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Faith and Falling

In Training, Writing on May 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm

I don’t know if any of you have heard– but Cheryl Nasso has dropped out of Regionals. A scrappy competitor who started CrossFit at an enfeebled 83 lbs, she naturally became one of my favorites when I first started my CrossFit fixation. But this year, after a season of dogged training, Nasso had to withdraw from her Reigional competition. In a freak-accident of life, she fractured her wrist while breaking up a dog fight. Fellow top competitor Talayna Fortunato wrote a rather lovely tribute when the announcement was released. She recounts one of her most powerful memories of Nasso:

We had to climb a rope without legs to 20ft. Cheryl got to about 15ft. and was struggling. She struggled her way to 19ft. At the point most people would have saved their last bit of grip strength to make sure they could put their legs on she was still reaching for the top. I know because I watched in disbelief as her forearms finally gave out and she plummeted from the top of the gym.

While I’d never advise an athlete to push him or herself to that point, I can’t help but admire that spirit– that commitment… determination that so completely eclipses fear or reservation.

When I first saw Zebrapants work out, I concluded that I want to live like he WODs– it’s a silly turn of phrase, but true. I want to be able to apply myself with that much passion, that much conviction… so much sheer force of will that everything else becomes irrelevant.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately– and feeling a lot. I do that too often, you all know. I have this theory about writers… at least, all the writers I met in my cohort during my MFA. We were all drastically different people, with such different experiences and life perspectives and writing styles, but the single thing we shared in common– the grounding force that drew us together– was the sheer excess of our emotions. Oftentimes, reading all our disparate work, I got the sense that we had all become writers because we didn’t know how else to cope with the terribleness of our thoughts. We mulled too often and too long about the ways in which people wound one another– sometimes maliciously, sometimes innocently and with such heratbreaking naivete. And because we don’t know how to process this– how to contain this realization– we write.

I won’t bitch about the things that have happened to me– everyone gets hurt. I’m not special or a victim or any more unique than the next person. Everyone gets knocked off the metaphorical rope  a few times– regardless of grip strength. And we mostly get back on the rope too because we naturally seek direction. But the question is how you regain the spirit of the first climb– how do you pull yourself blindly towards the top when you remember how it feels to have everything slip from your grasp– the indiscriminate force of gravity.

Sometimes I feel my arms giving and I’m paralyzed by fear– so much that I’m clinging to the rope, too fucking stubborn to slide back down, yet to terrified to reach ahead. So I wind up with the worst possible option– stagnation.

I started this year telling myself to hell with fear– I would commit 110% to everything that mattered to me and see where it took me. Trying to become a CrossFit coach has been the most frustrating struggle for me. Sometimes I feel like the amount of time I spend working on it is… silly because I have an entirely different career that I’m building in academia… because, despite that career, sometimes I feel all I do is cast my heart and every last bit of will into CrossFit, and it’s just consumed by an unfeeling world that doesn’t give a damn how hard I work but only how much I (cannot) lift… because I’ve never worked for so long at something and felt like I’ve made little progress.But I’m trying to commit to this entirely… I’m trying not to give a damn if I slip and fall– to be unfazed, even, when my hands yield for a few seconds and I drop a few heartstopping inches before I’m once again clinging for dear life.

Training this week has gone well. I hit four PRs in six days– in lifts as well as aerobic efforts. While rowing at a “recovery pace,” today, I accidentally beat my old 1k PR. Tuesday, I stood with 160lbs on my back for the first time– from a box squat just above parallel, but I’m chasing that 1.5x bodyweight backsquat to full depth… hopefully better now that Squatsalot was kind enough to look over my form for me.

In other aspects of life… I’m still paralyzed. I’ve been disappointed a lot lately. Some big things, some small things. I’ve been frustrated by people who fail to see the humanity in others– whose perspectives of the world narrow only to themselves. But strangely, I can’t blame these people because they’ve learned, right? The way to survive this world is to take care of yourself first because nobody else will. But this fact makes the world a frightening place for me. You’ll notice the key word I apply to often to CrossFit is camaraderie. I’m in love with people. I love the human race– I want to believe in the innate goodness of others. I want to believe that empathy is instinctual… that you will always clamber to cliff’s edge and pry the stranger from the ledge. And we see moments of selflessness and courage that are restorative. But sometimes they feel so distant and faraway when I focus too much on the pettiness that sometimes pervades everyday interactions. And I’m stuck, 10 feet off the ground, trembling fingers trying to hold on to the thread of good will amid all the… careless… mindless hurt.

I guess I want this to be a hopeful post, though… because I want to keep trying. I want to live with that blind faith that everything will be okay– if I continue throwing everything of myself into my pursuits, into my friendships and those that care for me– if I commit myself to the things that matter and keep fucking climbing… maybe I’ll make it there. Or… if I don’t, maybe I won’t regret those few weightless seconds before I hit the ground. It’s exhausting, though, and sometimes it feels lonely on this rope. So thank you for reading– particularly since I know this post isn’t altogether coherent… but those of you that believe in me, that invest a bit of your time and emotion in me… it matters. Thank you.

Keep Walking

In General, Training, Writing on January 26, 2013 at 12:06 am

I would like to share with you all this post by Juli Bauer of PaleOMG (a host of fantastic recipes for those more culinarily inclined than myself… all her food looks fantastic, but I never try any of it because it looks complicated and I’m lazy :p). Anyway, Juli is a major figure in the paleo world, and a rather accomplished CrossFit athlete. Last year, she placed 8th in the Southwest regionals. However, this blog post announces Juli’s hiatus from competitive CrossFit. She says:

I noticed that I hadn’t been happy for a while. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. And for me, that is very important. I started competing because it made me happy. And made me confident. I never cared if I did poorly, I never worried about not finishing a workout. I just tried my hardest and tried to smile through it. But when disappointment began to appear on others faces, I knew it was absolutely time for me to take a step back. I never want my performance in the gym to disappoint someone. That is not why I work out. I work out to better myself. To improve myself physically and mentally. Not to upset someone because I didn’t do all my wall balls unbroken. Or because I didn’t set a PR.

This has been a hard thing for me to come to terms with. I haven’t wanted to admit it, but I don’t want to compete right now. I don’t want to train to the point that I’m spending hours in the gyms, aching constantly, and gaining 15-20lbs to be able to keep up with the amazing CrossFit ladies in my Region. That’s not what I want nor is it what my body wants. And since I’ve stopped training to my max every day, I feel better. Even though I’ve lost a ton of strength and endurance, I’m happier. I feel better in my own skin and I’m finally not crying on a regular basis because I was unhappy with how I looked. Yeah, I cried because of that. No fun. I’m an emotional mess without that crap on my mind.

