Monthly Archives: April 2012

Harold Terry Hall November 28, 1948-April 27, 2011

Today marks the one year anniversary of my father’s death.

One year ago today, while the rest of the state was reeling from the first of two of the worst tornadoes we have seen in years, I was sitting in a nursing home in Forestdale holding my father’s hand as he slipped away.

If you’re friends with me on Facebook you may have noticed my profile picture going through a series of changes.  Over the past week I’ve treated my face like a Wooly Willy toy, slowly whittling my beard down to it’s present state.

Back in March I decided to mark this day by growing the moustache my father always wore.  It’s a gesture of respect and remembrance.  An attempt to see if I couldn’t see my dad one more time.  This time in my own face.

After he died I wrote about it in my old blog.  At the time I was angry.  I was angry for my loss, I was angry at my dad and I was angry at the world for supporting the circumstances of his death.

Dad died ridiculously early.  This past November would have marked his 63rd birthday.  He died of cancer, the recurrence of a bladder cancer he thought had been dealt with back in 2006.

In that post I railed against the choices my dad made that led to his getting cancer.  He smoked the better part of his adult life.  Lung and upper respiratory cancers are not the only cancers among smokers; there’s bladder cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, cancers of the cervix, kidney and liver.

Dad also lived off of processed foods.  Over ninety percent of his diet came out of a box, a bag or a can.  If you’re a client of mine you know this is the exact opposite of my dietary advice.

He was a computer programmer by trade and by all accounts a damn good one.  By choice he spent most of his time sitting in front of a screen, working.  He was active as a youth, playing sports and working on my grandfather’s farm, but the workaholism that permeates the men of my family got the better of him.  For him work meant sitting in front of the computer and it was not uncommon for him to spend ten to twelve hours a day doing just that.  After his first bout with bladder cancer and the introduction of a urostomy bag he became even more sedentary.

Of course, all of this set was the perfect setting for cancer and ultimately his early exit.  Of course, I tried to explain how he needed to make changes, how this lifestyle was unhealthy, but even I was unnerved at how dramatically so.

When I wrote about this last year I was mad at the world.  I was mad at a society that perpetuated the myth that fake food was perfectly acceptable, doctors who paid lip service to “living a healthy lifestyle” but could offer no concrete example of what that actually meant, and a medical system that took cholesterol issues, Type II Diabetes, and ultimately cancer as inevitabilities of age, at best, and opportunities to sell more pharmaceuticals, at worst.

I was also mad at myself.  Mad that I hadn’t made a difference.  Mad that I had let the ridiculous convolutions of a father/son relationship prevent me from doing more, being more.  I grieved over losing him, over the awkwardness of parenting my father and being forced to take the adult role as care giver and advocate, over the fact that only now in the last six months of his life did we begin to understand each other.

My father was a large, dark man.  He was serious and intense.  He was capable of great levity and those moments stand out as bright contrasts.  They were intense flashes of laughter and humor against an otherwise somber background.  His divorce from my mother hit him hard and ultimately I think he never recovered.  I think he felt a stranger in this world and never felt like he fully belonged.

As child I feared him.  The divorce was traumatic and only served intensify that fear and make it harder to relate and understand him.  As a father he felt it was not right for him to pursue my brother and I.  He remained available but would not force himself on us.  As adolescents and young adults this just served to widen the gap between us.  Ours became a relationship of obligatory holidays and an occasional necessary bailout.

Gaining my father’s approval was a primary motivator in my life.  Either in the active pursuit of it or the outright rejection of the entire concept.  It wasn’t until he was almost gone that I learned I had always had it.  Irony of ironies, the one thing I spent my youth in pursuit of was, for him, a foregone conclusion.

In the year since his passing I have called on him almost every day.  It’s a sad truth but I think of him more now that he’s gone than I did when he was alive.  Maybe that’s due to the intensity of the last six months of his life.  We spent a lot of time together, he depended on me and it was my job to make sure his needs were met.  In the end we finally got to know each other.

Whatever the reason, he’s now my guardian angel and the standard I measure myself by.  I try and be realistic.  He offered me examples of what to do and what not to do.  He was a man of integrity and values.  He was his own man.  He was my dad.

Ours was a complicated relationship.  Without him I wouldn’t be the man I am today and I miss him.

I love you, Dad.

