My first gray hair showed up at age seventeen. That’s typical in my family, and I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised when my younger brother would come up behind me and pluck gray hairs from the back of my head, but not when I saw them in the mirror. I associated the salt-and-pepper look with maturity and gravitas.
People assumed I was much younger than I was through at least my mid-thirties. In my early twenties, I feel like it was a huge hindrance in my career. At forty-two, I was suggested as a mentor for another woman who protested that she was hoping for someone older. “How old do you think I am?” I asked her. “Thirty?” she guessed. “I’ll be forty-three next month,” I confided, at which point she accepted the match.
I’d been hanging onto my gray because I felt like it was my best hope for being heard and taken seriously. Apparently it wasn’t working.
I have a small frame and a high voice.
Inside me is a sword-swinging hairy beast of a warrior poet, unfortunately trapped in the body of a girl with doll hands.
First impressions are stupid. They’re usually wrong. I have had to correct my erroneous first impressions of other people many times, which is great, because they usually turn out to be much more competent, bright, and easy to work with than I had guessed. Do other people put in the thought and focus to revise their first impressions favorably? Hard to say.
I had a funny moment at a panel interview recently. They told me I could make an opening statement. “In that case,” I said, “let’s get started.” I stood up and took off my cardigan, revealing my arms, and - I am not joking - everyone sat back and a few people said WHOA. I’m not jacked like Madonna or anything, but I do have some muscle definition from boxing.
I guess nobody expects that small girl with doll hands and the high voice to have these triceps or these trapezius muscles.
There are other ways of carrying gravitas, it turns out, than just gray hair.
Three years ago I set out to master my stage fright and become a confident public speaker. Somewhere along the way, it started to work. Then it seems that it started to work everywhere in my life. When I walk into a room, I know why I’m there and I know what I want to accomplish. I’m not looking for permission.
Permission? Permission to go into a shop or a cafe or a restaurant, where they are seeking my custom? Permission to go into a conference room where I am an invited guest? Permission to run a meeting that I scheduled?
I can’t quite figure out why I used to be so shy and nervous. I remember that I was, but I don’t remember why.
People are grateful to have someone in charge who has a plan. Most people hate making decisions. They want nothing to do with being in the spotlight, speaking in front of groups, or being held accountable for budgets and deadlines. They actively run screaming from evaluations. They’ll tolerate taskmasters and harsh disciplinarians, so long as it’s clear what they need to do. If someone who is actually a nice person steps up and shoulders those burdens, they’ll cheerfully cooperate.
When I was younger, I never felt that anyone would listen to me. It drove me crazy. I would have a good idea and I would share it and everyone would ignore it. On rare occasions, I would say something and the person next to me would repeat it, word for word, only louder. That person would get the credit. My ex-husband used to repeat my jokes that way, but it happened at work, too. I couldn’t figure out what to do to get people to listen to me.
I set out to earn credentials. Dean’s List in college. Race medals. Best Speaker ribbons. I put on my profile that I’m a marathon runner, a Mensan, and I study two martial arts. What does it take to intimidate people, anyway?? It’s not so much that I need to be the best; I don’t. I’m not all that competitive. It’s a matter of people not assuming that I’m the receptionist or customer service everywhere I go.
What I was looking for was something called ‘executive presence.’
Some of this gravitas known as executive presence comes from formal authority. If you’re the boss, you get introduced as the boss. Some of it comes from earned authority, as you gradually earn the respect of the people who know you. That comes from how you behave and how you communicate. What I’ve started to realize is that a major component of executive presence comes from external appearance.
I might have been able to get my ideas across as a younger person if I had realized how much I was communicating (or miscommunicating) through my wardrobe and general grooming.
I thought it was my age, my voice, my small stature. Maybe that played a part, but most of those factors are still the same. I thought aging and graying would help, and maybe they did, but also maybe not as much as I used to wish.
I hung onto my gray hair until I felt like I didn’t need it anymore. I’m finally the age that I always wanted to be.
First off, don’t get in the van. This is an R-rated post about physical danger and self-defense. When you read the phrase “Get in the van,” hear it in a grim and menacing voice, the voice of a highly trained sadist and criminal who intends to do you great harm.
If you’re looking for motivation, here is your motivation.
Someone might try to throw you in a van one day. Worse, they might grab a child, your child, your friend’s child, and throw the kid in the van right in front of you. What are you prepared to do about it?
I train in Krav Maga, a system of martial arts designed for smaller, weaker people to fight larger, stronger people. A core training goal is the fighting mindset, to continue to fight when you are physically exhausted and confused and demoralized and experiencing a massive adrenalin dump. Part of our discipline is to vividly imagine specific physical threats and then confront them.
As a result, I have practiced several ways of getting out of chokeholds and wrestling my way out from under attackers. I have practiced gun and knife disarms. I have practiced fighting with knives, hammers, screwdrivers, and ink pens. I can throw eight different kinds of elbow strikes, and that’s just to the rear. I have fought five people at once. I have fought with my hands duct-taped together. I have fought in the dark. I have fought with a sack over my head.
(You have to pay extra for that, though).
The owner of our school is a man so physically imposing that it’s impossible not to notice. He trains police officers and soldiers and military contractors. He has the natural ease and stance of pure confidence. It’s arresting. He holds the room effortlessly. This is what he has to say about training in self-defense.
There are predators in this world. They’re angry because they didn’t get what they wanted in childhood and they’re looking to take it out on someone. They pick on women because we’re easier targets. We’re smarter, but we’re smaller and weaker and we don’t have the same drive for aggression. We’re also distracted by our constant multitasking, and that makes us easy marks.
We should be on the lookout, aware at all times of who is within fifty feet of us. We should have our eyes up and our hands free. We should hold our keys so that we’re ready to unlock the door, not to fight with them, because punching with keys hurts and because you might break your keys. You need them to get away.
Even though intellectually we know that we should be alert, rather than distracted, we let ourselves get distracted. We’re distracted by our phones, our music, our to-do lists, our many bags, our children, and all the other things that distract the typical multitasking, busy woman. We don’t look up even when we know we should, and we have our eyes down when we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
That’s one takeaway. No matter how else you feel about anything else I write, please take away that anyone is capable of being more alert. At least a minute or two each day, keep your eyes up and your hands free when you’re going between your door and your vehicle.
Let’s think about predators and prey. What do prey animals do? How does a predator choose its prey?
Prey are weaker. Slower, older, younger, less physically capable. A predator cuts them away from the safety of the herd and takes them to a secluded area. A predator is excited when the prey animal runs faster, getting tired and further isolated.
How do we stop acting like prey? Stay alert, yes, but what else?
Take care of ourselves.
