Raising the Bar

Getting back to writing about my fitness goals…

I had intentionally stopped writing about these particular goals for a long while.  In fact, my plan was not to mention the subject again.  There’s only so much one can write about when it comes to a lifetime of trying to get in shape.  And failing.

I have had the benefit over the years of a number of resources yet never felt confident that any of the information I received was either worthwhile or accurate (in other words, it wouldn’t deliver the results I wanted to see).  In particular, the past four years I’ve been leeching off the training advice of a coworker who generously tried to help whenever he could.  The problem, it turns out, was me.  I always had some kind of excuse.  Sometimes it was valid and oftentimes it was not.

About three months ago, having completed the Insanity Max:30 program from BeachBody and having taken a subsequent Christmas break and some time off for the death of my father I committed to BeachBody’s BodyBeast program.

The program started out great.  I spent three weeks using fairly light dumbbells in what the program’s trainer calls the “Build Phase”.  That is, you build yourself up to the next phase by learning the movements and proper form.  In my case, even though it had been many years, I was re-acclimating myself to these movements.  Not entirely unfamiliar with weightlifting technique, I discovered that I more or less remembered proper form.

When I finished building I moved into the “Bulk Phase”.  The goal of the whole program is to build solid muscle, something I have lacked.  I started seeing results, especially after another friend who had injured his shoulder graciously loaned me some considerably heavier dumbbells.  I’d buy my own but a full set runs around $500 and I don’t feel like dropping that kind of cash on something I wasn’t sure would benefit me.

Then came the callback…  Two weeks ago today the guy with the bum shoulder called his weights back.  He was recovered and ready to lift again.  To my surprise (and not entirely unsure of whether he was just trying to be polite) he called that night and asked if we could workout together.  His weights.  His garage.  In my  mind I balked at the idea because I just didn’t love the idea of making a fool of myself.  Don’t forget, I’m probably the most insecure person you’ll ever meet.  Seems to me that most guys my age are not only either current or former champion athletes but also far more adept than me in a gym.  This guy was going to kick my ass and then laugh about it.  Or worse yet, he’d patronize me by telling me “good effort!”

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A more solid pull up bar there never was.

But it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.  For the past two weeks, almost every night around 9:30, he and I have been lifting heavy weights in his garage.  I’m noticing tremendous gains.  Even if I’m the only one who sees it, the muscle is there and getting bigger.  What’s more important is that an increase in raw strength – something I had almost overlooked as a goal – is also improving.  This past Sunday my friend called me as I was on my way home from graduation.  He told me to swing by his house.  He had a present for me.  He had heard me make one of my trademark excuses.  “I could do pull up’s… if I had the proper bar with the right clearance.”  So he made me a bar out of a length of pipe he’d picked up from Lowe’s.  He completed the bar with mounting brackets and told me to stick it onto the cross timber of my kids’ playset in the yard.

And so for the past four days, with no actual excuse in sight, I’ve been doing pull up’s.  I heard a statistic about a year ago that said only 1% of grown men can properly do a single pull up.  That sounds high to me; but then again I’m talking about real, solid, proper-form pull up’s – the kind where you dead-hang from the bar before lifting yourself completely up to chest height.  I certainly had a hard time for the longest time.  Callouses, gripping the bar right, what muscles to engage, etc…  But when you shed those excuses – or rather, when someone takes them away from you – it all comes down to how committed you are.  I WANT to do pull ups.  Another friend told me today that he knocks out 25-50 a day every 2-4 days.  That’s impressive.  No comparisons here.  That would be insane.  But man, I’d love to get to that level.

Toward that end I gripped the bar this past Sunday.  Remember that strength I mentioned?  It must be growing, especially in my forearms and upper back.  I nailed 5 of them.  And as if to knock me back down I tried a sixth and struggled hard.  I’ve been experimenting and discovered that I can knock out five at a time, take about three minutes, and knock out another five.  Can I do more than that?  I’d probably need more of a break between the later sets.  Should I try?  I see no reason not to.  Just a short while ago I hit fifteen in three sets of five over about five minutes.