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Muscle Memory

**This is a guest post from my dear friend and writing coach, Glenny Brock.**

Pain is a signal. If ever knew that, I’d forgotten. What I remembered was Brush-Knee-Push-Step, Repulse the Monkey and Wave Hands Like Clouds — three of the 24 moves in the Yang Short-Form Tai Chi. Last Saturday morning, for the first time in about 10 years, I found myself standing behind Dave Hall, doing my damnedest to mimic and mirror him as we went through the form. I marveled that I remembered the slow dance of it all — when to “empty” my legs and feet, where to hold my arms and hands, how to open my palms toward the sky then curl my fingers into fists. I did most of the moves without thinking, as if my muscles had spent a decade studying a map inside my mind that I didn’t even know about. I surprised myself at every step.

But back to the signal of pain. The Tai Chi didn’t hurt at all. What hurt was the 40-minute, seven-exercise circuit that preceded it: Before I Opened the Window to See the Moon or Grasped Needle at Sea Bottom, I had gone through a sequence of lifting sandbags, swinging ropes, jumping on one tire and waving another around my waist (not simultaneously but in that order), hurling a medicine ball at the concrete floor and squatting and grasping an 18-lb. kettlebell to heave it between my knees repeatedly. The final exercise and the source of my greatest humiliation was a maneuver that Dave called “Dog Crawlers.” Properly executed, this activity is supposed to look like some kind of fast-motion, yogic, aerobic tribute to man’s best friend. What I did more closely resembled the action of one of those collapsing farm-animal toys.

Close your eyes and imagine an erstwhile “Husky” department veteran aged to a plump, mid-30s proto-hipster. Now imagine that girl-woman struggling to simultaneously hold herself up on twig arms and avoid a wardrobe malfunction. I imagined coming out of my sports bra as the worst possible thing that could happen; I considered lying down on the floor and just weeping while I watched everyone else work out. Boot camp, I thought to myself with a snort. The mythological ordeal that has struck fear into the hearts of draftees since time immemorial, and I get up to do it for fun?

The timer sounded, indicating that another 45-second eternity had ended and it was time to move on to the next thing. I glowered at my old friend, but Dave just grinned back at me. I noticed for the first time that there was a searing heat in the front of my thighs, a hurt so vivid I could almost hear it. I looked at the white-board where the sequence of exercises was written and noticed for the first time it also said, “Be comfortable being uncomfortable.” I walked back to the tire that lay flat on the floor, stepped onto it and started jumping again, paying close attention to how the rubbery ring — reliably, relentlessly — kept bouncing back into shape.

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Why I train

I got to play hero again yesterday.

Thalia’s fourth grade class was having a camp out up in Steele, Alabama.  We showed up later than most, around threeish.  Most everyone was already settled.  The kids were a little wild and the parents a little scattered.  After unloading the firewood I brought, exploring the camp ground a little and finishing my first beer I realized I needed to pee.

The property where we were staying had a cabin with a bathroom.  It seemed more appropriate for me to find a semi private spot and just go outdoors.  There was enough traffic in and out of the cabin and I didn’t see why I needed to add to it.

The property sits in an ox bow of a creek.  As such it’s surrounded on three sides by water.  I noticed several tree falls across the creek, one of which was just on the edge of the campfire area.  Using this I crossed the creek and and found a quiet place to pee.

Unbeknownst to me, I was observed and followed.

After peeing, I explored a little.  I tried to find my way down stream to where most of the kids were playing in the water and having a mud battle, but the going was too rough and I turned back.

While I was gone, Emily, 10, and  Jennell, 5, tried to follow.  Jennell slipped and got her feet wet.  Her mother, understandably, responded with frustration.  Emily got her feelings hurt and while everyone else was dealing with Janelle, slipped away to sulk and nurse her feelings.

After a while her absence was noted and people began looking for her.  Before long there became a sense of urgency as she wasn’t showing up.

I started out corralling the other kids around the fire.  There was still plenty of daylight, but keeping chaos to a minimum seemed more beneficial to finding Emily.

Emily’s mother, headed up a trail that ran alongside the creek bed on the cabin side of the creek.  I heard her call that she had found her but couldn’t reach her and since I was closest I headed up in her direction.  I assumed Emily had gone up this trail and had slipped down the embankment and couldn’t climb back up.

When I got to her mother I quickly learned that she couldn’t see Emily, only hear her.  With the valleys and twists of the creek sound carried funnily, it was hard to tell but I gathered that Emily was on the other side of the creek.

I sprinted back down the trail and crossed the creek.  Two of the other dads, Kyle and Brian, were right behind me.

There was the remnants of an old jeep trail, but it was mostly overgrown.  The brush was thick but not unpassable and and I blazed my own trail.