In the context of self-defense, this should not be considered controversial. It is a basic, quantifiable measure. Fitness literally means the ability to physically survive. By definition it is a biological survival trait. It applies to a vole or a sparrow just as it applies to us.
When someone yells RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, can you? (Wildfire, flash flood, gas leak, tsunami, tornado, terrorist, bomb threat, active shooter, home invader, serial rapist, murderer). How far can you run? When is the last time you tested that ability in yourself?
How much of what we do is visualization, the momentary excitement of watching a tense sequence in an action film? How much of what we do is physical, real action in real conditions?
I know how fast I can run up a flight of stairs because I run up flights of stairs every week. I know how fast I can sprint down the street because I sprint down the street. I know I can fight five people because I train it in class. I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to get my wrists taped together because I just did it.
I do have to imagine someone trying to kidnap a child right in front of me, because fortunately that has not happened. I have, though, had to sprint to grab a child (more than once) because little kids suddenly try to run out in the street or into danger. If I were slower I can’t say what might have happened.
This doesn’t have to do with body image. I don’t concern myself much with that. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house with a black eye and a big bruise on my face. People Will Think: my husband did it, I have no self-esteem, anything other than “she is a kickboxer.” It’s none of my business what other people think about my body and what my body looks like. If they notice me at all, they must have nothing better to do, and that’s boring and sad.
What I do concern myself with is what my body can do. How much energy do I have? How capable do I feel? The feeling of “no, no, I can’t” extends everywhere, into every part of life.
No, no, I can’t try for that promotion.
No, no, I can’t update my resume.
No, no, I can’t afford X, Y, or Z.
No, no, I can’t get sweaty or dirty.
No, no, I can’t set boundaries with other people.
No, no, I can’t make a fuss or inconvenience anyone.
No, no, I can’t make a mean face.
No, no, I can’t raise my voice and yell BACK OFF.
No, no, I can’t make a fist.
When someone yells at me to get in the van, I’ll get in the van, and there I’ll join the endless parade of dead women, made beautiful in their final photo, sainted and martyred by senseless violence. Even better, the photo of the little lost child who was stolen right in front of me, that photo will look great on the news. It’ll be a movie of the week.
“There was nothing I could do,” I’ll say, weeping prettily, because I never knew I could. I never knew there was something I could do.
That’s a visual that is motivating to me. I run through pictures in my mind, images of children who are important to me, laughing and happy, and then I picture the hands of an experienced predator grabbing at them. It gets my blood up.
There’s another visual that is motivating to me. It comes from horror films and it’s reinforced by true crime. I sometimes watch movies or TV episodes before I go to class, while I’m eating the large, heavy meals I eat before I train. A man, a scary man. Chases a woman, grabs a woman, chokes a woman. Stabs a woman. Pop culture runs almost purely on images of vulnerable femininity, and this is useful for training purposes. Picture that it’s you. Picture that it’s your friend. Notice a pregnant woman out in the world, and picture yourself standing between her and danger. I got you, honey, now RUN!
The fastest I ever ran was out with my husband, trail running in our favorite park at sunset. I slapped his butt and took off, and he sped up and came after me. I imagined he was an axe murderer, coming at me through the trees as the sun went down. It was exhilarating. I could hear his heavy tread behind me, his big boots thudding as we both ran as fast as we could. He couldn’t catch me and I got away. When I explained later what I was doing, he laughed and shook his head. “Whatever it takes,” he said.
I don’t give a damn about body image. If I do, it’s because I like to make people flinch when they see my big arms. I can ballroom dance backward in high heels, I can bring a crowd-pleasing lasagna to a potluck, I can plan a wedding, I can carry a child to bed without waking her up. I can also fight five dudes with my hands taped together. All of these images are consistent with womanhood. It is a core duty of an adult female to protect children, and fighting like a crazy bitch from hell can easily be integrated with that.
I hope at least one thing I have written here makes you angry. I hope it gets under your skin and that you can’t stop muttering about it. I hope it gets your attention enough that you make a change to your default behavior, and that if you pick only one, it is to keep your eyes up and your hands free.
I also hope it gives you cause to reconsider your relationship with your physical energy level and your body image. Come join me and lace up your gloves. You can hit me first if you want, I don’t mind.
Have you ever looked in the mirror and freaked out? Has your morning face ever made you recoil, perhaps because you didn’t know you had blue ink on your mouth? (Just asking).
I woke up, wandered into the bathroom, and thought, “What have I done? I’m orange!”
A friend talked me into getting a makeover. This is probably something that most people did at some point as teenagers, or maybe even grade-school kids. Playing dress-up, trying new hairstyles, playing with makeup - none of that was really a part of my life. I’m honestly more comfortable looking at car engines than I am standing in front of a cosmetics counter.
Has anyone thought about this? I’ve done mise-en-place for four-course meals that had fewer ingredients than the number of bottles, jars, and palettes that some people have for their makeup routine. It’s terrifying!
Let’s not even talk about all the mysterious weirdness of getting... [looks up how to spell] balayage for the first time.
Confusion, intimidation, stretches of boredom, curiosity, anticipation, utter lack of idea what to expect - that’s me in a chair with a bunch of plastic wrap on my hair.
I thought getting my hair colored would mean going dark. I had nearly black hair when I was younger, in Oregon in the winter at least. It turns out that dark hair dye is really high maintenance because you wind up with a high-contrast gray stripe on top of your head every six weeks. I don’t care about having naturally gray hair, I don’t care about that at all, but I do care about adding one more recurring appointment to my calendar.
Apparently you get to an age where you don’t really get to be a brunette anymore. Either nature takes care of it for you, or you color it, and if you try to keep the dark locks of your youth then it gets to be progressively more complicated. Brows, lashes, skin tone. Eh, let it go.
If I had to choose, I’d probably opt to go silver or white or even iron-gray all over rather than Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, with pale roots.
Maybe it’ll be a thing. I probably won’t notice because I don’t spend much time clocking in as the Fashion Police.
After three hours, I got the reveal on the hair. Certainly not black, not silver, not the strawberry-blonde (???) suggested by the colorist, but... bronze? It looked amazing. A professional blowout is generally going to look amazing.
It looked so good that I got to meet the salon owner and we took pictures together.
Then we went down the street to the cosmetics counter, where I had a genuine makeup artist choose products and do my face. They wouldn’t let me look at myself until she was done.
When I turned to the mirror, I started crying. I didn’t look that good at my wedding. Or my other wedding.
“I look like Christie Brinkley!” I cried, “Don’t tell her I said that!”
Here’s what’s funny about this whole thing. I’m a size two. I can rock a bikini and get entire groups of middle-aged men to turn their heads as I walk by, not that I care, because I’m married and I’m not there for them. I do, though, have an enviable fitness level, especially for a woman my age. I know because I sometimes catch other women giving me dirty looks. I’ve been cussed out by friends. I’m like, I’ll work out with you any time you like, it’s not zero-sum. If you want to do two hundred squats or pushups with me at our next martial arts promotion, come on down. This is not genetic.
