PhD candidate level academic rigor (I’ve been there), but that is absolutely not what I mean by leaving THE BRAIN out of the equation. Side note, in my head, every time I type THE BRAIN, I sound it out like I imagine an old-school zombie would.

So what do I mean by leaving THE BRAIN (ok, that was the last time, it’s been fun though) out of the workout? This is actually really complex in explanation, to the point that I intend to explain the brain’s function in different, specific aspects of exercise in many future posts. For now however, let’s simply take a broad look at how much the brain is involved in working out. The human body experienced thousands of years of survival and improvement in environments that were much less ideal than all of the artificial stuff that are found in workouts, as outlined above. The human brain evolved along with the body in those less than ideal environments. If countless and unsurprising psychological studies can effectively prove that nature (where our brains and bodies grew up over millennia) has many positive effects on our mental wellbeing, is it that much of a leap to think that “workouts” (effectively a 100% artificial activity, based on the above criteria) aren’t the best option? That maybe you’ve effectively removed the brain from the exercise equation? If we put our brain in a more natural environment there are marked increases in good feelings…maybe using our bodies to move naturally in that natural environment ought to make the brain happy as well.

Again, as I said, much more will come of this discussion, however let’s play another mental exercise. Start by checking out some nature. Go on a hike, do some trail running, climb (or attempt to climb) a tree. Anything. This is of course harder depending on where you live, but I defy you to come up with an airtight excuse for why you can’t even find a city park. Try moving in nature, without any specific and artificial assistance (some shoes and durable clothes may be a good idea…more on why in future posts) and just take note of how you feel afterward. Natural movement in a natural environment and then think about it. Leave comments below of your experience if you’re so inclined!

Running In Pants, Pt 2

When was the last time you ran?  I’m willing to bet that whether or not the answer is last night or last year or even last leap year, the circumstances were similar:  You were wearing running clothes, running shoes, and were at a running venue of your choosing.  Continuing with my assumptions, you were there to “train” and there was a warm-up and probably some stretching.  But there was one critical element missing:  Need.

Need?  What does that even mean?  I “need” to lose weight/get in shape/improve my cardio/prep for a race/etc etc etc.  Therefore, I “need” to run.  Yeah…that’s not how I would define “need.”  Even a Kenyan, running at an event of some sort, chasing a first, second or third place purse just to put food on the table still doesn’t “need” to run.  This is a classic case of “you’re doing it wrong.”

Fine, define “need” then.  Ok, here we go:  people need to run when they have to evade something trying to hurt or kill them, such as a predator or villain.  Or maybe a person needs to hurt or kill prey or even another person.  People also need to run when an environment has become dangerous, i.e. a volcanic flow or an earthquake has made it necessary to escape the current locale.  And hell, let’s just admit it, maybe people have to run just to get away from the damn police.  We’ve all been there, right?  Right?  ….ok, maybe only some of us have been there…

Either way, there is one commonality amongst all of the activities in the “need” category: there is little, if any, room for choice.  Interestingly enough, all of those needs are also scenarios that every other creature in the animal kingdom are faced with frequently (except for maybe the police scenario…I don’t think tigers have a police force, do they??).  Seriously, could you imagine if an animal had to meet the same criteria to run that modern humans do?  Put on special shoes and do special warm ups in a special place designed especially for such things?  Hunters would starve or hunted wouldn’t stand a chance.

When a lion knows there is prey nearby, it up and chases it down.  When a gazelle knows that said lion is out to eat it, it up and runs away.  No warm ups, no lacing of fancy shoes, no stepping out to the track.  Can you do that?  Probably not.  In fact, I’m going to guess that the idea of jumping out of your seat right now and sprinting down the block is a bit scary.  It really shouldn’t be though.

Let’s step back for a second.  I hope that you never have to run.  Be it out of survival or combat, we’ve worked hard for our modern world and should reasonably expect a degree of safety that makes such a thing obsolete.  However, there are two problems with that kind of thinking:  1. Shit happens.  2.  Your body is meant to be prepared for when shit happens.  This does not mean preparing for some abstract potentiality in an effort to survive a one-in-a-million possibility, but rather taking full advantage of your evolved self (more on this in upcoming posts).

