The Chasm and The Fork

Before you reach the fork, you will have spat into the chasm.  Before you pull your hood down, pick your head up, and press on against the current, you will have considered the abyss and found it wanting.

There are moments in life where your sense of who you are in the world dies aborning.  You are standing at the edge of the hole, kicking pebbles into the maw, and there it is and there you are: your hot hand on the telephone receiver, your eyes wet with tears that sting like piss, and you realize that to move along you have to let something inside you die.

It’s either that or you jump into the pit and spend the rest of your life trying to make peace with edges and precipice.  So you let your eyes go dead, you say “I guess that’s how it’s going to be,” and you move along.  All you have to do is just keep changing the gauze.  It pulls a little less skin with it every time.  One day the wound’s whole enough to call whole again, more or less.

I don’t know anyone who’s accomplished anything great without having done their time in the pit.  You hit the pit before you hit the fork.  And I sure as hell don’t know anyone who’s done anything worthwhile without hitting the fork.

Here’s the deal: ten, fifteen, thirty years from now you will remember your moment.

One path just circles around to the start again, like some dumb sunny snake of a playground slide.  You’re just going to keep going up and down again.  You’re just going to stay where you are.

The other path is cold, wet, and you can’t see more than five feet ahead of you.  Truth?  You’re scared as hell.  You don’t know where you’re going but anywhere’s better than here.  Nothing inside of you is dead anymore.  Everything is alive, every nerve ending ajangle with urge, want, and desperation.

These are the days you will always remember.  Walking that path, stumbling down that path–this is what you will tell your grandkids someday…I looked back, I considered the fork, I remembered the pit, and I told myself to beat my fucking wings.

Every great story has a hero.  Every great hero has their moment.  Every great moment has its fork.

Beat your wings.  Get moving.

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Don’t Give Up On Me

Recently a client of mine said “Don’t give up on me.”  The circumstances are unimportant, and the delivery method was almost offhanded, but even so, this really got me. I mean, this fucked me up.  I’ve been coaching folks for 10 years and leading teams for 20 and not a single thing I have heard in that time has affected me so acutely.

Hearing that stops you in your tracks.  You realize how bone-deep this thing can go.  And then you realize, with sadness and regret, how many conversations you wish you could have back.  How many folks you have let walk in and out of your life without telling them that you hadn’t ever given up on them.  And how many of them you should have pulled in close to say, “hey, I’m here…I’m here with you until the end…as long as you keep walking I’m going to take the journey with you.”

Goddamn, that is regret.  You never showed them your heart and now it’s going to eat you up inside.

I firmly believe that most coaches are repaying a kindness that they were extended earlier in life.  Not every coach, I guess, but most of them.  Somewhere along the way, someone took their time with us.  They sat with us.  They used that magic word: “proud.”  They demanded better from us.  They called us on our bullshit when that was the right thing to do.  (Lord knows, it was very often the right thing to do.)

They looked us in the eyes and they fucking believed in us.  Even when we didn’t believe in ourselves.  They believed in us and they told us so.  And we can recite, chapter and verse, every kind word they ever granted us.  Every harsh word too.  Having someone in your corner like that always felt like the greatest gift in the world.

And now we understand it’s our duty to pay that forward.  We think about the folks we would walk every last mile with, the folks we would go the distance for.  The folks, as one of my mentors Paul Reddick says, that we want in our huddle.  Ride or die, they say.  Go the distance, we say.  These are the folks we won’t give up on.  If you’re among that number, know this:

When we have a shit day or have trouble holding our own demons at bay, we hold our best selves in reserve for you.

When someone plays word games or runs sophistry routines on our workouts, we bite our lips, do our best, and wait for you.

When people say shit behind our backs, or hell, to our faces, we remember that they know about ten percent of whatever story they think they’re writing, and we count down the hours until we get to stand in our huddle again.

We understand, deep down into our fucking marrow, that we no longer have to be everything to everyone.  We remember our coaches, our champions.  The people who believed in us.

To us, that is sacred.

But most of all, we remember how many times we wanted to say the same damned thing.

“Don’t give up on me.”

Somewhere, once upon a time, someone didn’t give up on us.

And now, neither will we.

The Phone Booth

Out in the suburbs, before you get your driver’s license, before you turn 16 or 17, there is a particular kind of loneliness at the end of the night.  The convenience stores have closed, the last train into town has decamped, and wherever you are, you’re probably not supposed to be there.

Out under a thoughtless moon, you gin up big dreams but don’t know where to put them.  Sometimes you wish you could shoot out of town like a rocket, out from under the people who love you in search of the people who’ll know you.  Sometimes.  But most nights you just want someone to listen, for a minute or two.

I remember walking to the pay phone in the center of town with a roll of quarters.  I’d call friends. girls, radio stations.  When the money ran out, I’d call information.  I got good at talking out there in the silence.  After a while I’d sneak home and sleep in the basement until it got light.  I’d wake up with a raw throat and the belief that somehow, some way, I knew myself a little bit better than I did the day before, that I’d gotten myself a little bit closer to the person I was going to become.