But without a friend like the guy who threw this bar together for me I wouldn’t be able to try.  And if he’s reading this (which he probably isn’t) I want him to know how much I really appreciate that and the time he’s investing and the camaraderie.  I’m certainly having fun.  I’ve had a few personal goals in the past few years.  One of them was to move into school administration before I turn 40.  Another was to get shredded before 40.  In both cases I’ve been motivated by a desire to prove myself.  Very few people have any measure of real respect for teachers.  It’s sad but true.  Even those with the best of intentions generally let on that, in their minds, teaching is something you do when you can’t do anything else.  I know my fellow teachers know what I’m talking about.  Likewise, very few men have any measure of real respect for a man who is weak.  They may be polite and tell you athletic ability, broad shoulders, and curling prowess are overrated but deep down we all know differently.  It’s man’s nature to respect power and achievement.

I got the admin job.  I’m excited to finally show my family and friends I’m actually a really talented guy who is competent in the formation of youth.  So what if some of them needed to see a title attached to my name in order to believe it.  I’ve always considered myself mentally strong.  Maybe those same people will finally see that strength in me too.  So what if some of them need to see a strong body to believe it.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll get jacked before I’m 40 after all.

Moving On

Both of my loyal readers know that I have been in pursuit of a particular dream for some time.

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Symbolic of my career.

When I’m not busy being Dad, writing, or trying to whip my broken body into shape; I work at a day job.  What’s funny is that this “day” job is a vocation for me.  It is, as I like to think of it, a pathway along the wider road of God’s plan for me.  For the past eleven years I have been a teacher in a Catholic high school (three of them, to be exact).  Initially I got into teaching because it was a job.  Somewhere along the line I realized I liked it.  Then I realized that I loved it.  Then I began to feel that I was good at it.  Finally I thought that I could be of use to God in a different way.  I got this crazy idea that I could be a pretty decent school administrator.

I went back to school and completed a second Master’s degree.  And then I went on the hunt.

And I got… nowhere.

I explained my frustration to my wife.  “It’s just that before this year, I had never interviewed for a job that I didn’t ultimately get.”  “That’s nothing,” she said, “I’ve never interviewed for a job.”  She pointed out to me that her first job out of college came about through a connection and she more or less advanced from there.

I put the dream aside, trying to convince myself of the words my best friend and brother, a guy I’ve known since our days in the college seminary.  He’s always told me “God’s timing is perfect.”  I used to laugh at him.  Most of the time, though, I’d think of how obnoxious a thing like that is to say to someone who’s trying his heart out and getting nowhere.  Yet somehow he knew.  I put the dream aside and figured I would get comfortable with something I already knew I loved.  I prepared myself to teach forever.

It’s funny to me how God does things like this.  It’s His time.  We’re just passing through it.  I even remarked to my current students that, on the whole, this has been the best group of high school juniors I have ever worked with.  I’ve always had it pretty easy and I’ve certainly had my stand-outs.  But these kids this year have been a real blessing.  They are kind, witty, caring, passionate.  I love each and every one of them.  God knew they’d be my last class as a teacher and He allowed me the grace of going out with the best.  Recently a few of them have met my beginning-of-year challenge.  “If you can find my blog, kids, you can read it.”  For those who are reading right now, first, isn’t this blog amazing?  You’ve never read anything this awesome.  It has changed your life.  Whatever, just lie and say yes.  Second, thanks for being the best.

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I think I made it.

I’m really going to miss them when I start my new job in a month as an assistant principal.  Oh, had I forgotten to slip that detail into the story?  Sorry.  Yes, I’m losing my summers and gaining a whole lot of responsibility but it’s everything I’ve wanted and I couldn’t be happier.  Please pray for me that I do a good job.

And what did my current students ask of me as a memento of my time with them?

Apparently I should make them a “mix tape”.  Go figure.  I didn’t even know they would know what a mix tape is.  Perhaps I’ll take them up on the suggestion.  I haven’t made one of those in forever.

When Good Friday Eclipses Easter

Regular readers to this page know that I have a condition known as degenerative disc disease.  This is sometimes called disc and joint disease or DJD.  It was precipitated by a genetically inherited “bad back” on my mom’s side of the family (her brothers have both suffered similar fates) and a traumatic injury to my back when I was four years-old.  The whole thing came to a head for the first time when I was 23 years-old and I had my first spinal fusion at the L5-S1 level.  Fun.  Thirteen years later I had another spinal fusion at L4-L5 (the adjacent level).

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This pic is tired, I know.  I’ve used it before but it shows the current state of my spine in case you didn’t know.