I have the utmost respect for professional athletes– for the discipline they have, the dedication, talent, and exceptional masochism– but Juli’s above post is one of the many reasons I could never become one. I actually enjoy CrossFit too much to turn it into something so laden with anxiety and pressure. We know I’m anxious enough… when I underperform or when my progress backslides, I somehow feel like I’ve failed my coaches who probably really don’t give a damn if I lifted 5 lbs more or less this morning beyond whether or not it makes me gripe at them for the next ten minutes. Moreover, I wouldn’t want to go so far beyond that line between training for health and training for competitive performance.

Interestingly (I’m playing it fast and loose with the term “interesting”), I kept thinking about Juli’s post in conjunction with a book I’d heard about: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, written by a palliative care nurse, drawn from her experience with terminal patients. According to nurse Bronnie Ware, the top five regrets of individuals at the end of their lives are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I’ll be frank… there’s a lot of shit I want to do in life. I want to write– I want to write things worth reading, things that move, things that challenge the boundaries of language. I want to teach– in a way that provokes and inspires. I want to travel and see and experience and try to understand. I want to coach and to help people find their bodily potential… to help them feel more confident and capable. I want to love– to care and to be cared for, to protect and be protected, to give so much of myself to communities and friendships and the power of human interaction. But of course it’s easy to say all of this– a lot harder when I look at the long, daunting list at the end of a day when it was an accomplishment just to don all my winter-wear and trek to my classroom.

So the only way I’ve been able to continue caring about these ambitions yet maintain my sanity and still live my daily life is to try and keep things in perspective. There’s no end to the things I could do in pursuit of all of these goals… I could spend day after day planning lessons, and still fall short of helping my students find their potential. I could dedicate an entire life to writing, and still have so many stories untold. I could train until everything hurts and everything aches, but there would still be an infinite number of ways that I’m doing things inefficiently… ways that I could tweak my schedule and my diet to be better.

So… I’m taking things one day, one step at a time with the longer journey in mind. I continue to work hard each day because it matters– because I think the extra time I spend lesson planning here might help my students write a better story, or because I think these extra ten minutes on the pull-up bar might improve my form. But also, I try to keep the scale of things in perspective… will the two hours I spent talking to a friend instead of working really ruin my career in the long run? Will one extra rest day or one bad WOD prevent me from becoming an effective coach? It’s helping me arrange my priorities… I will need to sacrifice things in pursuit of others. Not everything will be happy or perfect or even pleasant… but I’m trying to figure out which sacrifices are worthwhile, and which I would regret… what will I care about when all is said and done? Chances are, that two hour phone conversation will mean more to me than the perfectly-researched essay. That friendship will carry me further than the right transition between paragraphs. I can’t be the best writer, teacher, student, athlete, friend, girlfriend, daughter… human being all at once, every single day. I can do my damnedest and apply myself to what’s important, pray that those who love me will forgive me when I slip up, and just… keep walking, and hope  it’s enough.


Also, today’s WOD– just because it was fun and, I think if there were a “girl” WOD named “Jo,” this would be it…:

21-15-9 Pull-ups and Burpees. 6:27… I had to drop from the bar more times than I would have liked. By the end, I was doing them in sets of twos. I started with 12 kipping pull-ups, so I’m guessing I need to work on muscular endurance… Ah well, something more to add to the list!

The Jomad’s Journey Continues

In General, Rhetoric, Training, Writing on January 3, 2013 at 12:52 am

Jo bought Jobot Coffee! New wonderful indie coffee discovery in downtown Phoenix.

Activities witnessed in the LA Fitness squat rack, December 2012-January 2013:

– Bicep curls with a straight bar

– Bicep curls with dumbbells

– Bicep curls with an EZ curl bar

– Calf raises

– Unweighted calf raises by the woman that glared at me until I rushed through my good mornings and vacated the squat rack for her. Apparently she can only perform her calf raises while lightly caressing the frame of the squat rack.

– Shoulder shrugs with a straight bar

– Dumbbell shoulder shrugs

– Half squats

– Quarter squats

– Dude-are-your-knees-even-bent squats

My actual favorite:

– Pull-ups (by racking the bar at the highest possible position), since the gym has no actual straight bar available for pull-ups

… long story short, there’s a (un)suprising lack of squatting in the LA Fitness squat racks– the frustratingly limited amount of LA Fitness squat racks, that are somehow, confoundingly, frequently occupied by people who use them for unneccessary exercises.

You’re getting this wrap-up because this morning marked my last LA Fitness visit for a while. Tomorrow, I shall fly for State College and return to home-sweet-box where squatting is a part of everyone’s vocabulary.

Because I knew I wouldn’t be able to fit a workout in tomorrow (literally traveling from 9am to 9pm), I did my Max Effort lower body work today. It was a deadlift week, but I was really reluctant to deadlift from the floor with the obnoxious decagonal plates that roll off their corners each time they hit the ground. Even when I did dynamic effort work these weeks, the plates really screwed me up– either banging into my shins or rolling away from me before I could set up for the next rep. So… I tried rack pulls for the first time. Unfortunately, the very lowest position I could set up a rack pull was just above the knee, but youtube tells me that’s a legitimate training position, so I tried that and managed to pull 255×3 for a new max. It was an interesting experience– just to hold that much weight in my hands. I don’t think I’m going to keep it in my repertoire though because I’m pretty sure my back is the stronger part of my lifts, and I have more trouble getting my deadlift off the ground than locking out at the top.

I’ll be happy to be back where I can train with familiar equipment and familiar resources– even more happy to be among friends. I’ll even enjoy the small comforts of my little basement space, assuming it hasn’t iced over due to two weeks without heating with all the snow that’s hit PA in the past couple weeks. However, I get melancholy every time I have to leave Arizona. It actually works both ways… I’m always reluctant to leave State College, then I remember how much I love my hometown and want to cling to its security, then our little pocket of Pennsylvania eventually reminds me of all its small joys. It’s really the distance I hate– the fact that I feel constantly incomplete. And that’s a fault of my mindset rather than my situation, I feel…

Honestly, that’s what I’d like to change most about 2013. I want to feel more comfortable with where I am (physically, emotionally, professionally, etc). On the one hand, I’m more determined than every to prove my worthiness. I want to become a better, more capable CrossFitter– one deserving of a coaching position. I want to settle in as a PhD student and really dig into my niche of scholarship. I want to be a better teacher…. I want to structure this creative writing class that I’m teaching so that the students really get something from the experience– so that they walk away with at least a new appreciation/understanding of stories and why we tell them, and how and why they matter. I want all of that and I’m determined to work my damnedest for all of that. But at the very same time, I know and I really want to be able to chill out more. I’m… really, very tightly wound too often. I know. I know. I know. I spent too much of last year– too much of the last two and a half years feeling like I’m madly flailing just trying to keep my head above water. If that’s all life is, it’s not worth living, right? I need to be able to sit back and enjoy. That’s strangely difficult for me. I need to be honest with myself about my faults, but also be able to accept that– for now, they’re there, and I can work on them, but I can’t frantically punish myself for them either. I need to continue striving towards my goals but at the same time learn patience… be satisfied with working towards and hoping that’s enough. I also need to spend less time hoping and more time enjoying the doing because– let’s face it– the PhD is a 5 year degree and after that there’s finding a tenure track job, working towards tenure, etc… even if that’s just an isolated metaphor for all the other aspects of life, we spend more time journeying than we do at the destination, so we must learn to embrace the journey. 