I started to hear Emily more clearly.  She was up ahead and maybe around another bend.  Her voice was high pitched and scared.

Kyle was in eyesight of her first.  I saw him in the creek bed on a shoal.  He was talking to her from about thirty feet away, calming her down and letting her know help was on the way.  I came to a bend just above her and climbed down to reach her.

She immediately began saying how sorry she was and then jumped into my arms and began sobbing.  Her jeans were wet up to the knee but she otherwise seemed fine.  She was just lost and scared.  To her credit she did have a flash light she was signalling with, but the daylight and the dense vegetation made it fairly ineffective.

I squatted down, offered her my back and began to carry her out.  I’m not sure exactly why I did this.

In the moment  I was reminded of my friend, Trey, and his story of rescuing a young boy who’d gotten lost at a cubscout campout a few weeks earlier.  It seemed the right thing to do.

Emily, however was fine, scared but quite capable of walking.  Even though she weighed next to nothing, carrying her in the creek bed was not the most stable of walking and it occurred to me that I could trip and spill us both, thereby turning a “heroic rescue” into a foolish hazard.

We quickly ran out of dry footing in the creek bed and I opted to climb up the embankment.  I got most of the way up and then told Emily to push off my back and climb the rest of the way.  She did everything but push off my back and therefore nearly slipped.  I had to put a hand on her butt and push her the rest of the way up.

Kyle and Brian met us at this point and we all walked back.

When we returned a few minutes later, Bart was the ever appreciative father, shaking my hand several times and expressing his gratitude, “Anything you need, you just let me know.”

Personally, I felt chagrined.  If I hadn’t crossed the log in the first place, none of this probably would have happened.  So while I got to play the hero, I didn’t feel the hero.

What I am grateful for is that playing the hero was not that hard.  Physically moving through the woods, sprinting, climbing and even carrying Emily was not taxing.

While mentally chagrined over the experience and my role in causing it, physically I was up to the task of fixing it.  This I owe to my training.

You all know I enjoy my time in the gym.  I look forward to it and even build my day around it, instead of the more usual fitting my training around my day.  Whether it’s worth it or it doesn’t usually fit into the equation.  It’s usually a foregone conclusion.  Today, however, in the morning light, I’m reminded of just how worth it is.

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Play. Play often.

Play.

It’s something most of us have forgotten how to do.  We tell our kids, “Go play,”  because we want them out of our hair.  “Mama’s got things she’s gotta do now, go play.”  “I’m sorry, baby, Daddy’s busy, go play.”  We tell our kids, “Go play, ” because somebody somewhere told us it was good for them, part of their development.  “They won’t be functional as adults or learn as well if they don’t play.”

Of course we all know that last bit’s falling by the wayside.  Current educational paradigms tell us that scores are down and that other kids in other nations are smarter than our kids.  We fear for their ability to survive and be competitive as adults so we cram them into lifestyles that more closely mirror our adult jobs, which incidentally most of us hate, so that when they grow up they’ll have an edge on all the other adults.  All that extra hating will prep them for the hating of adulthood.

We’ve so forgotten the value of play that we’re taking it away from our kids.

Do you play?  Do you even know how?  How does play relate to training and exercise and specifically what happens here, at Agoge Fitness Systems?  What is play?

I see play as exploration.  Little kids play in a variety of ways.  One common theme in children’s play is “playing house.”  Why?  Because children are exploring adult roles.  They’re playing with what it feels like to be mommy and daddy.

Children play with their bodies.  No, not play with their bodies, although yes, some do, and that’s perfectly okay as long as it’s in private and alone, exploration is natural, but what I mean is that they use their bodies to explore the world.  Gravity, motion, all the elements of physics and the physical world are discovered through play.

That we as adults give up on play is a shame.

As adults we force ourselves into roles and positions entirely unnatural for us.  The human animal is not optimally designed to sit in a cubicle for hours on end, only to trade that box for a box on wheels that it rides to it’s final destination where it sits in front of another box for a few hours before bed.  The human animal was meant to move.  Crucial aspects of our physiology, like circulation and lymphatic drainage, are dependant on our movement.  “Move it or lose it” is not just a cliché.  It’s a commandment.  As in, “Thou shalt move it or lose it.”

Many of us have gotten that message and it heartens me to see it.  Unfortunately we approach that movement much in the same way we approach our jobs or maybe a root canal.  “Alright, this is unpleasant but it’s good for me.  I’m just gonna go in there and get it done.”  We psyche our selves up and approach our workouts with drive and determination, if we’re type A, or we scheme and finagle, figuring out how we can do the least amount and still get by, if we’re type B.  Either way it’s still a job.  A job is something you have to get done.  Play is something you look forward to doing.