I had really hoped that I would be able to avoid another fusion (or at least the symptomatic back pain and debilitating sciatica for at least 5-10 years at the next level.  So far, I think I’m doing well in that regard.  I got more serious about my health than I ever have before.  Hell, I started eating vegetables and lots of them.  I took up running before realizing that it required one to run.  The thing I’m proudest of, however, is that I got serious about getting jacked.  I haven’t had the kind of success I had hope but I’ve done OK.  You see, it’s important for me that I build up ever single muscle in my body in order to safeguard my spine.  It’s not really a vanity thing – not really.  Still who wouldn’t love being almost 40 and looking like one of the Jersey Shore crew on summer vacation?  I won’t lie, that’s a cool prospect considering I looked far from that from the time I was about 15 until recently.  But I stepped it up and looked into things I had never done before, all the while remembering the lessons learned from surgeries and physical therapy.  In other words, I’ve been doing all of this safely.  Currently I’m doing a program called Body Beast designed to bulk up.  I figure the more muscle the better.

About a year ago I was at my standard weight, hovering around 200.  I have a medium sized frame so that’s not impressive.  But when I got serious-serious I dropped down to 173 with Insanity.  I felt great knowing that I could complete something most men (including many athletic men) attempt and give up because it’s hard.  I took heat for it, good natured I believed.  Then I decided it was time to build up.  I’m going back toward 200 but this time hard-core, solid muscle because I need it.  I’m up around 187 after two months and again, I feel great.  I’m enjoying seeing results (even if I’m the only one who sees them).

So why is God screwing with me?

Just when it seems I’m doing something good for myself, for my health, sacrificing time away from sleep or from my wife and kids to get in that workout I need to do I start to notice twinges of pain here and there.

About a year ago I began to experience what I knew was Restless Leg Syndrome or RLS.  It’s not painful just uncomfortable.  Fortunately it only hit me at night so my job and family life wasn’t affected.  I looked it up and it seemed to be a common side-effect of spinal fusions at L4-S1.  Then in the past few months (following around the time of my dad’s death) the symptoms morphed into painful leg cramps that strike in the middle of the night.

Time to see the surgeon.

I went for a visit to a man I trust with my life.  Hey, I’ve never let anyone cut me before nor even put his hands inside my body.  That’s how much I trust this guy.  He’s Mayo Clinic trained.

I love his response after looking at my X-rays.  “I can’t know what’s in the box until I open the box.  But before I cut you let’s run some tests.”

I had a nerve conduction study first.  This showed no nerve damage.  Praised be God.

Then it was time for the Myelogram CT.

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Me after my Myelogram.  See, it’s not that bad.  I’m smiling.

This past Thursday (Holy Thursday) I went to an imaging center and had a dye injected into my spinal column so images could be taken.  The procedure is painful in itself.  The after effects aren’t pleasant either.  I went home and went on bed rest for 48 hours.  My dear sister, an RN, came to town for an Easter visit and was put to work as my caretaker.  This consisted in lying on the couch watching 85 episodes or the 1980’s-90’s crime documentary Unsolved Mysteries while drifting in and out of sleep.

On Good Friday I had an opportunity to unite real physical pain with the crucifixion of Our Lord.  I was truly thankful.

Then came Holy Saturday.  And… unfortunately it still felt like Good Friday.  Throughout the day I tried to make myself believe that the pain was dissipating and I could do things like mow the lawn.  I had been told that by 48 hours I’d be golden.  On Saturday night my wife, kids, and I got dolled up and headed to the Easter vigil – a tradition for us.  Unfortunately I made it into the first of seven readings before the splitting headache got the best of me and we had to leave.  A consult with the surgeon’s office on a Saturday night uncovered that my puncture wound from the Myelogram hadn’t healed and I was leaking spinal fluid into my body, thus causing a spinal headache.  He called in an awesome script and after more rest I felt better.

Here’s the thing.  For the Christian the pain of loss and agony of death on Good Friday makes sense because of the promise of resurrection and joy of a new life and a glorious body on Easter Sunday.  Tomorrow I’m going in to have something called a blood patch performed.  They’ll take blood from my arm and inject it into the puncture wound to clot and stop the leaking of fluid.

I think I can take it that my Easter is coming a bit later?  That’s OK because I know myself and I know I deserve a bit of a longer Good Friday.