Even just thinking about my neuroses makes me want to apologize to those of you who put up with it all the time. Thank you! Here’s hoping the Jomad’s journey continues with a little more grace, and a little more calm this coming year. Here’s hoping you’ll journey with me– a few steps, or vast distances, your company is always appreciated 🙂

Happy New Year, friends.

Something Different

In Rhetoric, Writing on November 1, 2012 at 7:03 pm

I’m always grateful when people show an interest in my work. I’m entirely stunned when people find it worthwhile to publish my work– to see something in it worthwhile enough that they’d like to share it with others. I think I’ll always be overcome by gratitude each time it happens (and god I hope it keeps happening). That said, a recent piece of mine has appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of Kartika Review— a journal I’ve long admired and with which I’ve hoped to collaborate. This is a work of nonfiction. My only work of creative nonfiction, and possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. It has nothing to do with CrossFit and nothing to do with paleo, so if that’s all your here for you can wait until after my Saturday update on my powerlifting meet ;). I actually deliberated for a while whether I would share it on this blog. It’s personal– possibly more about Jo than any of you would want to know, but I’ve also grown tired of silence… I’ve considered that it may be cowardly, or weak, to thrust my stories onto others. But I also admire the act of openness… that fearlessness to be unapologetic about yourself and your shadows. I’m still not sure how I feel about publishing this piece, but for those of you who read it– it may illuminate a bit of the Jo that showed up in State College two and a half years ago, ragged with insufficiency, uncertain of everything. I’ve gotten over a lot of the crap featured in this essay– with many thanks to my patient, loving friends. These days,  I generally feel pretty good about the world (as evidenced by my super-fluffy posts recently), but I don’t think my demons ever totally disappear. Now and then, when I least expect it, they emerge at 3:00 in the morning, when my basement studio seems the last, lonely place on earth. Sometimes they emerge-mid WOD, when I realize I’ve stopped lifting to work out, I’ve stopped lifting for reps, I’m just lifting for annihilation– hoping all that pain will get my brain to finally… stop thinking. But it doesn’t. So I write. And this is what I came up with:

If the automatic viewer thing on the page doesn’t work for you, you can download the pdf via the “Download” tab. I start on page 67. If you’re feeling super generous, I’m sure the lovely folks who work for Kartika would love for you to buy the issue (there’s a tab for that too). I usually love the writers they choose, and they always have a wonderful selection of writing.

As always, thank you for reading.

Burpees and Small Blessings

In Training, WOD, Writing on July 23, 2012 at 7:00 pm

So I recently discovered CrossFit Games athlete Linsdsey Smith’s website.  I love that so many CrossFitters are active in the online community. I’m even more charmed that so many of them are articulate individuals who come across as compassionate, thoughtful trainers and athletes and friends. In trolling the archives, I ran across a fun post by Lindsey. It was 10:00pm, and Lindsey still hadn’t done a workout. But lucky for her, Rebecca Voigt was around to send her a quick, “no-frills” BURPEE WOD.

The following conversation then transpired between Lindsey and her husband (via gchat):

me:  u there?
webster.m.smith:  yeees
me:  did you workout today?
webster.m.smith:  nope
me:  any desire to do a burpee wod with me in the living room?  becca voigt sent it to me today.  burpees are the only movement, its the rep scheme thats tricky
webster.m.smith:  huh? when?
me tonight…. now…. whenev
webster.m.smith:  what is it?
me:  Burpee Madness
webster.m.smith:  ok living room?
me:  yeah, we can move the ottoman out of the way
me:  ready when you are
webster.m.smith:  ok


The workout is this:
Minute one: 10 Burpees
Minute two: 20 Burpees
Minute three: 5 Burpees
Minute four: 11 Burpees
Minute five: 2 Burpees
Minute six: 18 Burpees
Minute seven: 6 Burpees
Minute eight: 15 Burpees
Minute nine: 4 Burpees
Minute ten: 8 Burpees
Minute eleven: 17 Burpees
Minute twelve: 3 Burpees
Minute thirteen: 13 Burpees
Minute fourteen: 9 Burpees
Minute fifteen: 12 Burpees
Minute sixteen: 14 Burpees
Minute seventeen: 16 Burpees
Minute eighteen: 7 Burpees
Minute nineteen: 19 Burpees
Minute twenty: 1 Burpee

At this point, I quite easily concluded that I’d love to  be Lindsey Smith. Not only would I be a CrossFit Games competitor, I would have randomized burpee WODs impromptu delivered by Becca Voigt, and I could gchat my husband for a 10pm burpee date in the living room. How. Awesome. Is. That? I realize I’ve had a lot of posts about programming and directed, focused programming, and this WOD seems like just a randomized bit of AWESOME, but still… I think I intend to try it sometime– as a tribute to Becca and Lindsey. Maybe even at 10pm in my living room. In PJs.

While I’ll never be a Games competitor, will probably never be on a first name basis with Becca Voigt, and may forever be awaiting my burpee date… I can console myself with one small triumph. Lindsey lists among her goals to one day acquire a master’s… I’m at least the somewhat proud owner of an MFA in creative writing… I mention this because I’m always taken aback by the interesting configurations that different individuals’ dreams and aspirations take. I think it’s an innately human quality to reach for more– which is a good thing. That way, we have goals, we work towards them, we become teachers and writers and athletes and coaches and we continue to influence and inspire others. It’s just so easy (perhaps just for me) to get caught up in what we want and still don’t yet have that we forget what we have achieved. Yeah, becoming a CrossFit coach sometimes seems like an impossible pipe dream– slipping further and further out of reach. I’ve been so busy worrying about this training and starting my PhD and wrapping up my novel, I never took a breath to realize that… I finished my MFA. Ultimately, the degree’s just a sheet of paper in my closet that doesn’t have much bearing on the real world… but for just about 21 years of my life, I dreamt of attending an MFA program, of joining a community of writers, of challenging myself as a writer and discovering topics about which I had something worthwhile to say. And, by so many small miracles, with so much support and encouragement from truly beautiful family and friends and mentors over the years… I did that. And today, I’m grateful for that.

You know what else I’m grateful for?

5 reps of a 185lb deadlift.