I have seen my physique as something I’ve earned through focus and hard work. I’ve seen my body as the battleground of several health issues, and the muscle I have now is the sign that I’m winning. I’m not robust enough to live the Standard American Lifestyle with the Standard American Body. I didn’t put all these years in or do all these pushups on my fingertips out of vanity but out of necessity.
The cosmetic stuff? That feels completely different.
You can run a marathon in less time than it takes to get balayage on your hair.
If you spend even twenty minutes a day on hair and makeup, that’s enough time to do a very professional, knee-wobbling HIIT workout and run a mile.
The time that goes in to applying perfect eyeliner, it all gets wiped off and washed down the drain twelve hours later.
That’s more or less what happened overnight, after all the hugging and crying and picture-snapping.
I looked lovely as a flower for a couple of hours, and then I woke up. Then I woke up and looked just like my normal self, only with bedhead and a radically different hair color.
There is a certain adjustment to radically changing your physical appearance. For a while, you might catch sight of yourself in a window reflection and think it’s someone else. Sometimes, when I first lost my weight, I would catch sight of myself and think, WHOA. I kept gravitating to the size tens and twelves on the clothing rack, years after they no longer fit (as a fourteen, and also going the other direction). The “real me” got to wear a certain style of clothes and look a certain way.
What happens to the “real me” that was? What happens when, objectively, the “real me” looks like a different person from outside?
“It’s the new you!” People kept telling me that. Um, no, you can’t just go to a salon and buy a new personality. Same me, different hair. Same me plus some eye shadow.
I came home to my husband with my salon makeover. He’s an engineer and I think he saw it as a sort of chemical, industrial process, like powder coat or electroplating. He commented that it looked more natural than my ordinary hair, which is usually reddish at the last two inches and three shades of gray on top. He’s right, and I can quit complaining about how it looks when I clip it up now. “It’s not orange,” he says (you dolt), “it’s auburn.”
After waking up in distress at the aftermath of my radical new look, I pulled my socks up and got it together. I styled my hair and tested out my new makeup samples. I am by no means an expert at that sort of thing, but it worked. I felt normal-looking again. I went out and did four pitch meetings and got everything I asked for and more.
It annoys me that most people seem so very responsive to physical presentation. That a kind-hearted person might be overlooked in favor of a rude but attractive person, that someone polished might go farther than someone brilliant. But then, how brilliant is it of me to ignore something so obvious? To disregard something that is a relatively uncomplicated technical skill? I got better results in life when I started working out, I got better results when I really learned to cook, and now I suppose I’ll get better results in life by learning what other people consider to be a basic life skill. I’ll get used to how it looks eventually, just like I got used to my gradually graying hair and my gradually firming arms and shoulders.
I got a makeover. A pretty major one, this is a makeover of such a scale that it’s really messing with my head.
How is it that changing something about your external appearance can make such a huge difference in how other people see you, and in how you see yourself?
“You look thirty years younger!” cries the cosmetics artist. Thirty, really? I’m forty-three! That would imply that I’ve been going around looking older than my chronological age. Either that, or I now look like a middle-schooler, in which case I’m going to have to start listening to much peppier music.
I relish my privacy and, as a writer, I like to think of myself as invisible. I’ve felt that it pays to be modest, maybe even inconspicuous. I can walk around the city and get a free pass from panhandlers, who nod courteously as I go by.
Invisibility, though, isn’t our choice.
My friend and mentor tells me, in no uncertain terms, that just because I feel invisible does not mean I am. “People notice you and make judgments about you, whether you realize it or not.”
This is a harsh truth, but I am a proponent of radical honesty and I take it in.
Whatever was true for me at other stages of life, today I am forty-three. I have aspirations that will not be met at my current level. If my goal is to perform in front of an audience, then I need to look suited to the task. I need to be stage-ready, and, arguably, I am not.
The whole point of my existence up to this point has been about avoiding attention and staying out of the spotlight. Changing my look is letting go of that sense I have had, that feeling that I have the option to hang out in the shadows and be a passive observer.
It’s been hard enough dealing with the physical changes I made as I became a midlife athlete. I went from a size fourteen to a size two. I can get away with wearing a bikini in public. When I do, I feel like I’m adopting a temporary persona: Vacation Pool Babe. Wearing a bikini in public in Las Vegas is not the same as wearing business casual at home.
That’s my avenue to adjusting to my new post-makeover look. I can pretend that I’m someone else. I need a stage-ready persona that helps me feel like these are mere surface-level changes, that I have gained rather than lost options.
I can still find privacy when I need it. I don’t have to physically be on stage and in front of people every minute of the day. There are no requirements to this new look other than maintenance a few times a year.
Well, that, and the not inconsiderable technical skills involved in applying cosmetics.
I remind myself that men wear stage makeup, too. Some men wear cosmetics every day, because they like it. I remind myself that a lot of people think this is fun!
Honestly, having fun and looking pretty both feel like work to me. That might sound sad. What I mean is that when these come down as external requirements, it becomes self-conscious. It’s supposed to be “fun” to go to nightclubs, or watch team sports, but neither of those fun things are my style. I find myself asking, “Am I doing this right?”
I’m more comfortable doing things that probably sound un-fun, like mud runs, martial arts, or public speaking. It’s definitely better not to wear makeup in martial arts, since it gets in your eyes, although I have worked out in a cocktail dress and a rhinestone bib necklace, and a stiletto heel can make a respectable improvised weapon. Not in the mat room, though.
I remind myself that I wasn’t comfortable when I started any of those things, either. Surely eyeliner is no worse than a real black eye! Hair color is no worse than surfacing out of a water obstacle, dripping with mud. Public speaking as a hobby is what got me into this whole mess.
The point of the first impression is that it carries so many unspoken messages. Did you show up prepared and on time? Do you look glad to be there? Do you know how to shake hands properly? Is your hair three colors of gray on top, but reddish at the tips for some unknown reason? Now I have to accept the reality that I’m also being evaluated on not just my clothes and shoes, but my hair and makeup as well.
The terrible thing about all this is that I look fantastic. Objectively. My husband loves it. My best friend started squealing and hugged me. Even my barista noticed.
Once upon a time, I was a chronically ill, broke, overweight, underemployed, divorced, sad brunette who lived in a cold, rainy climate.
Now I’m a successful, fit, happily married... attractive redhead? Does “auburn” make you a redhead?
Nearly twenty years later, I look younger than I did at twenty-five. This hair color makes my eyes look enormous, which is disconcerting, a feature that should properly have gone to an extreme extrovert who loves attention. My big blue eyes have always felt like something of an unfair burden, traits that I can’t put away or hide on demand. I myself can’t hide on demand, not really.
