Monday, December 31, 2007

Facing Demons & My Year End Report

playing an imperialist at the calcutta club, kolkata, india

I almost wrote this prior to leaving to India but knew spending the holiday season half way around the world would add more than a footnote to my recap. Ironically, though sitting in a Raj era hotel in Kolkata that is famous for housing writers, chronicling my own insignificant life isn’t coming easy. Given, however, that this is my blog I will attempt to do so nonetheless.

I’ve written a lot on this trip but am happy with almost none of it. India is an assault on the senses. So much so that describing it promotes a tendency towards hyperbole. Though most of my trip is over it feels as though my adventures here have just begun—I’m family now. Therefore, save for the anecdote below, I’ll leave this part of my life alone pending further contemplation.

2007 was another year of transition. Though ending it in Asia, I’ve become a full time resident of Utah. I love the mountains and the place I call home. For the first time in my travels—at least that I can recall—I’m actually looking forward to my return. “Not kicking and screaming this time?” asked my friend Lisa echoing my general sentiments on ending any travel. And, oddly enough, my answer was an affirmative.

The big news of the year has been Beachbody; my primary employer and, thus, my default responsibility. I had cut back my hours to work towards my PhD but was called back into full-time action, most serendipitously, as more of our products took off. Primarily responsible for this was P90X and, for those of you who’ve known me for a while will attest, this is a reward for a lot passion and hard work. We spent years developing this program only to find it tough to fit into the market. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, along with its success, the obesity rate in the US has leveled off for the first time in four decades. Go us.

Most of my other projects have thus been flat. Wall Rats did find a home. Then, in a Hollywood-esque scene right out of The Big Picture, lost it. Then found one again. I think it’s being released at the end of Jan. The long-time California guide book is also near completion—well, volume one anyway. My two other books ideas are being worked on but still not ready to shop around. Hopefully that will happen this year.

Athletically, not much happened though I was about as active as ever. Living in such an amazing playground it’s quite hard to focus on one thing. Ben Ditto, who moved to Utah as a young talented climber in order to further his aspirations put it perfectly when he told me, “I quit climbing so much when I moved here because it just seemed wrong not to experience everything the Wasatch has to offer.” So I ran, rode, raced, skied, snowshoed, scrambled, climbed, explored, and tried to punctuate it with a decent birthday challenge. At the premier of the new Warren Miller film, the best segment was about Utah, which opened with glowing descriptions of the many variations of Gobsmacking scenery you will encounter and the line, “It’s a place where you can wake up in summer and drive into winter,” then segued into a bunch of crazy ski tricks into powder before finishing with “don’t try this at home, people, unless your home happens to be Utah.”

Yep. That’s where I live.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a short tale from India. Happy New Year!

Today I was chased by my demons. On a walk to an ancient mountain top fort I was, as usual, way ahead of everyone else when stir craziness hit me like it never has before. I couldn’t look at another tourist, another “guide”, beggar, peddler, or place filled with the masses living vicariously through things that had happened before them (not that there’s anything wrong with this, but I digress). So I took off, running, across the large plateau the fort is located on, through many of the old remains not inhabited, and then down into the most likely location to spot tigers in the wild on the planet.

with my dad

mom and brian at the victoria memorial

Following my brother’s wedding, I had acquiesced to travel with my family around India. Now I love my family. I love spending time with them. But a Griswald-like holiday trip with six grown people was an absurd thing for me to take part in. While we’re all seasoned travelers, I’m different. I’m different than almost everyone. I’m restless. I move fast. I often lose track of this fact because I’ve surrounded myself with others like me but faced with the masses it starkly apparent how different I am. My family knows this and gives me space. Unfortunately, on this trip there was little space to be had.

some indian jazz bar

So I ran. Into the depths of Rontambhore National Park. At this point, I would have preferred to be killed by a tiger than to endure any more tourism. I’m not a good tourist. When I travel I attempt to disappear into a culture and have no interest in sightseeing or hanging around people from back home. I can’t deal with tourists, and generally avoid them, but this trip had faced me with an onslaught. Nothing mattered, at all, except to get far away from people. I’d made it this far. I only had to endure one more day and then I could travel on my own. But the fear had gripped my throat and was strangling the life out of me. I had to escape its clutches. I ran until all traces of recent human activity were far out of sight and mind. It was only then that I became a bit worried about tigers.