Felt good about it. Unfortunately, my limiting factor really seems to be my grip. The bar just about slips from my left hand when I reach the top of the pull. My back felt good throughout the lift, though, which was a relief. But I’m going to try working those farmer’s walks some more… I’ve also decided that I’m going to try participating in more of the box’s regular programming from now on. I’m still sticking with my linear strength program, but I would like to finesse more of the box’s regular WODs into my conditioning work. (This may take some very clever CrossFit planning…) I have several reasons for this. First of all, the programming’s becoming more structured, with each coach designing larger blocks at a time with concrete goals defined in each week. Second of all, I do push harder in the company of other people. And I also miss the guidance of having someone more knowledgeable watching my movements. I also like being able to put my trust in someone else’s programming– the confidence of knowing that someone well-informed and experienced has put a lot of thought into each aspect of this workout.

Today’s WOD:

Skill: False Grip & Hollow BodyWOD:
10 minute AMRAP
-5 Burpee Box Jumps
-10 False Grip Ring Rows
-15 DUCash Out:
25×2 Sit Ups for Time, Rest 3 Min b/w

I loved the way the skills transfer into the actual WOD and the congruence that knits the whole session together. Also, the WOD was a blast. It’s actually a rather rough combination of movements, but each of them work different areas in different ways that I never felt fatigued to a point beyond movement. It was just… enjoyably rough (let’s not pretend CrossFitters don’t have a dose of masochism).*

[*For a more serious discussion on CrossFit masochism, see here]

I officially move on Wednesday, so my apartment’s a disaster right now. I keep discovering useless things I’ve stored away and realizing there’s no point putting them back, but not wanting to “pack” them neatly because I’m moving all of four blocks away and it seems like more effort to wrap everything just to unwrap it all a mile away… Ah well, wish me luck.

Happy Monday, everyone.

The Naked Jo: A Confession

In Rhetoric, Training, Writing on July 12, 2012 at 7:47 pm

So, the gloves are coming off, and this blog is about to become way too personal. I actually returned to the gym today, itching to exorcise something angry and resentful in the form of sweat and screaming, but… I didn’t quite. Because I’m trying to take this strength training thing seriously and if I subjected myself to 7 minutes of burpees (which I willingly would), I wouldn’t be able to hit my power cleans tomorrow… so I will expel my demons in the only other way I know how: in writing. I will disburden unto you, my dear readers, my far-too-revealing thoughts. And you can judge me or not. Or stop reading and go back to those reruns of The Walking Dead (speaking of which, if anyone in State College has the second season on DVD to lend me… I’ll be your best friend? Or buy you a beer? Or be your best friend who buys you beer?)

Anyway… let’s start with a story. I’m good with stories.

By the eighth grade, I weighed 136 lbs. The doctors had been telling me to lose weight for years. Between ages 13 to 21, I weighed between 136-139. At my heaviest, I’m pretty sure I went over 140, but I avoided scales like the plague. Not because I cared, but because my parents cared and were constantly (well-intentionedly) urging me to lose weight. In my senior year of college, feeling stir-crazy from the demands of writing my honors thesis (a ~100pged short story collection now left to rot away… I’m a bit ashamed of it now– as we all of early works…), I embarked on my P90x adventure. Over the year, I lost about ten pounds… (and was told to lose more), but after graduating a semester early, I moved to New York City. I’d sent out graduate school applications, but wouldn’t hear back for six months. In that time, I interned for $15/day at a literary agency and waited tables at night. These were 15-18 hour days, and I didn’t really make enough for… anything. Meanwhile, I worried that three and a half diligent years of study had earned me nothing– that my parents were right, my major(s) (English and Theatre) were useless, and I had, in fact, chosen a path with no future.

I got sick. It happened in such a way that I didn’t even really notice. Between these two demanding jobs and the tremendously unhealthy (emotionally, physically… generally) relationship I was in, I learned misery as a way of life. It simply made sense that my body rebelled. I couldn’t keep food down or in. I never slept for more than an hour at a time. I had a persistent cough that lasted for months. I was taking four prescription-strength antacids and two painkillers every morning, though they did nothing. I was always, always cold. I remember dreading the walk to the subway every morning because I was too weak to really climb the stairs. I think the truly lowest point of my life was one evening, running from agency to restaurant, I just collapsed on the subway steps. My legs simply crumpled, and I lay there trying not to recognize what a disaster I’d made of my life. I was terrified to call home– to tell my parents that I couldn’t hack it on my own… Because I was so miserable and so used to being miserable, I didn’t realize how much weight I’d lost– about 30lbs in three months. I knew my clothes had stopped fitting, but I just tied a belt around my waist and didn’t think about it much.

Finally, I heard from the Javits Fellowship– administered by the Department of Education. I’d submitted an application out of blind hope. Every year, the government funds (or, funded, the program has since been disbanded due to budget cuts) exactly one MFA student in the country for all their years of graduate study. I didn’t think I had a shot in hell. I’m still convinced that I only received it by blind luck. Anyway… outside my literary agency, between hours eight and nine of another long day, I cried, overwhelmed by sudden hope. Afterwards, I received a few offers from MFA programs. Bolstered with the idea of a future– a life beyond these dreadful day to days– I finally called home, told my parents I was sick, made doctor’s appointments, and ended a three-year relationship that had become exponentially venomous over time.

Everyone here in State College only knows the post-NYC Jo. Small Jo. Weak Jo. The truth is; my body had collapsed so quickly, it took me a long time to even recognize how small I’d become. I didn’t believe people when they told me I was tiny. I didn’t believe that I was weak. Yeah, I had quite a bit of chub at 136lbs, but I was also “weirdly strong” for my size (not my words). Just this past summer, during my visit to Taiwan, several members of my family remarked that they never knew I had a small skeletal frame since I’d always seemed “big boned” (and in fact had been referred to as such all my life… nicknamed, even, in Chinese). When I started CrossFit, my body was an alien thing. I didn’t know how to inhabit this 93lb, shivering wreck (at my worst point, I think 88). I didn’t know how to walk on legs that could barely hold my weight. I didn’t know how to clothe a frame that didn’t have enough flesh to warm itself.

Now, about 104lbs, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m small. I’ve also gained enough weight that I’m no longer constantly cold (or I’ve adapted to these inhumane Pennsylvanian winters…). But… lately, really culminating in today, I was just overwhelmed by how fed up I am of being small. Of being weak. It’s funny… now I can deadlift 1.85x my own bodyweight. I can do 8 strict pull-ups. I can power clean 85% of my body. That’s decent on paper. But because I’m still fucking small, women come in for their on-ramps and are soon push-pressing my back squat.

Here’s the thing. I’m not competitive. No one believes me when I say this, but it’s true. When it comes to athletics, I have no competitive urge at all. Yes, in academics or in my job, I can definitely get worked up. But I do fitness for relaxation– for sanity– for the thing that takes me away from the books and computers and the dark, lonely, uncomfortable desk. I do it for the camaraderie. I don’t want to be able to lift more than these women. I just want to be able to keep up with them.