Running a gym, talking with folks who are struggling to get themselves back into exercise, I hear a lot of loneliness.  I talk with folks who wake up feeling disconnected from their own bodies.  I sit with people who feel like they may have exhausted their last chance, or traded upon their last bit of goodwill.

It makes me think about the kid I was, and the grownup I sometimes feel like, and that some mornings I feel like I might need a medium to find the person inside, the one I wanted to be.

The one I still can be.  Because it’s never too late.  Even if it’s been a while, even if it’s been forever, it’s never too late.

The barbell may not solve all our world’s problems, but when I put my hands on that cold steel I feel like I’m closing my fist around a telephone wire right into the middle of my heart.  Every training session is an hour out in that phone booth, learning about myself, willing myself into next steps, wherever they might lead.

At the beginning of the session, silence.
And at the end of the hour, knowledge.

Crying

Like with everything, the answer is probably hormones. Or chemtrails.  Or the BPA they are putting in the drinking water.  Anyhow, I’ve noticed that since having kids, I am…how do you say this…provoked to tears much more quickly than I was in the halcyon days of youth when basically all I cried about was the stupid Red Sox and breakups.  And okay when Drago killed Apollo, I cried then too.

So it was that I’d gone into my oldest son’s classroom to see “The Invention Convention” the other day.  (Aside–I was so incredibly happy to see that these projects had all clearly been made by the actual students and not by the parents.  It reminded me of my 9th Grade Western Civ project: a chariot we affectionately dubbed ‘The Chocolate Wagon.’)

Anyhow, I was looking at D’s project and noticed that on the wall above, all of the students in his class had created posters to describe themselves.  These were all really cool and funny.  (Kids these days.  Funnier than you think they are.)  Looking at my son’s, I saw that the first word he’d written to describe himself was “Son.”

Even thinking about this now, I’m a little emotional.  Seeing this little not-so-little-anymore person sitting in front of me, behind his invention, in front of his poster, and thinking about him writing that word…well, like I said, I’m an easy cry these days.  I hope he always knows how proud his mom and I are of him.  And that he continues to try to get better at putting his own laundry away.

But ultimately I am sharing this not to talk about crying, although I suppose it’s a nice little hook.  I’m sharing this because I feel like it’s so easy for us to forget sometimes that we are someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, pride and joy, best friend, partner.  The world is a busy, confusing, hectic place; life is fast, too fast, and all of it a widening gyre as the poet says.  At the center of the whirlwind, we can forget who we are.

And we are always ourselves, of course.  But we are also always ourselves, loved and cheered and appreciated by those who see our better angels.  Sometimes this part feels like finger tracings in the sand, like every tide pushes its imprint further into the past.  How quickly we forget.  How quickly we feel alone again.

Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing if we made our own posters every so often.  Maybe it’s one of the best things we could do for ourselves, to remember how much we matter to the others in our lives.

Son.  Brother.  Father.  Husband.  Friend.  Uncle.  Goofball.  And so on.

Wisdom On the Other Side Of The Wall

As an 80s kid with early access to cable TV (thank you greater Boston area), I can say that I probably watched the music video for ’til tuesday’s Voices Carry about five thousand times–that one, Chris DeBurgh’s Don’t Pay The Ferryman, Charlie’s It’s Inevitable, and The Greg Kihn Band’s Jeopardy, among others.  Go ahead, find them on YouTube.

But Voices Carry was the one that always hit me hardest, and not only because of Aimee Mann’s glorious hair and silver machine voice–it was also the rejoinder.  Hush hush.  Settle down now.  Keep it down now.

Voices carry.
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As a 80s kid in a mid-40s brain, this sticks.  There is always the resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it.  In some cases it takes the voice of a particular person or persons; in others it is amorphous, then slick, like film on water.  Hush hush.  Don’t talk.  Who wants to listen anyways?

Earlier today, a friend, brother, and old gym buddy gently nudged me to write more.  We were talking about Jim Steel’s blog and how much we loved it, and I think one of the things I prize most about Steel’s writing is that I picture him shrugging his shoulders after finishing a post and thinking–I had to say it.  It’s just true.  It had to come out.  Honesty is weighty, and stepping out into the light can feel like standing on a plank.

So you hear hush hush…settle down now.

Earlier this week, a friend, brother, current gym longtime buddy, and one of the most truly decent men I have ever met said this to me after I shared something personal with him:

“Well that’s wisdom isn’t it.  That’s what comes with this stuff.  Because you’re not just what you squat.”

What I had told him was that after I’d had surgery to repair my quad tendon the first time and had rehabbed it for six weeks before slipping on New England Fucking Black Ice and having to begin it all again was that I had honestly been surprised how content and actually truly, deeply happy I had been during the first weeks of rehab.