I’ve dealt with plenty of animals in the wild, alone. But tigers scare me. I’ve met them face to face in controlled situations and never felt too comfortable. I don’t have the same rapport with cats as other mammals. In spite of this, I kept going. I needed to. I broke a branch off a tree and fashioned it into a gun, knowing tigers in populated areas are generally scared of guns. It helped. I continued until, jumping off a rock I turned my ankle on a rock hidden in the grass.

I knew it was pretty bad because I had to concentrate in order not to vomit. It wasn’t that bad, but I knew it was going to swell and I’d better turn around because it was going to slow me way down. And, oddly enough, being forced into even the slightest state of survival mode changed my mindset. I was at peace again; living life the way it feels right. I was born to live in a survivalist state. Instead of spending my life trying to make the word healthier, I should welcome its demise and hope for the apocalypse because that’s the society I would thrive in. But I don’t. I try to combat my demons in order to understand them. And thus, until recently, my life had been a series of failed attempts to somehow fit in.

I could no longer run but I could walk pretty fast, so I opted to explore a different path back to the fort. I found an old stone wall (apparently the fort was once surrounded by a seven kilometer wall) and traversed it back towards the tourist area where I encountered my next obstacle.

In my way were a group of large monkeys sitting in a two-tiered court area right in front of me. It was too far to backtrack (not really, but I didn’t want to) and the walls under me were probably 25’ so I couldn’t jump. I approached to monkeys wondering if they’d let me pass. As I got close I knew this option wasn’t going to fly as they were agitated. I found a place amongst them where the wall was lower, about 15’. I could jump, provided I could get there. The first monkey let me pass. The second bared his teeth to threaten me, and then the rest all followed suit and now I was surrounded by a menacing pack, with more right above me. I needed first one that threatened me to move. I didn’t want to be aggressive towards him (a hit or miss monkey tactic that seemed a poor gamble as the group could tear me to shreds). So I looked at him stoically, looked down where I intended to jump, and said “don’t worry, buddy, I’m just going down there” and pointed. He looked down, back at me, and then backed up a step and let me jump.

I limped home.

Icing my ankle gave me an excuse to miss the afternoon safari where the rest of my family would be treated to some great tiger viewing. Telling my brother that, more than my ankle I just couldn’t endure any more tourists; he captured my feelings with a quote from the film Repo Man that was also used in a profile written about me by my friend Bob. “Look at those poor assholes over there. Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ‘em.”

I don’t really hate them. I don’t hate anybody. But I do feel better when they’re not around.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Guru's Dream Gym

Watching people exercise in India is like watching a film from the 70’s. They still do standard calisthenics, bounce when they stretch, don’t warm-up or cool-down thoroughly, or complete a myriad of other “must dos” as deemed by the modern fitness world. But, hey, hardly any of them are fat. They must be doing something right.

the national passtime

Many trainers in the US promote one type of training above all else. Wild proclamations such as “that won’t work,” “you’ll get injured if (insert any type of exercise they don’t teach,” “your body can’t digest (any type of food they don’t subscribe to)”, and so on, fill the health wires. But if we really had all of these answers, and there was really only one right way to train or to eat, why are we still getting fatter? It seems that even the most altruistic of us have become self protectorate. It’s our way or the highway, or else we won’t get your business. But when it comes to diet and exercise this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our bodies simply need exercise and decent food. Other than that, it’s all nitpicking. The latest technology comes into play when we’re training athletes, where a 1% improvement in performance is the difference between a Gold medal and not qualifying for the race. But for the average person 1% is nothing. Obesity rates have tripled; body masses indexes are up nearly 30%. If we simple swapped out the time we spent bickering about the “right” way to exercise into actually doing any kind of exercise, we’d slash these figures by double digits.

"there's a new sheriff in town."