I’m a writer transforming into a public performer. Many performers would like to go the other direction, developing their skills as lyricists, poets, playwrights, or memoirists. They can’t just put on glasses and some kind of special writer hat and make it happen. (If there were a special writer hat, I would definitely be wearing one, even in the shower). I remind myself that I’m lucky that all I really have left to do is to learn to live up to this made-over image.
With the image reset comes the attitude reset. Can I inhabit the body of an objectively attractive person? Can I learn to handle the constant 21st-century expectations of photography and video, the headshots and the spontaneous selfies?
We’re here to participate in the culture of our time. I want a meaningful existence in which I can contribute at the highest possible level. I want my legacy to be bigger than myself. If I have to be better-looking for that to happen, I suppose that’s a sacrifice I’ll have to make.
Physical transformation is hard to imagine because we identify with our flesh. We think the vessel that we inhabit is simply what it is. My personality is one thing and my body is another, a separate entity, an enemy to my peace of mind. My body is just a sort of car that I drive around. We can’t picture ourselves inside a different body because the only way for it to feel real is to already have done it, to have lived the transformation.
We don’t really believe that our behaviors can have any kind of impact on our energy level or our physical selves.
I know this is true because I’ve lived it, over and over. When I talk about physical goals, I don’t just mean “weight loss,” although I’ve done that too. I mean any kind of goal that affects the body, from the surface-level cosmetic or fashion makeover to getting off medication and everything in between.
In my adult life, I have worn eight different clothing sizes. I have changed my shoe size, my ring size, and my bra size. I have changed my thyroid hormone levels, my blood pressure, and my resting heart rate. I have beaten chronic pain, fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, migraine, and a parasomnia disorder. I have been on, and then gotten off, thyroid medication, beta blockers, and an inhaler, among others.
It is physically possible to alter your own organ function, blood chemistry, bone density, muscle mass, and of course your overall composition of adipose tissue, commonly known as body fat.
If you don’t believe any of this, please do your own research and talk to a few medical professionals.
Or you can also pause and ask yourself, do you take any medications? If you do, then you do believe you can alter your blood chemistry, at least temporarily, and you can do the same with a bottle of booze. If you believe in the efficacy of a single pill, do you also believe in the potency of food that you eat in quantities of hundreds of pounds per year?
Physical goals are like any other goal. Most people fail because we can’t maintain our focus or attention on a single goal for any length of time. We’re quite capable of holding several mutually exclusive goals in our hearts at once. An example would be independence and freedom on the one hand, and desire for a romantic partner on the other. Another example would be the desire to be debt-free on the one hand, and the desire to spend lavishly without constraint on the other. A classic New Year’s example would be the desire to spend the same chunk of free time reading more, playing an instrument, studying a new language, getting more sleep, and of course continuing to do all the same things we did yesterday. Any time we choose a single goal, we feel sick inside at all the supposed opportunities we’re sacrificing.
We wind up doing nothing other than the default because we want so badly to keep all our options open.
The truth is that if it feels like a sacrifice, you’ll never do it, you never will. That’s because it means you think your default is working out great, and you love it. You think you’ll be “giving it up.” If you feel that way, then of course you’ll never meet your goal, because in your heart you believe it’s worth less than what you have right now!
That’s just as true of contemplating a pilot’s license or learning to surf as it is of changing your physical form.
I’ve never eaten a mozzarella stick. Most people would hear this and think there’s something wrong with me, that I’ve ruined my own life by depriving myself of fun and normal social evenings.
The truth is that the first time I ever saw a mozzarella stick, I couldn’t believe such a nasty thing existed in this world. They’re revolting! I wouldn’t put one in my mouth for love or money.
It’s relatively easy for me to maintain “the healthy weight for my height” because I think a lot of conventional industrial foods are gross. I don’t believe in temptation. If there’s anything I want to eat, I eat it, although I also believe that I don’t need to eat every single thing every single day to have a rich and fulfilling life. Whether I sated myself with chocolate or chips or croissants or crackers is not my measure of contentment. Any model of ‘sacrifice’ or ‘deprivation’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is meaningless to me, not relevant to how I structure my goals.
What I measure is how I feel. How do I feel when I wake up? How do I feel when I lie down to sleep at night? How do I feel throughout the day? Do I have the energy to do the things I want to do?
I also measure myself against common health metrics. Not only do I compare my own lab work to the average for my age, I also compare myself to other members of my family, expecting that what they are facing is likely for me at the same age. It’s likely unless I behave differently than they do. Most health problems take decades to manifest.
When it’s time to clarify a physical goal, it pays to get extremely specific, as narrow in definition as possible. That’s because we need to have some kind of quantifiable metric, some kind of data to track. How else will we be able to compare our results across a year?
If it’s pain or mood, come up with a rating scale that makes sense to you. Emoticons or color swatches, weather patterns, stars, letter grades, a numerical scale from one to five or one to ten?
If it’s mobility, take pictures and use a measuring tape. You can see how much your range of motion has improved that way.
If it’s posture, photos are one way to measure your progress and your self-assessment of back, neck, and shoulder pain or tension is another way.
I wear an activity tracker, and I keep an eye on how much of the day I’ve gotten my heart rate up, how many miles I walked, how many flights of stairs I climbed, how many calories I supposedly burned, and my resting heart rate. Every year or so, I have my blood tested, and I look carefully at each factor. It’s so important not to rationalize anything that is out of the norm. I’m doing this for myself, and it doesn’t matter to anyone except for me.
There are two ways to measure goals, lead indicators and lag indicators. Most goals are lag indicators, measurements that come after a certain amount of time has passed. We can only control them through repeated action. Debt is a lag indicator, a pile of laundry is a lag indicator, a failed friendship is a lag indicator. Chronic lifestyle-related health conditions are lag indicators, migraine is a lag indicator, body fat is a lag indicator. We have to find lead indicators to track that are directly linked to these outcomes. That’s how we discover systems and protocols that work better than our default. Another way to say that is that we can behave our way into a happier, easier life.
What would make your life easier? What are physical changes that could move you from tension to ease, from pain to freedom, from stiffness to mobility, from medicated to ordinary? Which body parts do you want to integrate so that they feel like working parts of your mental and emotional self? Do you believe these changes are possible for you?
Do you want this physical goal enough that you could consider shifting away from your default?
My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 was to study a martial art. Every year I take on a personal goal that involves doing something I find scary, awful, difficult, totally unnatural and unsuited to my personality, and otherwise irresistible. This is where the utmost growth happens, from expanding into totally unknown areas. Previous goals included running and public speaking, although the hardest thing I ever did was to get my driver’s license. If you’re good at any or all of these things, good for you; now go away. And by “go away” I mean that you should go out and find a goal that is challenging to you in the way that getting punched in the mouth is for me.