Jefe asked me again today: “what are your goals.” I want to be a “competitive” CrossFitter– not because I want to compete, but because I want to play. I want to be able to pace the firebreathers so that I don’t feel like I’m dragging them down when I work out beside them, or that I’m playing an entirely different game. When I was in middle school, the first year I tried out for the softball team, I didn’t make it. Well yeah– I was overweight, asthmatic, (always) uncoordinated, and definitely slow. But I wanted so badly to participate that I volunteered to be the team manager– just to be around the game. For a season, I tracked all the players’ stats, I helped them strategize their hits… I figured out the habits of the opposing teams’ batters and pitchers and fielders and relayed the information to the actual athletes. It was rewarding at times, but also torturous– a constant reminder of what I wanted to be, but could not . Sometimes… sitting around the box, I still feel like I’m pacing the sidelines. I’m 24 years old, and I’m still being picked last for kickball. Being relatively strong for my bodyweight is awesome for Cindy, but Fran would slaughter me, and I still don’t think I could finish Grace. And, of course, I do still want to coach some day. And I couldn’t dream of it until the thought of a 95lb clean and jerk doesn’t make me want to cry.

I… need to be patient, I know. I’ve gained a lot of strength on this program. My deadlift has climbed by 50lbs since I started. What used to be “heavy” cleans for me are now part of my warm-up sets. But it’s still somewhat demoralizing to be scraping the bottom of the strength barrel after so much hard work.

It’s just that… I wasn’t exactly athletic before I started, so it’s not like I’m focusing on strength because I’m an endurance rockstar. My run times were embarrassing before I stopped running. I hate that I can feel my endurance ebbing away each week. I hate that I can’t WOD for longer than 15 minutes without jeopardizing my strength gains. And I hate that after so much effort, after shoving my face with everything my goddamned IBS-ridden stomach will let me eat, my press still stalled out this week and I can’t run a fucking mile without feeling winded. I dread that after all this work, I’ll barely be able to do Rx’d weights and suddenly all WODs will feel hellish because I can’t survive anything longer than 10 minutes.

I know so many fitness blogs are about celebrating our bodies and our unique strengths right now, but today’s not one of those days. You know the slogan “Strong is the new skinny?” Yeah, I like the idea. I love that we’re promoting strength in women rather than skeletal, Hollywoodized figurines. But I’m fucking trapped in the old skinny, and I’m tired of it.

I suppose there’s no quick solution. I just embarked on this strength programming without perspective– not knowing exactly how long of a marathon it would be. More slow lifts. More peanut butter. More avoiding metcons…

Jo smash.

Unwired, Unwound

In Rhetoric, Training, WOD, Writing on July 9, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Hello, friends! I suppose I’m overdue for an update– on food, training, and life in general.

It’s officially been a week since I stopped by “Whole 14” cleanse in attempt to diagnose my “trigger foods” for my IBS symptoms. Thus far, I feel good. I’ve reintroduced my post-workout shake, and I’m happy to report that my recovery feels much better now. I was very worried on day one because my stomach rebelled after the protein shake. On day two, I had slightly lesser symptoms, and by day three, I was tolerating it all right. I’m also thrilled to announce that I’ve also reintegrated peanut butter (by the heaping spoonful) and regret nothing. The thing is… I can feel that my body operates less “smoothly” with these “irritants,” but they’re a mild evil compared to life before and I do limit myself to one protein shake a day– most of my protein should still come from whole food sources. In terms of other whole foods, I’m fairly certain that soybeans (as in the dried edamame beanpods on which I snacked by the cupful) give me notable distress, and I should cut those from my diet. I’m not sure about soy products though– such as soy sauce or soy additives in foods… I’ll have to experiment more there.

I’m a little puzzled by my strength development. The other day, the Mean Machine pulled up an old document that our gym started once-upon-a-time (when we were little more than a handful of members, two mismatched rowers, and an odd assortment of jury rigged pullup bars). I don’t even remember entering my numbers, but apparently at some point we documented our lifts. This must have been upwards of nine months ago. Since then, my deadlift has increased by 70 lbs, my press and bench both by about 20. My back squat, however, has only risen ten lbs. That’s… frustrating, to say the least– especially because the squat is so vital for just about everything we do in CrossFit. I know a lot of my limitations in the squat has to do with my hip mobility. I can feel that my left hip is dramatically tighter than my right and I rise unevenly from the bottom of the squat. I’ve been trying to stretch more, but it seems that imbalance follows me regardless of however much agonizing bendyness I force into my stiff little limbs.

I’ve looked up all the hip videos on mobility WOD… and I’ve tried to incorporate them into my days, but honestly my left hip just seems permanently inflexible. If anyone has any particularly creative suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

A thought on food intolerance though… I’m fairly certain that my stomach was reacting poorly to the protein shakes for the first couple of days and needed to remember how to digest whey in its concentrated form– or whatever other additives are in my chosen powder. Similarly, I’m not much of a drinker. The other night, we went out to commemorate a friend’s graduation/send her off to her new life in Kentucky. I had… more shots than I’m accustomed to, and I felt awful for the next two days. My headache has only just dissipated today. When I studied abroad in England, during my sophomore year in college, I could take eight shots a night and feel fine the next morning– granted, I was a slightly larger Jo (by about 30 lbs) back then, but still… I’m torn between the fact that… yes, our bodies operate better and “optimally” on these superclean diets, but unless you intend to eat so very strictly for the rest of your life, you’re not going to be able to avoid all these “contaminants” and you’ve perhaps made yourself more vulnerable in those moments. Though this may only apply to people with hypersensitive (e.g. bitchy) digestive systems such as myself.

Workouts these past few days have been good, but nothing worth reporting. I did, however, try a WOD this morning that I’d like to share. After working on Snatches (from the floor) and two-position squat cleans, I did “Lars”:

