I did it! I got my orange belt in Muay Thai! The most impressive thing about this is that in January, not only did I have no idea this would be happening, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an “orange belt,” or Muay Thai for that matter. All I knew was that it felt like a smart idea to start studying a martial art.
What does an orange belt mean? It’s the second of six levels. It means I’m not a total novice anymore, but I am at the newest, least experienced intermediate level.
The basic deal with belts is that they’re a modern (post-Industrial, 1890s) innovation to represent different levels of training. Belt colors vary depending on the martial art, with some overlap. For instance, a mom was just telling me that her kids got their purple belts, something that exists in Tae Kwan Do but not Muay Thai or Krav Maga, my other discipline.
Personally, I’d prefer to have a rainbow belt? Because it would include all the previous colors?
In practice, colored belts are really handy. In every class, we divide up and choose partners, and often we do drills that involve rotating through several people. It helps to know who you’re dealing with. Along with colors, there are also stripes to show how long someone has been wearing that belt. One stripe represents ten classes, and the intermediate belts have up to five stripes.
I never understood any of this until I earned the first stripe on my white belt.
This system with belts and stripes makes a lot of sense to me, and it feels comforting. I really like the logical progression and the satisfaction of incremental progress. The first time I actually saw a “sixth-degree black belt” being worn, the penny finally dropped. OH! Anyone can earn one of these! It’s a reflection of dedication and focus, yes, but it’s also a measure of time served.
Is there something like this in dance or gymnastics? Not that I’ve seen. Those arts also depend on many years of training, but they look like PURE MAGIC. Just like the apparent sorcery involved when the owner of our school suddenly drops a student on the floor.
Many of the students at my school are lifetime athletes, and many have reached high levels in other martial arts before taking up Krav or Muay Thai. It’s a world of jocks, one that was unfamiliar to me. I’m used to hitting the books, my studies being text-based. Almost everything I’ve learned about martial arts came from asking questions and/or having things explained by other students. Sometimes I’ll make an observation that will surprise the instructors, such as that our warmups are “high-intensity interval training.” The expectation is: line up, do this, do that, accept correction, and in time you’ll be a master.
This is challenging for me. I like a big-picture view, a lot of historical context, and constant explanations of WHY I am doing something. Part of why martial arts are such a good source of humility and self-discipline for me is that I’m having to accept pure physical instruction and trust the system. I can see that more experienced students are better at this than I am, but still, I tend to want MORE INFORMATION. What, go into my body and feel it physiologically? Are you kidding with this?
Belt promotions are ceremonial. They last three or four hours. Groups of students at different levels are paired off to demonstrate their skills with an instructor. Most of the time, though, is built around extreme physical exertion for its own sake. We start with a grueling half hour warmup, its contents varying for extra stress, and we finish with another twenty minutes. This day included over 200 pushups, for example. I couldn’t do them all - it’s a lot to expect a beginner to do the same workout as a blue belt who has been training for three years - but I’m proud to say I could do forty, no problem.
I couldn’t do one standard pushup in January - or February or March, for that matter - and I couldn’t do a proper sit-up at all. I had to grab my thigh and pull myself up. When I look back and see the progress I’ve made in six months, I can look forward at the other students around me and project forward. In time, I’ll be able to do a hundred pushups before I start getting tired.
My husband doesn’t like to watch these punishing warmups. They remind him of the “hazing” from high school football. He shared how much he hated doing pointless pushups. This surprised me! “But that’s where the muscle comes from!” The part I don’t like is having to COUNT in unison, and if someone makes the dreadful mistake of shouting “ELEVEN” instead of repeating “ONE” then all fifty people have to start the count over. That’s dumb. Well, it isn’t dumb... the point is to make us focus, developing our concentration, because disappointing and annoying our fellow students is a powerful psychological consequence for distraction. We counted weirdly in marching band, too: ONE two three four TWO two three four THREE two three four, and it didn’t bother me then, because music needs order and structure. So does the body if the body is to be a tool that works toward a purpose.
I’ll continue on in both my martial arts, even though being a beginner in the advanced classes feels much harder and scarier than my first day as a total novice. The warmups are twice as hard, but I’m not twice as strong yet! I continue to remind myself that my personal goals were “humility and self-discipline,” not comfort or pride. I’ll get better and better at losing myself in these physical skills, briefly quieting my chattering mind, transforming myself into something new and different.
Today I set a new record for most consecutive days that I have been alive. That’s an old joke, but one that still feels funny. More interesting to me is that I can count how many days I’ve lived, but nobody knows how many days are still ahead of me. What’ll happen in the world? In my life? What kind of phone will Future Me have? Which of my favorite authors and musicians and filmmakers will put out new work? Will George R. R. Martin ever write that next Game of Thrones book? Future Me knows. Meanwhile, every day I’m Present Me. Present Self, living out whatever Past Self stuck me with, trying to make a better day for Future Self.
Since last year, I’ve done a bunch of stuff. I like to take the day to look at where my life is going, and whether it feels better or more fun or more interesting or more fulfilling. Have I made good use of my time on Earth?