When I started out, I knew so little that I didn’t even know which “martial art” I wanted to do. I didn’t even know how many there were. All I really knew was that I’d seen The Karate Kid umpteen times and that Jo from the Nancy Drew books knew judo.
January is for research. I made a plan as part of my New Year’s goal-setting. I would ask people about martial arts and solicit their advice. (People love that!) I would read a few articles online. I would find area martial arts schools and visit them. I would compare them, choose one, and sign up for lessons. I would acquire the gear.
What I did not do, which is rare for me, is to read a foot-high stack of books. I also didn’t watch any videos, which I guess sets me apart from Millennials, who often teach themselves crazy stuff like baby sign language or advanced stage makeup techniques by video.
I bumped into a personal trainer and we had a conversation about goal-setting. He signed up for my public speaking club, showed up three times, and vanished. That was long enough for me to absorb his advice, which was to try jiu jitsu because it’s designed for small people to fight off larger people. Then I bumped into a guy in line at Starbucks who was wearing a jiu jitsu t-shirt, and I asked him a bunch of questions.
I visited three schools, all extremely different, which made my choice easy. One was harder to get to, a better gym overall at the same price, but the “beginner” class looked like intermediate-plus from my perspective and the class schedule was less convenient. The third was closer but more of a club than a school. The second school was “just right.” I signed up for a free class the very next day, took the class, put on my shoes, and walked into the front office to sign the contract and buy my equipment. I came home with a big bag of gear, unsure what it all was or how to wear it.
Two belts, a t-shirt, boxing gloves, tape, shin guards, and MMA gloves, so stiff they would barely bend.
I didn’t understand the belt system. I didn’t know anything about international standards, or competition, or the history of these sports. I’d never seen a ring match. Empty cup, in other words.
So I guess I’m studying Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing?
Showed up the first morning and, to my great surprise, the very first thing we did was: PUSH-UPS. Push-ups?!? But when do we learn to punch?
Found out I could not do a push-up.
A minute later, found out I could not do a sit-up either. Grabbing onto my thigh and trying to haul my sorry self up.
Next, ten jump squats. What the heck is that? Normal people do not do this.
If I had had any idea how many thousands of push-ups, sit-ups, and jump squats I would do in 2018, I most likely would not have signed the contract. I would have “studied a martial art” in a workbook and maybe a documentary film. I would not have committed my self or my nice flat green American dollars to dripping sweat upon an athletic mat for a hundred hours.
Instead, I found myself transforming in ways that would only seem to apply to students at Hogwarts.
My shoulders and arms changed. My feet changed. My posture changed.
I quit bruising and skin quit peeling off my knuckles.
It basically quit hurting if I got punched in the nose, the eye, the mouth (most of which strikes I inflicted upon myself). My pain threshold climbed and climbed.
I quit feeling skittish when Rude People and belligerent street folk accosted me. Instead I thought to myself, “Yeah, come at me.” I learned that people almost never actually do anything other than say rude things or make faces. Pfft.
I got an orange belt in Krav Maga and then an orange belt in Muay Thai. I understand the belt system and the stripes now and I’ll totally tell you all about it if you want.
I got a surprise flu shot and realized, and nothing in my life has ever astonished me quite this much, I realized that I no longer get needle reaction. This was confirmed when I had blood drawn months later and didn’t feel woozy at all. I think I might even try giving blood one of these days.
I found that I had a new ability to fight my lifelong tendency toward procrastination. When the resistant feeling rises up, I simply shake it off and say, “You’re doing this.”
The battle magic itself is the best. Learning to get out of chokeholds, learning to wrestle someone twice your size and prevail, learning to throw people onto the mat, it’s fun! Learning to knife fight and do gun disarms, well, that’s more magical than anything really. It’s a bit like ballroom dance school but with heavy metal.
I can fight five people in a shark pit, now. How crazy is that? I can fight with a bag over my head and I can fight with my hands taped together. I can do a couple of things that I’ve never even seen someone do in an action film.
My gloves are finally broken in. My shin guards probably need replacing. I know how to shape and how to wear a mouth guard. I’m not great... I’m a lightweight, I’m not fast, I’m not particularly gifted, it takes me lots of tries to learn new moves, and I look goofy when I shadow-box. My training partner is thirteen and she’s ten times as good as me. I’m not really a beginner anymore, though.
There were few things less likely for someone like me to try, when I first signed up and didn’t even know how to pronounce the names of my new sports. Couldn’t do a push-up, couldn’t do a sit-up, couldn’t throw a jab properly. I’m a nerdy middle-aged woman, a spelling bee champion, birdwatcher, and Scrabble enthusiast. How does this work? Now I’m also a boxer and a badass, unafraid of your common street scoundrel or your garden-variety riff-raff.
I’ll continue to train. I’ve realized that the major difference between me and a sixth-degree black belt is the duration of their training. They got a head start and they might go to class more often than me, that’s all. Five years from now, I might be quite good indeed. It’s interesting enough on so many levels that I feel like I’m barely getting started at battle magic.
This is a story about a cosmic joke. It’s a detective story. It’s a story about self-awareness. Most of all, it’s a story about why I got the common cold eight times in 2018 and what I did about it.
Every year, I go through a really elaborate goal-setting process at the New Year. I publish it on my blog and then I post quarterly check-ins. Part of my annual review has included choosing a mantra or theme for the upcoming year, and last year it was ‘PAUSE AND BREATHE.’ I’ve been regretting this.
What I intended was that I would spend more time in deliberation, making sure I was using strategy to plan how I spent my time. I thought this would help me to be both better rested and more productive. Maybe I’d also get into meditation, something that has eluded me in the past.
What actually happened was that I kept getting sick, and getting sick, and getting sick. I had more time to pause (on bed rest) and focus on my breathing (or lack thereof) than I ever have in my life.
After the eighth go-round, I was understandably pretty frustrated with this. I called the advice nurse, who put me on with a physician, who ordered some labs and suggested that I get a physical. I managed to see a doctor in person the very next day, and this is how it went.
I tend to see doctors as peers. That’s because we’re typically both Type A alpha nerds. We might have been study partners if we had known each other in school. Most of my doctors have been women. We wind up being about the same age (mid-forties), fit, ambitious, brainy, reality-based, and dealing with the same problems of trying to turn a 24-hour day into 36 or 48. Often my doctor of the moment will wind up taking advice from ME, like one who started doing century bike rides, another who got into triathlon, and another who signed up for kickboxing. This particular one will most likely be going home to talk FIRE (financial independence, retire early) with her husband.