5 rounds for time:
1 round =
–  sandbag carry uphill 100 m
– 10 sandbag squats behind head
–  sandbag carry downhill 100m
– 10 burpees
our 100m path is not on a hill, but the workout was plenty hellish without. I was ambitious for the first two rounds and started with a 30lb sandbag. After 400m of awkward limping, though, I went to 20lbs. Though I’m thrilled that the box actually has sandbags now, our sandbags are filled with medballs rather than sand. They make for awkward carrying devices. If my shoulders were at all broader, I might be able to balance the bags across them, but my options are to either hold the bag against my back (and strain my triceps the whole way) or sling the ball over a single waifish shoulder. The latter option allows me to run faster, but those of us with girl-parts know that… weighted rubber items jouncing against those girl-parts as you run make for an unpleasant experience.*
[*I can’t imagine how that would feel for ladies with weighted items permanently implanted in their girl parts]**
[**No disrespect to said ladies– … though, ow]
Yesterday, I went on my first-ever tubing adventure. Very fortuitously, one of our gym members is a bit of a tubing… enthusiast? A tubiast? Anyway… he has a stash of inner tubes and has just about memorized all the dips and curves in the river’s current. It was a lovely… lovely time… just sitting outdoors, lazing down the river, chatting with friends. I whine about it a lot, so you’ll have to indulge me if you’ve heard this rant before: I love what I study… I love teaching, I believe in the potential of language, I’m invigorated by my research, and I could never live without the catharsis of my writing… but I loathe how much of it confines me to a desk (or, on lazy days, a couch), in front of a computer. It was unspeakably wonderful to be outside, in fantastic company, and unwired. What’s even better… after I returned home, I managed to fill in the scene in my novel*** with which I’ve been struggling for a while. I take this as a sign that “unplugging” ourselves from the world is actually beneficial to productivity and general mental well-being. One of my most frustrating traits (to myself and those around me) is that I feel like I should be working all the time… I feel obligated to work all the time. I very, very rarely just sit in front of the tv because I feel as if I’m wasting time. But time spent outside in the company of good friends feels so very worthwhile that it can even make my deadlines seem trivial. Thank you to good friends for reminding me to enjoy life.
[***About the novel: I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I finished my 260+ paged manuscript for my MFA thesis. However, the manuscript is still a few steps away from anything I’d term a “novel.” In addition to my independent study work for my English rhetoric PhD this summer, I hope to tweak my manuscript into something more worthwhile…]
Happy Monday everyone.

The Road Goes Ever On and On

In Food, General, Rhetoric, Training, WOD, Writing on June 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Well, I guess we’re on Day 9 of my “Whole 14” diet challenge. A strange hiccup. Sometime between yesterday and this morning, I experienced a resurge of my IBS symptoms… to be fair, they were milder than they usually are and I feel relatively safe now, but I can’t figure out what must have triggered it. I don’t think I ate anything different than what I have been eating for the other days of my paleo experiment, so… problematic. Ever since being diagnosed with IBS, I’ve worked to accept the fact that sometimes my body rebels and I can’t waste time trying to analyze what set it off or what I’m doing wrong because sometimes there’s no answer other than the fact that genetics dealt me a shitty hand. I guess I’d been a little too hopeful that this new way of eating might entirely cure me of my digestive woes.

Regardless, the fact that I still experience some symptoms (even at a lesser degree) will mean problematic things for when I reintroduce foods… how will I know what’s irritating my gut and what’s just my gut being a natural bitch?

As for the strength progression, I’m not sure how that’s going.

Back Squat 3×5. I failed on the third set of five today. Granted, they felt easier than when I failed last week, but this still means I should reset, which is disappointing. I mean, I’m squatting well over my former one rep max, so I should be happier than I am. I guess I’m being greedy. I’m going to try resetting by 3 weeks on Sunday and see where that takes me.

Press: 3×5. Managed to return to where I was before the vacation, but it did feel a little heavy. Nervous about next week.

Strict pull-ups: These are also returning to where they were before the vacation. Sets of 7, 7, 6. I’m not actually going to “absolute failure” on these anymore… Because I’m “greasing the groove” with shorter sets of pullups throughout the day, I just take these to when they’re difficult but not truly exhausting.

Afterwards, because I was pissed off about the squats, I went a few rounds with the prowler (remember Camille?). For anyone dealing with repressed, uncontrollable rage… (no one? Just me?), quality time with this bad boy is a pretty good aggression-killer.

I actually met an interesting guest at our box today. She’s been around for a little while, but I haven’t had a chance to speak with her until this morning. She’s the daughter of two English professors so I’m actually quite familiar with her parents, and my PhD adviser was apparently once her basketball coach (small world?). Nevertheless, she got my wheels spinning again– and we know how prone I am to overthinking. Sometime midway through my MFA, I experienced a serious lapse, wasn’t sure I’d ever finish my novel, and entertained the idea of dropping out of grad school to become a physical therapist. I was… deterred by the huge amount of course prerequisites I’d have to somehow fund, then the years’ worth of observation hours I would need to even qualify to apply for switching so entirely out of my field.

Apparently this girl has done just that. During graduate school, she discovered CrossFit, became a coach at her box and realized she’d much rather become a physical therapist than continue her deskbound hours in her own field. Bravo, really. I just… struggle constantly with the duality of my world. I can’t imagine a full career where I’m deskbound all day. I’m constantly frustrated by how much of my life requires me to be isolated inside my own head for prolonged periods of time. I love interacting with people. CrossFit has cultivated in me a fascination with the potential and limitations of the human body and the dream of a job as a physical therapist, I guess, would be the opportunity to actually practice that (whereas the niche I’ve found in English has been a convenient way of me bending the field over backwards so that I can talk about talking about it… it’s a sideways methodology of sneaking my outside interests into my research).

Of course, when I came home, I pulled up all the sites for the physical therapy graduate programs I’d been secretly oggling for a while. But the thing is, I’m even deeper into my English career now. And it’s not even that I don’t enjoy my English career. I’m fascinated by the niche I’ve found and I think… I hope… I believe I can make a dent in this field. I love teaching, and I don’t think I could ever give up writing. It just… doesn’t feel complete.

So… I sat down and had the “what are you goals, Jo?” conversation with myself again. And I remembered: write, find time to write, develop and enjoy my own fitness and well-being, help others discover their ability to do so. Sounds like a lot, right? I’m greedy. There are composition teachers that are CrossFit coaches. They exist! I read about one on CrossFit Journal. So… I think I can do it. Keep pushing? I suppose on days like this, I feel like my greediness makes it impossible for me to truly excel at any one thing. Even in the CrossFit microcosm– my strength is not skyrocketing because I like moving too much. I’m doing about 25% the amount of metcon-ing I used to… but I’d probably get stronger if I gave it up completely and just devoted myself to something blunt and linear like Starting Strength. On a larger scale, I’d probably be a much better English/Rhetoric student if I didn’t waste 70% of my days on CrossFit websites, reading up on exercise and nutrition theory. I can explain the difference between Greyskull Linear Progression, CrossFit Strength Bias, CrossFit Football, Westside Conjugate, and Starting Strength. I can tell you 7 different ways to stretch your hip. But I still have to Wikipedia Deleuze everytime he appears in one of my textbooks.

But I suppose we wouldn’t be interesting, unique human beings if we were monomaniacal robots who only focused on one interest…

I am a “wandering” Jomad because where I’d like to go seems so far away and will take so long to reach that I need to remind myself to embrace the journey. I will spend more time traveling than at my destination… so I must learn to live in the moment rather than for the future.