Actual insight and recommendations on running will come in future blog posts, but in the meantime, treat this as a mental exercise.  Running shoes are a product of the 1970s, running programs from the 1980s and sweat-wicking material the 1990s.  Human beings needed to run tens of thousands of years before any of these inventions, so why is your running contingent on them?

 

Running In Pants

The Seawall of Kota Kinabalu

It’s 35 degree Celsius and 95% humidity in Malaysian Borneo.  I’m hungover and have a belly full of nothing but coffee.  I’m wearing long pants.  It’s time to run.

….

I’ve been desperately searching for some inspiration to kick start my first FYMP post and I think I finally found it.  I’m just going to get right into it:  four former coworkers of mine died in a military plane crash in Afghanistan a couple days ago.  While I was not personally close to these men, many of my close friends were.  It has also dredged up feelings held over from a plane crash a year ago, on which I did have close friends.

When I found out about the wreck, I was in the middle of planning a trip to Malaysian Borneo.  The tickets had been purchased, I was just doing the research to figure out what I was going to do there.  Needless to say, this planning was taken off the rails and was never really completed.  Fast forward a couple of days and I found myself getting shit-faced in a bar outside my hostel a few hours after landing in Kota Kinabalu.  This led to sleeping in (like, to 12:30 pm) the next day which led to feelings of depression for wasting my time here.  Overall bad.

Additionally, in an effort to justify my laziness, I busted out the computer in order “to write.”  Really that just turned into me surfing the internet under the guise of “research” for my first post.  I finally had to admit to myself that I was suffering from project saturation and going impotent in the face of it.  Deadlines are drawing near on a bunch of schoolwork and I have so much that I want to write about for FYMP that I was all thrust and no vector and getting nothing done as a result.  Further depressing.

I finally made a step in the right direction by putting the computer away and deciding to go for a walk.  Walking down the coast of the Sulu Sea, I spotted a Starbucks.  Yeah, a drip coffee is somehow the equivalent of US$3, but screw it, I want coffee.  With my hot coffee making me even sweatier than I already was walking around in this humid oven, I kept trundling down the seawall.  I started screwing around by balancing on the edge, jumping back and forth over the ditch, hoping a few rocks.  Nothing significant, but the additional movement along with the walk was helping me to get my mind off of stuff.

That’s when I suddenly recalled a technically inconclusive yet operantly encouraging study I read while doing “research” earlier in the day about brain activity during a walk through a city vice a park.  Basically, and spoiler alert, walking in nature is better for you.  Shocker.  This in turn led me to my self reminder:  Move, Matt.  I had also made promises to myself and others that I would MovNat the hell out of Borneo.  Next thing you know, the only thing I could think about was killing my coffee and finding a trash can.

I succeeded in killing the coffee, but couldn’t find a trash.  Of course I’m not going to litter, so screw it, I’m wearing adventure pants, I’ll just shove the trash in a pocket even if it is a bit wet with coffee.  That’s when I started going.  First it started as a slow jog down the actual wall of the seawall.  Then it grew in intensity and I found myself making a few leaps across some crags.  I kept reminding myself to keep my legs under me and not in front of me, especially since my Minimus and my socks were already wet (more on that in a future post).  That’s when I saw a sign for the wetlands preserve and decided to run there.

Long story short, I kept running.  Persistence style.  I had no idea where I was going and I let my goldfish attention span take over.  Up hills, down hills, ohheylookanotherpath, time to play a few minutes of pick up soccer with some locals, ohheylookstairs, and so on.  I was wearing my aforementioned “adventure pants” (long, cargo style) and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt.  But screw it, you don’t always get to choose when to run.

Finally, I made it back into Kota Kinabalu.  My feelings for my former coworkers and for all of the brave men and women who continue to do that job no less diminished, but a renewed appreciation for life gained.  The lesson I learned here is that no matter the specific circumstances, a little bit of movement can go a long way.  I ended up scratched, bruised, exhausted and so sweaty that I needed to take a shower with my clothes on (no way could they go without a wash), but I was in such a better place emotionally and mentally.  My contributions to FYMP will continue to explore this phenomenon and hopefully help as many people as possible improve their quality of life.