“I’ve had the common cold eight times this year, five times just since August, and I’m starting to be concerned that it’s more than just a cold.” I went on to catalog some of my alternate hypotheses: immune system problems, allergies, asthma, an abnormal sinus? That’s the problem with common symptoms like coughing, headache, or a skin rash. Is it a fungus, bacterial, viral, tuberculosis, mold, cancer, did I inhale a LEGO brick in 1979? I go in with the understanding that a diagnosis starts with guesswork and thrives on data. I bring the verifiable, testable, quantifiable metrics that I know how to track.
The blood tests indicate that my immune system is functioning normally. That’s great news in one sense and a bummer in another. If there’s nothing WRONG-wrong with me, then it must be something common, and if my real problem is the common cold, I’m hosed.
The doctor goes on to rule out allergies and asthma. Also good news, especially because like most people I’d rather not have to choose between my health, my sanity, and my pets.
We spend a few minutes talking about hygiene and hand-washing. Fifteen seconds, right? I mention that I want to make sure I’m not somehow skipping a step, like everyone else is using an extra soap nobody told me about. Nope. Wash your hands thoroughly and often, don’t touch your face, got it.
“What kind of work do you do?” That’s a fair question. It stands to reason that a hermit in a cave won’t have the same exposure risk as the couriers for the clinical laboratory where I used to work, or a kindergarten teacher, or a janitor at the airport.
I mention that I work at home, but I do ride the bus and travel a lot. I read that people who ride mass transit have a six times greater chance of getting the common cold. My doctor finds this impressive, and I can tell that she’s going to check this out in the literature at her first opportunity. We talk out the idea of wearing a surgical mask on the bus, and she suggests maybe gloves as well. She says that when someone coughs, it can spread over 25 feet, and hang in the air for a few minutes. “Someone could cough, and you could walk around the corner and never even see them, and you could pick it up.”
That means every bus coach, every airplane, every train car, every escalator...
Then she asks about my stress level. Um. Well. My husband has been traveling, and I only see him three days a week, and my dog just got diagnosed with a liver tumor... and I haven’t really been sleeping well all year...
I share about my diet, that we make an effort to eat significant amounts of cruciferous vegetables. We’ll eat an entire head of cauliflower or broccoli, for example. “In one sitting?” she asks, incredulous. Yup, in one sitting. My previous lab work is exemplary for lipids, glucose, etc.
The doctor tells me about a colleague who got sick twice a month for nine months. She worked in the hospital, she had two little kids, and she wasn’t getting enough rest. She thought there was something seriously wrong with her, but it was just her exposure to sick people combined with stress and lack of sleep.
What it comes down to is that no matter how healthy my diet is, how scrupulous I am in washing my hands and avoiding touching my face, how big our home air filter is, I’m still vulnerable to the common cold. I’m vulnerable because I don’t get enough sleep, because my stress level is too high, and because I regularly place myself in major transit hubs.
A quarter-million people a day go through the LA Metro, and around 600,000 a day go through LAX, an airport through which I travel maybe a dozen times a year. All those people are breathing and touching things. The bus I ride the most often happens to be the airport route, compounding the problem.
I suggest a full-body sneeze guard, then realize that this would be more like a phone booth or a giant hamster ball. This helps me to realize that wearing a paper mask (and maybe gloves) might be slightly less weird.
The thing about wearing a surgical mask in public is that it changes everything. People can and will sit down right next to you and cough, yeah. Other than that, it’s almost like dressing as a nun. You don’t get panhandled, you don’t get catcalled, street harassers ignore you for once. People won’t even ask you what time it is. It’s the closest thing I’ve found for a universal symbol that says “please leave me alone.” In other words, it suits me.
This is what I’ve learned in my quest to understand that dastardly curse known as the common cold. If you have a moist (runny, sniffling) nose, it makes you more vulnerable to the cold virus. A supplement with B6 and zinc really does seem to shorten cold duration and help with the draggy, flu-ey feeling, as backed up by research from Oregon State University. Hand-washing is extremely important but it won’t protect you from inhaling other people’s coughed and sneezed airborne germs. Sleep really does matter. It may be the key component of a functional immune system.
I’ve done what I always do when faced with a frustrating health problem. I go to the research. I read as much as I can. I track my own symptoms and try to analyze my behaviors, assuming that I am doing something incorrectly or that there is a factor within my control. When I go to the doctor, I tend not to get the “final answer,” but I do have an opportunity to check my hunches with the cutting edge of professional opinion. Talking to doctors has honed my analytical methods. It wasn’t a doctor’s specific advice that helped me beat my thyroid nodule, or migraine, or night terrors, but it was learning from the way that doctors search for clues and speculate as to a diagnosis. The difference is that I have 24 hours a day to analyze myself and my health metrics, and nobody other than me does. Nobody else has the motivation that I do to change my behaviors and work toward better health.
Now we’re going into 2019. I’ll pause and breathe as I work on my annual review and my plans for the upcoming year. I’ll go through the winter with my new knowledge. If you see me in a surgical mask, wave hello, but please don’t give me a high five.
This is paradoxically both not about weight loss, and totally about weight loss. Myself, I’m in a weight-gaining mode as I try to add another ten pounds of muscle. “Weight loss” is both a dumb and an obvious way to talk about physical transformation. For Americans, it’s probably going to be the most straightforward type of physical change, and the one that statistically applies to the most people. Where this is going is that the pop culture way of addressing one of our culture’s most common conundrums is a total failure. One of the ways it fails is in the way that it always puts “weight loss” in the time dimension. Physical change is a non-time-linear process.
I wear a size two right now. More accurately, I’m a shopping-mall zero, an LA two, and a Vegas four. Bikini sizes are so bizarre I had to go to a specialty shop. Wedding dresses? Who knows. Easier to stay married so I don’t have to figure out one more formula relating to feminine acculturation calculus. How long does it take to get into a size two? Is it realistic?
(People always say that my body type is “not realistic” but I promise, I really exist. I am in fact reality-based and I inhabit the physical realm).
It takes me zero time to be a size two.
The reason for that is that 98% of the effort involved in the physical transformation of body composition relates to food intake. I spend precisely the same amount of time eating meals as other people do. It’s not how long I spend eating or cooking, it’s WHAT I eat, coupled with the fact that my meals may be shifted earlier in the day.
If any random person were to match my meals, forkful by forkful, eventually their body composition would wind up being the same as mine.
This is the only way that physical transformation happens along the time dimension, because these changes do take a little while. They just don’t have to take any more moments out of the day. You follow? We both spend 20 minutes eating lunch or 40 minutes eating dinner. Six months from now, either we look the same or we don’t.
We can also talk about physical activity. I used to be a zero-exercise person, like 40% of the American population. I hated P.E. in school, I hated sports, and I despised active people. Couldn’t have been much further along the inactive extreme if I tried. I dropped my first 15 pounds by doing little more than sleeping twelve hours a day, because I quit drinking soda and changed my eating habits.