I’m writing all of this because I’ve received comments over the years from people who’s been faced with spinal problems and have apparently been helped by reading about someone else’s experience.  I’m also writing to ask prayers.  Pray the procedure goes well.  It’s not a big deal.  But also pray I can get back to my Body Beast.  LOL.  I’ve only got five more weeks until I look like Charles Atlas (in my mind) and I am pumped about that.  Of course, since it’s just me who’ll notice the difference I suppose I can convince myself I look that good now.  Yeah… that’s it!  It’s an Easter miracle!

Happy Easter to all of you reading this!  In the Catholic liturgical calendar, Easter lasts for seven weeks so enjoy every minute of it.  Remember the Lord is risen indeed.  This isn’t a spiritual resurrection.  He conquered death, destroyed that bastard.  He is all-powerful and lives and reigns forever and ever for you and me.

Amen.

Alleluia!

Happy Birthday, Dad!

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(L-R) Me, my daughter, Dad (in his infamous “black sheep” tie)

This would have been your 81st birthday, Dad, so here in Texas your youngest son and his family will celebrate in your honor. I can’t say I’d take you away from the face of God but we do miss you.

Just a short while ago, one of your 8 adoring daughters (you had such delight in having 8 girls) and I were texting.  She forwarded me a voicemail you had left her.  It was the first time I’d heard your voice in months and it sounded the same as I remembered.  You were asking her when she’d be by to pick you up for daily mass.

So I went through my old voicemails and found one you’d left me a year and a half ago.  You were scheduled to go into the hospital to have your carotid artery scoped and you must have gotten word that I was trying to find tickets to come be with you.  “Not going into the hospital this week.  Long story (chuckle) but give me a call and I’ll tell you about it,” you said.  Man I’m glad I don’t delete my voicemails.

We miss you.

I miss you.

Last Chance?

Sometimes a thing catches your eye and fills you with such a sense of absurdity that you laugh out loud.  Then your wife, sitting next to you on the couch, looks at you and seems about to ask what you’re cackling over but then lets out of muffled sigh instead as if to say “You know what?  Nah…”

But my wife would never do that to me.

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Nestled safely between box sets of Unsolved Mysteries and Lost is your LAST CHANCE!

As we sit next to each other on the couch in our family room I just noticed a DVD case on its side under the TV with about 50 other DVD cases.  Remember them?  There was a world before streaming.  This DVD says (in blazing, italicized letters no less) LAST CHANCE WORKOUT.

I’ve been doing so well with my fitness plan these past few months.  First I did Insanity Max:30 where I stripped a whole lotta’ fat off my frame and found out I have no muscle.  Now I’m doing BodyBeast where my aim is to bulk up and make some serious gains in mass.  Yes, I know I did it backwards.  I did it that way as a joke on my trainer.  Duh.  No, if I had been thinking clearly I would have done it the other way around.  Apparently you bulk first and then shred.  My trainer does both at the same time and he has telekenesis.  Guy’s amazing.  Sometimes he bulks in the morning and then shreds after lunch.
Just. Because. He. Can.
I got a lot out of the shredding part.  I got pretty lean – down to a set of abs that were almost perceptible to the naked eye.  In fact, it’s only because I know Im capable of doing that again pretty quickly that I don’t mind having almost completely lost them due to this bulk.  This is the part where anyone who’s actually seen me in the past month says “No way, man, you’re looking amazing!  Are you shred-bulking or bulk-shredding?  Whatever it is, sign me up!”  I’m eating a LOT of food these days.  I’m also lifting heavier and heavier weights.  My trainer ties  70 lb. dumbbells to his ankles when he does his 12 mi. run.  That reminds me that I’ve been meaning to ask him if I should do a little running while I’m trying to bulk.  He’d probably advise against it at least until I’ve been doing this long enough to know what’s what like, say, 18 years.

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This is the guy from BodyBeast.  He’s an Israeli named Sagi (pronounced Sah-GEE).  And that quote tells you he’s peddling some hard core bullshit even if he is unbelievably ripped.  My trainer friend looks kinda’ like him but not as douchey.