Ah well… I’ve now spent too much time blogging– time that’s better-spent reading, writing, researching… retaining the 200+ texts I’ll be tested on for my comps exam in a couple years…

The road goes ever on and on…

Functional in Formosa

In General, Rhetoric, Writing on May 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm

As fun as kipping pull-ups are, after I’ve incorporated more strict pull-ups into my regimen, I have to admit that they’re not at all the same beast as the real thing. One’s a conditioning movement, one’s strength…

Fortunately, I had a chance to return to Formosa Fitness, where I got to sit down and speak with the owner– Dave Chesser. To be honest, I was relieved to have a conversation in English for the first time in a significant while, and to talk about “functional fitness” which seems a foreign language in and of itself sometimes. Moreover, I was really impressed by Dave and the amount of thought and devotion he has put into his business. Though still somewhat of a niche market in America, CrossFit seems downright mainstream there compared to the fitness culture in Taiwan. When I tried explaining what I was studying to my aunt and uncle (the seminar paper I wrote last semester on CrossFit Sri Ram Ashram), they– very generously though misguidedly– brought me to a tour of the highly exclusive gym atop Taipei 101. There, we were given a small tour of the facilities (a glut of elliptical machines and some globo-gym weight machines). Our neatly tailored, three-piece-suited tour guide informed me that “weight training is not just for men” and “these days, women are starting to try strength training. Women should not be afraid of using the weight machines because they would not make you bulky.”

Anyway, Dave articulated to me precisely the reason I had a difficult time explaining to my aunt and uncle the philosophy behind CrossFit (though eventually I think I almost managed it). The concepts are so foreign here, there aren’t any terms for things like “metabolic conditioning.” Poor Dave first has to define his services before he can market them to the public. Nevertheless, it seems like he’s done pretty well. He talked about what limited access he has to equipment, but (as I mentioned in my last post) he has virtually everything a CrossFitter-away-from-home could hope for, and then some. All the equipment is in stellar condition, and though they’re not branded by Rogue or Again Faster, they’re damned more than I could have wished for thousands of miles from home.

It’s also worth noting that Formosa Fitness is not a CrossFit affiliate. In truth, that’s probably a good choice. The word “CrossFit” has virtually no value here– at least not in any of the conversations I’ve had, so there’d be no reason for Dave to shell out the affiliate fee. Moreover, Dave seems to exercise more freedom in his own programming, tailoring it to the needs of his clients in their setting.

For example, Formosa Fitness seems to make more frequent use of kettlebells– something I actually envy because I wish I knew more/had the technique to actually employ kettlebells to their full potential. KB’s suit Taipei rather well because they take up less space than fully-loaded olympic bars… and space is a rare commodity in this city. Moreover, it may just be my personal experience, but for some reason Taiwanese people seem more intrigued by kettlebells than powerlifting. When I showed CrossFit websites to friends and family, they were immediately curious about the black, steel bells.

I’ve also made no secret about the fact that I have certain reservations about some CrossFit practices. Heavy lifts in AMRAPs, for example, invite poor form and injury. It could be that my own technique and ability just aren’t there for these elements, but I tend to avoid movements that I think carry too much risk. Because Dave operates independently from any overarching “program,” he has even more room to breathe when helping his clients. Just from the materials around the gym, I saw elements of traditional CrossFit, Gym Jones, 4-hour body, Tactical Athlete, and of course Dave’s own approach.

Our conversation also gave me some more ideas about my dissertation research. I’m not going to go too in-depth here, but I’m thinking about looking at the various manifestations/interpretations of “functional fitness”– considering the physical practices as rhetoric and seeing what values are produced, performed, or resisted in different cultural settings…

Also, as a random note on “functional fitness,” I really haven’t done much CrossFit here– if any– but small moments here remind me of what I’ve gained in the past year. I’m certain that, before CrossFit, I couldn’t have cleaned and pressed my mom’s carryon luggage into the train’s overhead bin. I also couldn’t have deadlifted my grandfather in his wheelchair over the curb to get him from the hospital to the restaurant across the street when taking him out for lunch. I would’ve also possibly not made the mad sprint to the bus stop so that I wouldn’t have to wait another 20 minutes for the next one. Not quite the same as chasing mastodons and hunting sabre-tooth tigers, but still… functional fitness in practice :).

That’s My Secret

In General, Training, WOD, Writing on May 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Saturday’s conditioning work was actually a hero that’s topped my wishlist for a while.

Rahoi: 12 Minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible)

12 Box Jumps (24″/20″)

6 Thrusters (95/65)

6 Bar facing burpees

I realize it’s not a particularly heavy hero, but it still feels nice to be able to Rx the weight for a hero WOD. I also particularly enjoyed yesterday because I got to work out with a few friends I haven’t seen in a while just due to scheduling chaos. It’s remarkable how much more fun a workout can feel in the right company. Don’t underestimate this one– it’s only 12 minutes, but Rahoi packs a sneaky punch. The trio of explosive moments gets exhausting quickly. By the third round, that bar felt unusually high to jump over.

Today was more strength work:

Back Squat: 3×5

Bench Press: 3×5

Dips: 3 sets to failure. I’m up to 3 sets of 10 on the dip station, so I think I’m going to move to the rings to add instability, and hope that helps me build towards the ever-elusive muscle-up.

Then, a quick metcon. Have you ever started a workout and realized two movements in that you want to be doing something entirely different? I was going to repeat the WOD I tried a couple weeks ago (1o rounds of 3 front squats @ 65 lbs, 100m sprint, 60 second rest), but after the first round, I decided that each segment of the round felt too short. I wanted something slightly less ADD today. I’m sure I’ll regret saying this the moment I get to commit to endurance work in earnest, but for right now I really miss longer, focused workouts (as opposed to short bursts). So… still keeping it within a “sprint” framework, I revised my workout to the following:

5 front squats at 65 lbs (Power clean from the ground)

400m run

2 minutes rest between rounds

Felt great. I have to confess that I’m pretty shamefully behind on my work right now because I did nothing  yesterday but read all of book one of The Hunger Games and watch The Avengers movie. I make it a point at the start of each summer to read something less self-consciously “literary” than the stuff I read all semester. I actually don’t have anything against either camp– the “genre” fiction, or the “literary” register… they’re composed differently with different audiences in mind. I can enjoy both, though during the semester, I tend to miss the exhilaration of being able to consume an entire novel in one day. While I can (and have in a pre-seminar panic) fly through an entire volume of Pynchon in one afternoon, it leaves me feeling drained and headachey whereas… spending an entire day visiting Panem’s dystopia just provides a thoroughly satisfying adrenaline rush. I’m now trying to hold off on the latter two Hunger Games books until my trip to Taiwan so I have some good airplane material… somehow, I don’t think rhetorical scholarship will be as good company during a 13 hour flight (not counting the other 10 hours I’m spending on two slightly shorter flights and in three different airports– State College, Detroit, L.A…

If you’ll bear with me, I’m about to launch on a long bout of self-analysis. This is where those of you just here for the fun CrossFit tidbits can sneak off ;). Actually, I’m about to conflate some exercise philosophy with teaching experience, with comic book trivia, and some overly personal confessions– that should give you some insight as to the strange matrix of interests and experiences that informs my worldview. It’s strange to be inside my head.* Anyway buckle up–we’re about to get crazy.