Now, I’m an active person. I’ve been known to work out for three or four hours at a stretch, depending on what I’m doing. (Training for a marathon, doing a belt promotion in martial arts, hiking, that sort of thing). On average, though, I put in about four hours a week. That means I train for one hour at a time on four different days.
That one hour? It was the same when I could only walk 2 mph on the treadmill at the gym, when I did water aerobics with the granny ladies, when I went to slow yoga, even when I went to physical therapy for my bad ankle. It was the same hour when I ran five or six miles, and it was the same hour again when my husband took me out paddle boarding.
The hour I spend doing burpees and jumping rope in kickboxing class is the same hour of duration as many television shows. Irrelevant, though. Like I said, almost all of the maintenance involved in my being the fabled size two is bound up in what I eat and don’t eat, not in how much time I spend at the gym.
I have gained a bunch of weight during my major fitness projects. I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. I gained 15 pounds in the first six months after I started doing martial arts. Some of the weight gain is muscle, but usually most of it is extra adipose tissue, also known as body fat. This is because training hard makes me want to inhale large quantities of food. Eventually I adjust, but the first few months of adding a thousand calories a day has pretty predictable effects.
Physical change happens both in and out of the time dimension. It happens outside of the time dimension when it’s a mental transformation, when additional knowledge and perspective instantly change how you think about something. You look at what is on your plate, in your lunch bag, and in your grocery cart, and you make some quick and easy changes. For instance, I eat potatoes and bread almost every day, but I almost never eat pasta or rice, and I’m probably eating cabbage or other cruciferous vegetables where most people eat starches. It’s possible I spend slightly less time cooking than other people, because greens cook faster than, say, macaroni.
Where physical change happens in the time dimension is that it does take a while to burn off significant amounts of excess body fat. Also, muscle can be grown at about a quarter pound a week. When I made the decision to make permanent changes in my life and finally reach my goal weight, I spent three months on a strict calorie-restricted diet. I lost fifteen pounds during that period. Knowing what I know now, I could have lost the same amount of weight in two months instead of three. A larger person with more motivation and more weight to lose could probably do more, faster, but the trouble is in the emotional activation, not the physical process. Eating our feelings, all the weird ideas we attach to our body image, letting our physical vessel stand in for other issues we may have, like career or relationship satisfaction. Those emotional insights can happen instantaneously if we’re ready to feel them.
I don’t think anything that I do is unattainable or unrealistic whatsoever. I have more energy than most people and I’m able to do more. My posture is better, I can run upstairs two at a time, and I can carry heavier weights. People tend to think I’m at least ten years younger than my chronological age. Not really seeing what the problem is here.
(Of course the problem is that people think the only possible reason someone would deviate from the American standard of body size is due to a sick obsession with photoshopped magazine photos).
I did what I did out of curiosity. I wanted to know what it would feel like to change my body, knowing that I could always change it back. I used science. I tracked metrics and recorded my observations. My body changed and I discovered I liked it better. It’s been a few years now. I continue the process of using my body as a testing ground for new experiments, trials of strength and agility and speed and power. I’ll continue to change my body, both in and outside of the time dimension.
Clothes piled on the bed, shoes kicked across the floor, already late for the event, and still you feel: I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WEAR! Relatable? This is a very common issue. Uncertainty about what to wear on different occasions leads directly to accumulating more clothes, which only makes the situation more complicated next time. Let’s get into what we’re signaling with our wardrobes, and how we can feel more confident in our choices.
We’re most likely to get spun up about what to wear when we’re going to meet unfamiliar people, in an unfamiliar setting, and perhaps at an unfamiliar type of event. Why, though? If these are people we aren’t going to see often, a place we might never visit again, or a type of event we don’t usually attend, then why would it matter? We allow ourselves to fret about WHAT THEY’LL THINK (whoever ‘they’ are) because only after the event is over will we know how we fit in.
I once attended an evening wedding in New York. It had ice sculptures. I dressed up, making my best effort in a floral-print linen sundress with sandals. As soon as I walked in, I understood that I’d gotten it wrong, because the other women were in evening looks with satin dresses and heels. I had no idea what a blowout was, nor was I wearing makeup. What happened? I shared a table with my date and a nice couple who kept us laughing all night. The bride and groom are still my close friends, and we’ve been on vacation together a couple times. (In fact even my date has been out to visit, because we’re still in touch). As far as I know, I never saw any of the other guests again.
I walked away with a pretty clear image of how to dress for a formal evening occasion. I knew right away that I could have picked up an appropriate dress at Goodwill for $15, and nobody would have known. In fact, I can repeat a special-occasion outfit at multiple events, because my husband doesn’t care and nobody else will notice.
The longer we take to get ready, the less satisfied we are with our appearance. That’s what research says, anyway. It makes sense to me. It takes me about ten minutes to “get ready” and leave the house, half an hour if I’m doing the full Las-Vegas-nights routine. If someone doesn’t like how I look, then great! Someone that shallow and superficial will stay clear of me, leaving me free to have interesting conversations with people who have their priorities straight. People value my company for my sense of humor, storytelling, and ability to be a good listener. None of those qualities has anything to do with physical appearance. On the contrary. If I looked too polished, maybe nobody would believe I could be a good listener or a funny storyteller.
What are we signaling with our clothing choices?
Friendly / aloof?
Relaxed / fussy?
Competent / wacky?
Professional / casual?
Married / single?
Stressed / happy?
It seems like one of the strongest style statements that many people make with their casual wardrobe is what type of music they’re into. Rocker, country, punk, skater, raver, goth, and I’m sure many others I’m too tragically unhip to recognize. We know who we are when we put on casual clothes. We’re only wearing the stuff we trust to fit and be comfortable. We’re signaling a bit about ourselves, enough that someone who’s into the same style might approach us and strike up a conversation. That’s how I met a guy at the cafe who was willing to answer a few questions about jiu jitsu for me - his t-shirt advertised it. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all what you wear on casual days; I’ve seen people out in public wearing everything from pajamas to bikinis to, a couple times, nothing at all.
We feel more out of our depth when we’ve been invited to a wedding, party, or job interview, am I right?
This is what people do to make their clothing choices more difficult.