Little things like moving from two crutches to one, from one to none, from a bulky brace at night to a lighter one, being able to fall asleep again after the late-night wakeup, learning to enjoy the Food Network again (I still think Bobby Flay is an arrogant asshole)…these things came to mean as much to me in different ways as a great workout at the gym, or a walk around Long Lake and up that big hill, or the way it feels when your legs are trembling after volume squats and you have nothing left to give but give itself and so you surrender to the beautiful dark matter of having emptied your tank.

Empty the tank.  One of the best dudes I know and I have pinged that back and forth.  Empty the fucking tank.

And nothing filled my heart more than the day I had to take my boys to a PT appointment with me and the therapist told me how well behaved they were and that I should get them ice cream because of how happy they looked when they saw me walking up and down stairs.

So we sang a song on the car ride home called “I Can Bend My Knee” which went a little something like this:
“I can bend my knee, I can bend it right up in your face, I will bend it all over the place, I bet you can’t bend your knee just like me, I’m gonna bend my knee and then I’ll bend my knee again and again and you can’t stop me.  I can bend my knee.”

We laughed and laughed and I think I got them doughnuts instead of ice cream but it was still pretty good.

Those things…like squats.  Like sweat.  Moments.  That is the wisdom on the other side of the wall.

And on the other side of this wall…empty the tank.  Fill every moment.

Because you’re goddamned right, voices carry.  Let them.

No Names

One of the things we talk about at Woodshed is the idea that names and labels are useful, but perhaps only up to a point.  It’s important for someone to understand that when they put in the work to improve themselves, that is part of getting stronger.  But if we follow that train too far down the track, it can be tempting to begin thinking of what constitutes strong, and assigning somewhat arbitrary numbers and behaviors to that identity, rather than simply inhabiting that identity in itself–you’re getting stronger, which is really a summation of your behaviors, habits, and intentions, and *this* is strength.

In the greater scheme of things, sure, there are certain benchmarks that athletic trainers and coaches will use to describe an athlete who has attained an appreciable level of strength for their given pursuit or sport.  But for our purposes, for the day to day, we want to think about resisting labels (because then, really, you’re looking backwards) and focusing forward on action (is what I’m doing right now.)

I’ve been rehabbing an injury for a bit of time and it’s been a bumpy road.  Recently there was a setback.  Here, it’s tempting to think of things in binary fashion: I am sick or I am well; I am injured or I am functional.  (For me, the big sticky trap is whether I can squat or I can’t.)

But that’s looking backwards. Reality doesn’t work that way, it happens one action at a time.  Maybe I am “injured” or “rehabbing” or what have you, but here are the things I can still do: get around, drive, work, read, write, exercise (resistance bands are awesome), listen, spend time with my family, be present, eat, sleep, take naps.  (There’s a reason the nap, that most glorious of inventions, is its own entry.)

I look at that list and it doesn’t look like a concession or a regression.  It looks like a list of things I can and should keep doing every day.  One thing at a time.

I Never Knew

I am going to tell you something weird about me (there’s no shortage in that department), but not just yet.  First, I want to talk about you.

If you have never trained with weights, especially the way we do at Woodshed, you are missing out on some pretty cool things.  Now let me make this clear, I am not saying you HAVE to lift weights, or you HAVE to train here, or that what you may already be doing for fitness isn’t perfect for you. You do you.

What I am saying is this.  There is something magical about putting weight on a bar, squatting down underneath it, and standing back up.  Or picking progressively heavier weights off the ground.  Or getting weight overhead, in strict or explosive fashion.  Or putting weights on the bar that amaze your friends and kids when you tell them about it.

In all, there is the metronome of rep, and completion.  Of task, and contemplation.  In my experience, it’s within the pause after the work is done, or finished for the moment, that you really learn about yourself.

You learn to love yourself a little bit more, a little bit better.  You learn to love the part of you that loves seeing the next person up get after it.  You learn to be in the moment, and that sometimes, a moment so beautiful will sneak up on you that it becomes one you’ll remember for the rest of your life–those five seconds where the world opened up and you were never more present.

Or sometimes you’ll look back and realize that all of these moments have already piled up and they’re on tap in your memory book, waiting on you to seek them out for a reminder of how things can be.

Now, back to the weird thing about me.  I’ve been unable to train like I’d want to for a few weeks now due to an injury.  There is general annoyance, but as I’ve started to think about what it will be like when I’m able to train again, I’ve realized that the thing I miss the most–the one thing that is so clear in my brain it makes me want to cry–is the serve and volley of taking my belt off after a set of deadlifts and looking for chalk motes in the sun through the window next to me.

Those few moments, to me, are more peaceful and true than anything I’ve ever experienced.  Some folks love oceans (me too), others the smell of baked bread (goddamn that is also awesome)…give me a set of deadlifts and the early afternoon sun.  That’s what’s available.

I told you I was weird.