There’s an article I love by Henry Rollins called “Iron and the Soul.” It’s oft quoted and often abused in service of poor arguments, but it’s a beautiful meditation on strength and training. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character.

Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.

Yukio Mishima said that he could not entertain the idea of romance if he was not strong. Romance is such a strong and overwhelming passion, a weakened body cannot sustain it for long. I have some of my most romantic thoughts when I am with the Iron. Once I was in love with a woman. I thought about her the most when the pain from a workout was racing through my body.

Everything in me wanted her. So much so that sex was only a fraction of my total desire. It was the single most intense love I have ever felt, but she lived far away and I didn’t see her very often. Working out was a healthy way of dealing with the loneliness. To this day, when I work out I usually listen to ballads.

I prefer to work out alone.

It enables me to concentrate on the lessons that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind. The way it all comes down these days, it’s some kind of miracle if you’re not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They are no longer whole.

I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind.

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.

So Rollins (a bit like me) has a penchant for hyperbole. But the sentiment resonates with me. Though I don’t technically prefer to work out alone (and often miss the company when I do it too often), sometimes I love these Sunday mornings when the box is silent and it’s just me and the bar (and the Mean Machine or Jefe vacuuming somewhere 😉 ). These mornings are the only time I can feel my thoughts slow down. I overthink everything; I know. I’m overly sensitive and spend too much time inside my head. These mornings, I can narrow my world to just the pounds of iron and rubber in front of me. I can erase everything but the next five reps, the next 400m loop, the next 12 minutes before the clock sounds and calls me back to earth.

And the thing is… some mornings I shatter PRs, sometimes I fall drastically short. But it’s not about that. I find these sessions satisfactory regardless of the total weight lifted or the time of each round. I spend so much of my time dealing with abstractions and theory that there’s something profoundly comforting about the reality of the gym. Here I’m rewarded for my efforts, struck down when I’m overeager or overambitious. Here, I can try and dream, but two hundred pounds is two hundred pounds and if I don’t have the strength and mass to move it, I won’t.

I wrote a difficult email this week to a student who protested the A- she received in my creative writing course. I struggled with it because… she’s been a fairly diligent student. She’s obviously done the reading, turned in everything on time, and attended office hours. She answers questions in class and cares about her grade. Unfortunately, writing is not her thing. In fact, I was rather proud of how far she’d come throughout the semester– from writing almost purely expository essays to at least understanding the concept of a scene vs summary. But her characters were single-dimensional, her conflicts buried or nonexistant… I couldn’t in good conscience give her an A when I’d held her peers to a certain standard for the quality of their work… She’d argued in her email that she tried. She mentioned nothing about the final product, but that she put in so much effort. I accounted for that effort in her participation grade– balanced out her quiz scores and figured out extra credit opportunities that would improve her course average. But it’s also an awful fact of life that… the end product still matters. Her process was fine… given another year of this effort, I could actually see her writing A stories. But… she’s not there yet. Yes, grading writing is very subjective, but contrary to many accusations, it’s not as if we’re throwing darts to determine grades… All good writing instructors I know have thoughtful approaches to their grading and they evaluate based on a set of standards for what the piece does or does not achieve. But I wanted to tell this student that I was sorry… that I understood, that I felt like I’d failed her somehow for not helping her get there faster, but that she should still take pride somehow in how much she’s achieved this semester. Strangely, at this time, all I could think about was how the gym has taught me that… effort isn’t everything. I can yank on the bar all I want, but a 135lb clean is still well beyond my reach. It will take a lot of patience, a lot of intelligent training, a lot of recovery and nutrition, etc to get me to that point. And when I’m ready, hopefully, someday I’ll drop below 135lbs and bear it up across my shoulders. But there’s no… “I tried.” The Iron doesn’t give a damn.

And yes, Henry Rollins, that is my antidepressant too. The greatest comfort I can find in the harsh realities of life is the reification of it in something I can touch, can lift– or fail at lifting, whatever the case is that morning.

My friends who do yoga talk about the revelatory moments they’ve had during stretches or poses where all the tension, all the trauma of their past releases and they just can’t stop crying. I’ve found similar moments in WODs… a few of them. The WOD I talked about with The Cyborg– back when I could scarcely front squat 65lbs and he coached me through 12 rounds of 4 reps each minute followed by V-ups. More recently, 12.3, which I conducted a lone on a Saturday after I returned from a AWP (a writer’s conference) in Chicago. Sometimes, in “digging deep,” I unearth more than I intended. Like Rollins, I find working out as a way to deal with feelings of isolation, frustration, inadequacy… Sometimes something snaps and each movement feels like an exorcism… the burn becomes a slow bleeding out of the toxins I’ve unconsciously imbibed.

Then we get to the geekiest reference in this post… if you’ve seen the Avengers movie (not-much-of-a-spoiler alert), the skittish (and very well-acted) Bruce Banner (The Hulk) eventually says “That’s my secret… I’m always angry.” Randomly, throughout my life and in very different groups of friends, I’ve always drawn many references to The Hulk. I think mostly people find humor in the irony of imagining a 5’3″ Asian girl converting into a colossal, florescent-green tank of rage. But the thing is… there’s a little more truth to it than that. I mean, I don’t have an invulnerable, radiation-induced alter ego (though how cool would that be), and I’m not constantly angry. But I feel like I’m constantly… contained. It’s not a feeling I’ve always had– more like something slowly accumulated in the past couple years of trying to become an “adult.” I’ve always had a penchant for overexpression. I attach very easily and completely to people. I want to state everything with probably too much honesty (hence… the blog). But I’ve slowly accepted that mostly that doesn’t work in real-world settings. That, as we get older, people become more reserved, more protected. And a lot of our interactions are dictated by more social forces and precautions than I care to tally. But that leads often to me feeling… silenced. I suppose “the iron” is my way of working through that– so that, unlike Bruce, I don’t become constantly angry. But it’s why, when I spend too long away from the gym, I start to feel edgy– breakable… perhaps about to morph into hullking green terror.I don’t suppose that’s a healthy state of being and I’m trying to figure out a way to be more balanced. Perhaps this is a stage we must all progress through? Or… at least one that I must before I find more stability. Until then… I’ll try to keep it to more productive smashing.



* It occurs to me if I actually had to paint the landscape of the inside of my head, it would be an hazy assemblage of Minas Tirith, Gotham, and Stormhold. My mindscape would be frequently visited by the Fellowship, the Justice League, and the Avengers. Occasionally, it would be raided by the Joker. Also, there would be an arctic training facility a la Rocky IV, and every morning, Rocky and I would conduct focus mitt rounds to Eye of the Tiger.