“Guru” over at Guru’s Dream Gym seems to know this. Ashna, my brother’s fiancĂ©, couldn’t help but walk in and, in with John-Wayne-covered-in-a-saree-esque swagger, announce that there was a new sheriff in town. She got his card and, while we haven’t had our fitness knowledge high noon showdown yet, I did manage to check out his facility. It’s filled with a lot of equipment that reminds me of my high school gym. It was also packed with people, most of them getting after it pretty good. Other than Hindi push-ups I didn’t see a lot of “trendy” first world technology being applied. No functional movements, no pilates, ergometers, or “power” yoga. Just good old fashioned exercise. And while it wasn’t World Gym in Venice Beach, nobody was fat either. Maybe there’s a lesson there. I think the Guru and I will agree on the one.

with food like this how come everyone isn't fat? ok, there's no food in the pic but if you saw it you'd know what i mean.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Fitness Yogi

I’m in India for my brother Brian’s wedding. He lives in England but is marrying an Indian girl. I’ve always wanted to see India but, since I began traveling, have rarely been to destinations that didn’t include climbing as part of the itinerary. This was a good excuse to finally get there.

My favorite way to get acquainted with a new place is to go for a run. You can’t get the lay of the land, nor a feel for its people, from a car or, to some degree, even public transportation. You need to go where the people go in their daily lives. In most countries, this is done on foot. And when you’re running, you can cover a lot of a city in very little time.

Traffic in India is crazy. It’s also kind of fun—a bit like Mr. Toad’s Wild Run with diesel engines. You zip around dodging rickshaws, dogs, goats, bussed, trolleys, goats, cows, etc. At each stop you’re accosted by just about any form of beggar, all using some sort of tact, talent, or tidbit to help them stand out from the crowd. It’s an experience not to be missed but, if it’s your only mode of transport, will ensure that you’re missing out on a lot. So each day, I take to the streets on foot.

It’s very rare to see another runner here. When you do it’s generally in a park or stadium. I’ve yet to see one on the streets. You do see plenty of other modes of human transport. The once ubiquitous human powered rickshaw is now outlawed, though you’ll find plenty in the heart of downtown (laws being more like suggestions), but velo-shaws are everywhere. In fact, anything you might want to cart around town you’ll find attached to a bike. All of them are single speed, meaning that you’ll want to size up your driver before hiring one. But hardly anyone runs for exercise, especially on the streets.

A two hour run/tour had my local area (oddly enough called Salt Lake) pretty well sussed. By the end of the run Kolkata no longer seemed crazy. It was just a city, with wild parts and serene parts. I also learned that Bengalis are big on character. And their definition of what gives character is different the what is standard in the west.

Things here are often run down, and that’s how people seem to like it. Even nice things. It’s funny to see something that you can tell a lot of work went into building—which is still in good condition structurally—that is allowed to dilapidate to a great degree. This was never more apparent than at the Salt Lake stadium, which is supposed to be the largest stadium in Asia, or at least southern Asia. Running around its perimeter my first thought was that it might be condemned. Shanties were built in and around it. It was locked up but not well. You could just walk in. But the grass was in fine shape and, in the subsequent days, things seemed to be going on inside on most of them. Around the perimeter many people engaged in sport, usually cricket or soccer, but many other variants as well. The odd thing was that they choose little patched of dirt or abandoned building sites for this activity, yet there were large empty manicured football pitches and cricket fields right near by. According to Ashna, “If it doesn’t have dirt, Bengalis don’t want anything to do with it.”

Armed with this knowledge I found my training facility of choice for this trip. It’s a beat up police training obstacle course, which will allow me to do P90x type circuits. It even has ropes to climb and traverse (so Tony would be psyched). I also found a very nice abandoned climbing wall. It’s looked creaky and a little scary and only one side had any holds. I climbed as high as I dared, which wasn’t too high since the holds weren’t stable. It was amazing. This wall must have cost $100,000 to build. It was nice. And abandoned. Next time I come I’ll consider bringing climbing gear and holds.

I get a lot of odd looks, waves, and occasional chides on my run. And, while most people look absolutely confused, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive. Because I’ve been running in an orange shirt, Brian has suspected that perhaps they see me as some type of fitness yogi. Orange, I’ve learned, is only worn by men who’ve become enlightened. This has added some fuel to the credence of Ashna’s idea that I would have an almost instantaneous cult following if I were to move here and champion exercise as a way to enlightenment.