I also do this process at the New Year, on my wedding anniversary, and on a smaller scale every quarter. Birthdays feel like a pretty significant milestone, at least to me. One day, maybe I’ll have my one-hundredth birthday, and if I do, I’d like to feel some sense of ceremony around it.
Since last year, I’ve moved to a smaller apartment, taken up martial arts and earned two orange belts, gained 15 pounds, promoted into a volunteer leadership position, and started riding my bicycle again. My husband filed his first patent, leading to some big stuff at work. My parents got a puppy for the first time in about forty years. These are all major changes.
Incremental changes have happened, too. We’ve made a bunch of new friends and acquaintances, and so has our dog. Due to our downsizing move, we’re financially better off. Our phones have better battery life. The addition of the extra muscle has happened gradually enough that new physical abilities seem to have magically appeared. I can open jars! My daily walking average has gone from 3.1 miles in 2015 to 5.2 miles in 2018.
A lot of stuff is the same as it ever was. Noelle just had her 20th hatch day and she still loves to shred paper everywhere and make a lot of beeping sounds. I still need more sleep. The blog continues to chug along.
Some stuff in our daily life is harder. Since we moved, we no longer have a washer or dryer, and all our meal prep has to happen in a single square foot. We’re continually unplugging and plugging things because of a shortage of power outlets. Our upstairs neighbors [*]. Someone down at the marina keeps setting off a propane cannon in the middle of the night. Life feels much busier.
From where we are right now, it’s hard to imagine where I will be on my next birthday. We’re planning to move when our lease is up, but where? Right now we’re living a combination of Best Location Ever and Worst Apartment Also. I intend to continue with martial arts, and that means moving into a physical reality I’ve never experienced. Looking around at the other women in my classes, women in higher belt levels, I see some astonishing speed, power, agility, and muscle definition. It’s somewhat alarming to think that this could be me one day, and all it takes is the schedule and the persistence. Continuing on my current plan, I ought to have nailed all the requirements for Distinguished Toastmaster. I should also have my student loan paid off, and all I can do is imagine what it will feel like to be debt-free and financially stable for the first time in my adult life.
So, what? This time next year: buff, debt-free, and living in a nicer place? Possible?
Looking forward three years, five years, and ten years, gosh. No idea. Talk about plot twists.
I celebrated turning 43 by finally getting my headstand, after working on it for two weeks. I plan to spend part of my day messing around and focusing on circus tricks. Depending on what kind of videos I find, I’ll either be trying to juggle, riding my unicycle, doing hula hoop tricks, or trying to turn a cartwheel. Then I’ll spend some time imagining what I want to learn to do before I turn 44.
How about you? What would you like to be doing before your next birthday?
It’s happening again! I went to a party and another woman showed me how to do something I couldn’t do when I was a little girl. Last time, it was spinning a hula hoop, which led to my immediate purchase of my own hoop(s), months of obsession, and a non-obvious segue into running. In a way, my first tentative spin of a hula hoop at age 35 led directly to running a marathon.
This time, it’s the headstand.
My inability as a child to do a cartwheel, spin a hula hoop, jump through two jump ropes, or do a headstand had nothing to do with lack of trying. If I’m anything, it’s persistent. I just couldn’t figure out how to model what other kids were demonstrating. This might be because, due to my late-July birthday, I was younger than other kids in my grade, and thus smaller and less developed. It might be because I’m still not great on proprioception, knowing where my body is in relation to the external world. I defined myself as bad at sports. I hated P.E. I was last picked for teams. All these childhood antics left me feeling excluded, clumsy, slow, weak, and sorry for myself.
In my forties, I’m finding those missing pieces. When I meet other women my age in a physical setting, we gravitate toward each other immediately. Just the other night in kickboxing, I had someone ask to be my training partner after someone else had already asked! These days, I’m first picked instead of last picked. (We had an odd number in the class so the three of us partnered up together. I would NEVER leave another girl hanging). Suddenly there’s this playfulness and fun in my life that once eluded me.
Now, about that headstand. What’s the secret?
It turns out that when people do something like acro-yoga or juggling, something that looks like magic, they’re doing extremely specific things. These movements can be broken down into micro-steps that can be learned and mastered one by one. Not everyone who is good at something is a good teacher, and it’s possible to do something without understanding how you’re doing it. It’s also true that lifelong athletes tend to underestimate how much baseline strength and cardiovascular fitness is required for certain things. In spite of all that, it’s always possible to find a good teacher or a video that demonstrates the steps.
It was no accident that I met my new friend. We were at the WDS opening party, a field day, and I spotted a group of people doing headstands at the other end of the field. After I learned a new hula hoop trick and taught another woman to spin two hoops at once, I wandered over there to see if anyone could teach me. I asked!
This is the magic part, really. My new friend showed me the initial stages, and I found that I was strong enough to easily do them. All of my work in boxing gloves over six months gave me a totally unrelated, non-adjacent ability. How crazy is that?? I went out and got myself bigger biceps, deltoids, trapezius, and lats, thickened up my neck a bit, and opened the door to acrobatics.