My point is that I’ve become very comfortable at this routine.  That’s comfortable, not complacent.  I enjoy what I’m doing and I enjoy seeing the results (not as quickly as I’d like but I’m the guy who stands in front of a microwave and yells HURRY UP!”).  And I’ll also admit that over the years I’ve been frustrated with fitness.  There have been times when I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and would never figure it out.  Not all of us were blessed to have gym access growing up on the streets of Compton.  I don’t know who I’m talking about since I’m from Newark but you get the picture.  Would I rather have figured this all out 20 years ago and been a stud with a full head of hair?  Would I rather have had girls beating down my door?  Would I rather have had a shot at achieving this goal earlier and getting it out of my way so I could legitimately cash in on my success and become a whale in my 30’s knowing I had already been jacked?  What was my alternative?  Oh yes, being me.  OK, so it’s not that bad.  But I’m comfortable with where I am with my fitness goals and progress here and now.  The downer in me says I’ll probably never reach my true goals but I need to murder him.  Bad downer.  Bad.

So why write all this?

How much do you have to hate yourself to do a workout called Last Chance?  I’m trying to picture anyone looking for a program.  “Let’s see… There’s Insanity.  Nah, too much cardio.  There’s P90X.  Nope, too many jumps.  There’s Tae-Bo. Too urban.  I guess I have no other options.  Oh look!  There’s a crazed woman on this box and she says it’s my last chance!  I don’t know what it is but something in her eyes is forcing my to believe it.  I’ll buy this DVD now because, having exhausted no other options, I realize I have no options left.  Thank God I found this DVD before it was too late!  What would have become of me?”

Yeah, that just happened.

My wife and I also watched a movie last night about aliens.  It stars Amy Adams.  I think it’s called Arrival.  Not bad.  The two aliens were called Abbot and Costello, no joke.  Unfortunately they weren’t remotely funny.

Mr. Euclid

First, thank you to everyone who has continued to offer their prayers for my family following the death of my dad two months ago.  They mean so much more than you know and I pray for each of you daily.

I want to tell you all that Dad’s been quite active lately, at least in my mind.  Over the past month especially he’s been showing up in my dreams.  As I told me wife today, the dreams make absolutely no sense on one level and more sense than anything I can think of on another.

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Artist’s rendering of a shape

Last night I went to bed as normal.  At 4AM I awoke from the following dream.  My father and I were in a very ethereal setting.  I can actually still envision all of this.  It’s almost like we were on a cloud but it wasn’t that hokey.  We were looking at, really examining, an equilateral triangle that was simply floating in the air in front of us.  He was instructing me on the properties of the triangle.  His words made perfect sense to me and I never liked math.  Dad was an actuary with a savant’s knowledge of all things mathematical.  I distinctly remember him saying (in this dream) as he had many times when he tried teaching me geometry in high school “According to Mr. Euclid…” referencing the Greek father of geometry.  What are you getting at, Dad?  Triangles?  Really?  Is it the Trinity?  I already believe in the Blessed Trinity.  Remember?  You taught me the sign of the cross as a four year-old when you taught me my first prayers.  Were you trying to show me something else?  Are you popping into the dreams of other people too or is it just me?  This is so strange.

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Hairy but solid

Another thing that’s going on (and I really don’t think the dreams are related) is that my Restless Leg Syndrome has intensified.  It’s now gotten to where the muscles in both legs cramp up about halfway through the night.  I get out of bed and, like this morning, leg down to see that my toes are curled and I have to physically unbend them.  It’s painful.  But, I’m getting it looked into.  This morning I’m going for an EMG/nerve conduction test.  I’ve had several of these done before.  Read about one of my experiences with it here.  In the meantime, enjoy this picture of my leg.  It may be the cause of great pain right now but at least it still makes my trainer jealous as all get out.  “Your calves seem to eat everything in sight” he told me.  Trainer?  My offer still stands.  I’ll happily trade you my calves for everything above your waist.  Then again he could just be messing with me…

Two Months Later

It was two months ago today that my dad went home.

I thought of him a couple of nights ago.  My wife, kids, and I were gathered around our living room praying our nightly family rosary.  Dad was so incredibly devoted to the rosary.  I can still hear his voice as he would come to round us up each evening.  “Rosary time!”  It had a particular sing-song tonal quality to it.

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The astute observer will note the resemblance to the Garden State…  Dad would get the humor here.

And of course, today is St. Patrick’s Day.  My father was particularly fond of his Irish heritage.  I remember when I was growing up and he would go into the deli to get his morning papers after daily mass.  Seemed to me that each year on St. Patrick’s Day he’d emerge from the store with a green-colored carnation pinned to his lapel.

So on this day, in honor of Patrick, in honor of Dad, and in honor of the Blessed Mother I will ask that any of you who read this offer a rosary for the souls in Purgatory.  If you understood that sentence, you’ll know what to do.