I may have added to this allure by getting into an impromptu race with some velo-shaws. I generally pass these without any notice. On one long stretch, a guy I passed came back around me. I didn’t react until he passed another, which sped up to stay ahead of me. This caused a chain reaction until the rickshaw traffic on the entire street was much more spirited than normal. I speed up to watch the action, then decided to see if I could catch them. I passed them all until I caught the original driver. He put in another surge, with no reaction towards me at all, and we raced back and forth until we hit my final roundabout in a dead heat. With neither of us giving away the we were racing, all we did was exchange a subtle but knowing look. Me, happy because it forced me into a better workout. He satisfied, no doubt, because he held off the charge of an enlightened fitness yogi.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Fattening of America

Not too many days go by when I don’t ponder, to some degree, the question of why America became so fat? We’re a country blessed with advantages, technology, information, equipment, and open space. Yet we continue to expand horizontally and our health continues to plummet, even with incredible advances being made in medicine. The capitalist in me tells me to stop questioning and enjoy the job security. The humanist in me would gladly change careers in order to help the planet. My competitive American spirit is simply pissed off. When did we become the problem rather than the solution?

Nothing brings this to light more than traveling. The first time in traveled to Europe, some 30 years ago, the world was a completely different place. The difference between the USA and, pretty much, any country in Europe was apparent without leaving the airport. America was clean, modern, spiffy. Europe was old, quaint, and in need of repair. Today this has flip-flopped. American airports are over-crowded, stressful, the entire system in need of an overhaul. Conversely, European airports are now clean, modern, and spiffy.

The biggest difference though, by far, is the people. 30 years ago nobody was fat anywhere, at least not that you’d notice in a crowded place. Nowadays, American airports have become a catwalk for what our society has become. I got a text from a friend returning from a long trip to Asia. It stated, simply, “In Denver. Americans are fat.”

My recent trip abroad didn’t cite to me any improvement whatsoever. I landed on a hop to Denver and was greeted by an alarming scene. The entire airports attention seemed diverted to TV screens placed around the airport. My first thoughts were of 9/11. We’d been attacked again or, perhaps, were at war somewhere else. Certainly something major must be happening. The answer, however, shed a bit of light on our obesity problem. These people were focused on the “breaking news” over steroids in baseball.

First off, as an athlete, steroids have been around for 40 years and pretty much readily available. 30 years ago, on the trip to Europe, I knew athletes taking steroids in high school. It may be news to the general public, or our President, but this is not breaking news to athletes. And it’s not important news, or shouldn’t be, to anyone. But it is important in an allegorical sense as it perfectly identifies how we’ve become fat. We’ve become a country that lives vicariously instead of doing things ourselves. Secondly, even though we realize that the media manipulates us, we allow them to do so without a simple squawk. Thirdly, we’ve lost focus on issues that really matter to us.

Taking the third part last, another news story on the day everyone’s world was rocked because “The Rocket” may have been a cheater, was that our country was solely responsible for holding up the world summit on climate change. Now here is a subject that affects each of us every single day. Yet all we seem to care about is whether or not Barry Bonds should have an asterisk next to his records.

All this apathy towards things that really matter allows our corporations to have their way with us. We’ll work longer hours, for less money, with no health care, and no vacation plan, for little retirement, just so long as the Yankees can win another pennant. During the time Roger Clemens has been pitching, we’ve seen the discrepancy between rich on poor in our country widen to the point that we’re, statistically, a third world nation. Our minimum wage has only raised a fraction and is current half of all other first world countries. Our president told a woman who spoke of working three jobs in order to just feed her kids that her situation was “uniquely American”. We’re grown too tired, too busy, too broke, too distracted to even bother with the basic things that we know keep us healthy. When did this happen? It’s not the America I grew up in.

But the real problem isn’t George Bush, the media, or the Enron’s of the world. The problem is us. As a society, we just don’t care enough anymore about what really matters. We need to wake up and take back our lives.

And, literally, that’s all it will take. Sure, the corporate stranglehold and statistical disadvantages won’t change over night. But your health will. And no matter how broke or busy we are become no can still eat better food and find thirty minutes a day to exercise. It’s really as simple as watching less baseball.