Like any artist I am a shameless thief.  I explore the world around me and look for new sources of inspiration.  Ideas, methodologies, and even specific exercises are all fair game.  Lately I’ve been enjoying the work of a gym in Sacramento, California, Bodytribe.  If you train with me at the gym you’ve already been exposed to some of their ideas and have likely heard me talking about them.  Chip Conrad, the owner of Bodytribe, and his crew of trainers understand play.  You can hear him talking about it in this promo to their dvd Brutal Recess.

Another source of inspiration is Matt Wichlinski, of The Strength Shop, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  Matt’s a fellow Underground Strength Coach and an astounding athlete.  He’s a bit younger than me and cruder, not by much, but his sense of play is apparent, especially in this video on hip mobility and stretching.

All too often we approach stretches and exercise like work.  We look at the coach or trainer and try to match what it is they’re doing, “Okay, she’s bending forward and putting her nose on her knee…How am I gonna do that?”  We see the end position in gross terms and try to emulate that.  What we miss is the goal of that exercise or position.  We forget what it is we’re trying to do and we forget that our bodies are all different.  Our personal expression of that particular movement or posture may not look the same as our twenty-six year old yoga instructor.  We’ll never know because we refuse to let ourselves play with the movement.

If the goal is not to put our nose on our knee but to effectively stretch the hamstring are we really achieving this by twisting our backs and contorting our bodies to accommodate for tight hams?  In this effort to “match the teacher” we’re likely stretching parts or working areas that are not the primary targets.  Ultimately how is all of this “work” helping us?

As adults we have years of unconscious body habits that have created a host of compensations and imbalances.  Most of which we are still completely unaware.  They don’t become apparent until they cause us pain.

Approaching our workouts with a “playful” attitude allows us the freedom to explore our bodies (yeah, I said it.)  We can use this opportunity to find those sore achy areas and work them out.  No specialist, or generalist for that matter, no matter how educated, can know your body as well as you can.  The feedback you get is immediate.  By playing we can learn to communicate with our bodies, to understand its signals and ultimately make it better.

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Eyes Closed

Every teacher worth her salt knows that teaching is a learning experience.  In fact it’s the ‘dirty little secret’ of all teachers.  I mean, after all, you, as the student, pay us for our tutelage, but often we end up learning as much if not more from you.

We learn about our art, or subject. It’s absolutely true you do not fully understand a concept, art, system, program, style, whatever until you have taught it.  That’s one of the reason’s why in most traditional martial arts programs each belt rank teaches the rank below it.  In other words you spend the time you have not learning new stuff teaching the stuff you just learned.  And the new stuff?  You’re learning that from the guy who just learned it.

We learn about you, the student. What kind of student are you?  How do you learn best?  What about what I teach excites you and how can I use that to teach the elements you need but maybe aren’t so enthusiastic about?

We learn about ourselves.  The longer we teach the more prevalent this last category of learning becomes.  Students, especially beginners, have an innate capacity for exposing our weaknesses.  They show us the places we have assumed knowledge instead of earning it.  Again, no where is this more apparent, and frequently comical, than in the martial arts.  Your teacher shows you an awesome, new (to you) technique and blows you away with it.  Now, you can’t wait to share it with your students.  Only when you do it doesn’t work.  Your beginner student easily undoes your technique and instead of impressing everyone with your power and mastery you’ve just exposed yourself for the fool you are.

The best teachers are humble.  They know they are but vehicles for knowledge.  The awesomeness they convey is not in themselves but in the content they teach and that has nothing to do with them.  I am but a temporary container of a certain amount of Tai Chi knowledge.  I hold a certain amount of weightlifting, kettlebell, clubbell, powerlifting, strongman, cardio, fitness, fat loss, etc. knowledge and I carry it around with me and share it where I can.

I’m a cool guy, but I’m not somehow more awesome because I know these things or even because I’m able to share them effectively.  The knowledge, that’s the really cool stuff, and I was just lucky enough to stumble across it, to have experiences that allowed me to pick it up and carry it for awhile.

Trust me, I’ve been that fool.  I’ve let the adoration of my students and clients elevate my ego to assume knowledge I didn’t have.  I may not have actively perpetuated the idea that I was more than I am, but I didn’t do anything to correct it when I saw it happening.  Your art will make that correction for you if you’re not proactive.  Again, trust me, it’s not pretty.