Keep everything, even when it doesn’t fit
Keep everything, even though it NEVER fit and the tags are still on it
Keep everything, no matter how old it is
Keep everything, even if it’s stained or full of holes and the unworn clothes aren’t
Keep everything, even if it’s scratchy or uncomfortable
Keep everything, even if it doesn’t go with a single other item and there’s no way to wear it
Keep shoes that cause blisters and actual bleeding
Buy things because of their price, not how they fit or how they look
Buy things out of obligation or guilt, not wanting to disappoint the sales clerk
Decide on garments individually, not on how they play into the wardrobe as a whole
Having hundreds of garments in every cut, style, color, and print, and several sizes, can only send inconsistent signals. Wearing clothes that don’t fit, or combining items that are too tight and too loose, doesn’t send a clear signal, except maybe [does not use a full-length mirror]. Limping from impractical shoes, tugging things into place over and over, makes people worry if you’re okay. Showing up late because of one too many head-to-toe outfit changes makes you look, at best, frazzled, and at worst, inconsiderate. All you really need is something clean and a warm smile.
My entire wardrobe fits into two suitcases. This is because I only feel like I need a few changes of clothes for each of my different roles. Casual summer, casual winter. Business casual summer, business casual winter. Workout summer, workout winter. Camping clothes. A few cocktail dresses. Boom, done. When I get tired of something or it gets worn out, I replace it with something else. I had to replace my entire wardrobe when I reached my goal weight, and since I’ve settled into one clothing size, I’ve been able to figure out how a capsule wardrobe works. Every single thing I own:
Works with at least three other items
Can be machine-washed and, mostly, machine-dried
This is why I’m confident when I walk out the door. I’ve made my choices in advance, and I’m wearing things I’ve worn many times. I also choose where I go or don’t go, and it’s very rare that I would feel obligated to go somewhere where I wasn’t sure how I fit in. Mostly, I feel confident enough in my social skills (now) that people are a lot more likely to remember what I said than how I looked.
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe
OMG A GUY JUST LEANED OVER AND TOLD ME: “YOU LOOK GREAT”
(I’m married, and not looking for male attention, but it was funny that it happened while I was writing about clothes and appearance).
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe, namely: Married, friendly, competent, smart, entrepreneurial. There are other signals I can’t do much about, such as: middle-aged, fit, Western, distractible, more eccentric than I wish I were. When I decide whether to buy new clothes, I can ask, Does this send the message I want to send?
I look like myself, just like you probably look like yourself. (Unless you’re trapped in a work uniform). Sooner or later, the people around us will figure out what we’re like. Core personality shines through eventually. We should focus more on what kind of friendship we can offer and what roles we’d like to play in life, and less on WHAT THEY’LL THINK about how we look.
“Don’t overthink it.” This is something I hear in martial arts class all the time, maybe even as often as once per class. I understand why. That doesn’t really make it easier, because what’s happening is complicated, at least from my end. I’m trying to learn what other people have acquired naturally. From their perspective, it looks like I’m adding unnecessary layers of complexity to something easy. If I didn’t overthink it, I wouldn’t still be training.
Overthinking is my way of explaining something to myself that is otherwise confusing.
As the “last kid chosen for team sports,” small for my age and young for my grade, I was slow and awkward. This is automatically reinforcing. Those of us who felt humiliated and out of place in gym class tend to quit exercise for life. Our reluctance to be active in any way, shape, or form means that we deliberately miss out on the hundreds or thousands of instances when other, more active kids are practicing physical skills. We think they’re “natural” at it when really, they just put in 100x or 1000x more effort into this stuff, starting in early childhood.
As adults, when we set out to do something about this sorry state of affairs, we’re trying to build physical and athletic skills that a “natural” or “real” athlete might have mastered by the age of eight.
What kinds of skills?
Internalizing the rules of various games and sports
Vascularity, lung capacity, bone density, muscle strength
Eyes adjusted to bright sunlight
Stoicism as regarding bad weather
Tolerance of boredom and repetition
Linguistic adaptation to jock lingo
Awareness of altered states derived from athletic pursuits
Respect for achievements of athletes, both professional and amateur
Curiosity about one’s own athletic potential
I didn’t have much or any of that as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. I had nothing but contempt for people who liked that sort of thing, having felt bullied by mean kids and gym teachers. I had nothing but disgust for the idea of getting all sweaty and dirty and somehow being absorbed into some sports cult. I had no idea what I was missing. Now, as an adult, I just really wish I had figured out a different approach.
All I can do now is to be patient with myself and keep trying. That’s why I’m still doing this thing they call “overthinking it.”
To an experienced athlete - I won’t say “natural” because I understand that this is something taught - every athletic pursuit is like dancing. They see and know what to do. If someone throws a ball, they can run toward it and catch it, because they’ve developed their proprioception and depth perception and all of that. They also feel a connection in those situations. If someone is throwing a ball, that is an invitation to a kind of party. My dog would agree. He doesn’t need to overthink anything involving a ball.
An athlete can watch someone go through a set of physical movements and then copy them. Actors are trained in this as well. I remember in grade school that a theater troupe visited and put on a show for us. They invited volunteers from the audience to walk across the stage, and then one of the actors would follow them and mimic their walk. It was hysterical, an innocent and playful trick that involves the same proprioception used by athletes and dancers.
For someone like me, a bookish and late-blooming middle-aged athlete, copying someone else’s movements is really, really confusing and challenging.
This happens in every class. I’ll watch a demonstration between the instructor and a partner, either another student or one of the other instructors. Then we’ll break into pairs and take turns going through the forms. My partner will usually get it right. I will somehow manage to combine the motions of both parties. I’ll strike with the opposite arm, step forward when I was supposed to step backward, step right when I should have stepped left, and on and on. One of my best tricks is to “bob and weave” directly into a punch instead of away from it.
Instructors are always rushing over to help. They can take one look at me - one single look! In one single split second! - and instantly see that once again, I’ve gotten myself all mixed up.
It was the same in ballroom dance. I was trying to learn the basic steps of the rumba. My dance teacher paused and asked what was going on, why I was struggling with this. I said, “My third leg keeps getting in the way.” “Your... third... leg? Your THIRD LEG?” He was incredulous. In my poor overthinking mind, it felt true. I did eventually get it, and in fact with tons of practice I became a pretty fair ballroom dancer. I just had to practice a lot more than most people. I practiced those three basic rumba steps at the bus stop, at work, in my kitchen, while brushing my teeth, hundreds and hundreds of times until it entered my body memory.
I’d do the same with boxing combos if only there weren’t so darn many of them...
I’m not so great at watching someone and copying them. I am pretty good, though, at talking to myself. I’m also good at communicating and asking questions, and I’m not ashamed or reluctant to do so. I can explain, “Oh, I see, I missed that step to the left and that’s why I was striking with the wrong arm” or whatever other blunder I just made. Thinking in text helps me to visualize and remind myself of what I should be doing. Also, I count, just like I did when I played clarinet in band class.
It isn’t hopeless. We’re never too old, or too clumsy, or too awkward, or too dorky. At least we aren’t if we believe we aren’t. We can draw upon our other strengths to help us learn to do these new things. As we keep at it, eventually we find that people think we are “natural” at it as well. Some time after that, maybe it even becomes true.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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