Why all this talk about ego and teaching?

Well, I had an experience today. One that got me thinking of these things.  Thinking of my own practice, my experiences with teachers, both good and bad, and my own experiences teaching, both good and bad.

I was teaching my tai chi class this morning. One of my long time students was relating to a new student how much she enjoyed practicing with her eyes closed. The comment came as I was explaining to my new students that the movement patterns we were practicing they already “knew.”  They were experiencing the frustration that comes from trying to perform a sequence without having me perform in front of them simultaneously.  With me doing the movements in front of them they follow quite well, but on their own they stutter, question themselves and lose the flow of the form.

I was trying to explain to them that having done the movements they had already practiced them enough to “know” them.  Their problem was in getting out of their own way.  Mentally there’s a whole host of conversations going on all of which say that they can’t do what I do unless I’m in front of them doing it.  The whole point of practice is to build enough experience and confidence that those conversations are rendered moot.

Kathy, my senior student, was relating how she often practiced in class with her eyes closed so that she couldn’t watch me.

And it was here that I was humbled and learned something about my art from one of my students.

Performing any task is made more difficult when it is done blind, especially tasks involving balance. Our eyes are the dominant aspect of our proprioceptive feedback.  Proprioception is our ability to tell where we are in space.  Bruce Lee called it ‘body feel’.  For most of us our eyes are the primary source of information about where we are relative to our surroundings and where one part of us is relative to all the other parts.  We have other sensory organs, like the golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles, that provide similar feedback but as sighted animals we often rely more on our eyes.

To illustrate try this experiment. Stand on one foot. Hold this pose for ten or fifteen seconds. Now hold the same pose but close your eyes. If you’re like most of us, your balance will be much harder to maintain with your eyes closed. The brain is so used to taking feedback from the eyes that it’s lost some of it’s ability to process information from our other sensory apparatus.

That Kathy can practise her tai chi with eyes closed is a testimony to her balance and practice. I don’t do this very well, mainly because I don’t practice it. And I don’t practice it because I’m not very good at it.  A poor excuse at best.

In that moment my student became my teacher and a short coming in my own practice was exposed.  So I will start practicing blind, the increased proprioception will be beneficial in all other areas of life and training.

I honor my student and thank her, for being my student and my teacher.

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Attitude is Everything

We’ve seen this slogan everywhere.

Attitude is everything.

Many of us are turned off by it. Part of the reason is that it’s often associated with winning and the attitude of being a winner. Which of course means that there must be a loser and for some of us that’s just too much conflict.

Yes, winning and losing are consistent concepts of life and we move in and out of these states in an ever flowing dance and as such becoming too attached to one state or the other only invites its opposite. Just not in the way we might wish.

We all deep down want to win. For some of us, though, the thought of losing is so painful we avoid the contest entirely. We purposefully choose losing in order to avoid the pain of not winning.

I think this misses the point.

Attitude is everything.

A winning attitude can be helpful, but it in and of itself is not everything.

A winning attitude is not the only possible attitude one can have.

The choice as I see it is really between light and dark, positive and negative, and there are a million variations here.

How do you approach a task? How does that affect your task?

There’s a Buddhist story from Korea. A young monk is traveling in a storm, late a night. In the dark he stumbles upon a small temple and takes shelter inside. Exhausted from his travels he falls quickly into a deep slumber. At some point in the night he wakes up, painfully thirsty. Putting his hand out, in the dark, he finds a bowl of water at hand and quenches his thirst. Just as quickly as before, he falls back asleep.

In the morning he wakes. In the light of dawn he surveys his shelter, a small country temple in disrepair. There are holes in the roof and bones scattered across the floor. In the corner a shrine, at one time containing the bones of a beloved local priest, had been desecrated and its contents scattered.

The bowl from which our monk had quenched his nighttime thirst turned out to be the upper portion of a skull, presumably that of the desecrated priest. The water, rain that had dripped in from a roof in disrepair.

Shrugging the monk gathered the scattered bones, returned them to their rightful place and went on his way.

Attitude is everything.

Given this scenario I think most of us would have freaked out. Wouldn’t you agree?

But to what end?

The monk’s needs were met. If fact, in the middle of the night he was perfectly satisfied, both with his shelter and his refreshment. Our objection then is with their circumstances and only now, after the fact. What’s the point in being upset?

Attitude is everything.

How you choose to view your circumstances has more to do with your experience of those circumstances than the circumstances themselves.

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