Step one: Kneel on the ground.
Step two: Put the top of your head on the ground.
Step three: Put your hands down about shoulder-width apart, halfway between your head and your knees.
Step four: Put your knees up on your elbows.
With me so far? While I was watching and listening carefully, I wasn’t really thinking about how much of my body was inverted and vertical. Put your knees on your elbows? Okay! Like this?
I had tried this in yoga class several times, even against a wall or with a partner, and it was definitely not happening. As a boxer, yeah, not only was it possible, it wasn’t even hard.
The next step is to raise your legs and straighten them out. I’m still working on this part. It’s given me a solid understanding of how much more core strength can do for my life. Comically, it’s become my major motivator. My arms, legs, and back are quite strong now, and I have some real muscle definition, but my belly is soft and slack. External appearances don’t matter much to me, but the ability to do not just the headstand, but other circus tricks actually does matter. If I can build up my abs and obliques, I can use that new muscle base to do other things, too. That’s probably the secret behind walking on my hands, riding a unicycle, and doing a cartwheel at last. Maybe I could also learn to do a backflip or other gymnastic moves.
What I’ve been doing is practicing my headstand for a few minutes every night before bed. I haven’t been this excited about anything since that first day with the hula hoop. I feel genuine anticipation when I get down on the floor, wondering if this is the night. The picture accompanying this post is from the one-week mark. As I post this, I’ve had an additional four days of practice, and I’m able to extend my right leg straight up. I estimate that it will take me 3-4 weeks to go from zero to sustaining a full headstand without immediately tipping over. Another way to put it is that, at five minutes a day, it has taken less than an hour to get one leg up and I’m guessing about another hour to get them both.
There was a rough moment. I was trying to impress my husband (while he was trying to brush his teeth) and I called him out to see how I finally had my leg up straight. Then I toppled over and landed on my back. Embarrassing! Apparently the impact caused my gluteus muscle to clamp up on one side overnight. I was limping and it was scary-sore. I took some anti-inflammatories and did my normal amount of walking, and within an hour or two it was fine. It’s only fair to say that falling over is a little more dangerous for someone with a fully developed skeleton; I weighed half this much in grade school. I just remind myself that one of my main reasons for choosing an impact sport like kickboxing is to build bone density while I still can, and that falling on the ground is literally the type of impact that helps with this. It’s also highly relevant that I’ve learned how to fall properly. A few hundred sprawls and breakfalls trained me, so that I fell in a straight line and didn’t twist or strain or sprain anything.
Be careful! They tell me to be careful when they wouldn’t tell a man. I AM being careful! I’m being careful to protect Old Me from falls, from osteoporosis, from sarcopenia, from heart disease and cognitive decline. I’m also protecting myself from regret and isolation. The moral of the story is, find something that truly excites you and strive for it in tiny increments, day after day. The thrill of finally getting that prize is something you can’t get any other way.
It could be different. Anything. Everything.
And also, wouldn’t it be more interesting to find out rather than just to wonder?
This is what happens when you spend an incredibly full day going back and forth across town, going to meetups on radically different topics and having conversations with all sorts of people you’ve never met before. You don’t have the time or attention span to focus on any one of the quotidian annoyances that normally eat your mental bandwidth. Instead you’re just learning and listening.
Then it strikes you, hey. Things could be different.
Talked to a guy today who found out in mid-meetup that he had been laid off from his day job. (Probably specifically because he dared to use his vacation time? That’s my guess). Not only did he seem quite relieved and perked up by this sudden news... within minutes he had a startup idea going with a couple of guys he just met. “WDS magic,” someone called out. Boom, different slipstream.
Here was my day.
Opening party. Not my jam. It’s a field day/gym class theme. Are you kidding us with this? I felt that I Don’t Want To Go and that That’s Fine and that I Would Be Cold Anyway and that We Really Need the Sleep. I even told people that we wouldn’t meet later because [I am a boring naysayer]. Then I found out that my roommate/lawfully wedded husband totally planned to go. We had dinner and headed up there. I was physically shaking with cold.
Then... It was warmer over on that end of town for some reason. THEN... we walked into the stadium and... there were a ton of cool toys scattered around. I realized that my absolute social dread/threshold anxiety/lack of interest/major emotional baggage from 80’s gym class had vaporized in the presence of all these hula hoops.
You know what’s fun? When you can teach something exciting to someone else who is really curious about it, and then watch their face transform with wonder and delight as they realize they are actually doing it! First, another lady taught me a new hula hoop trick. I made half a dozen super dorky looking failed attempts. Then... I DID IT! I was running around spinning a hula hoop around my foot and laughing like a loon when I looked up, and there was my husband, staring at me. I know he’ll never replace me with a younger woman because I’m quite childish enough to remind him what that’s like... After that, I spied another woman my age, her eyes as round as saucers. She said she had never been able to hula hoop before in her life, and “Now I can’t stop!” I knew precisely how she felt. I couldn’t spin a hula hoop until I was 35, and when I finally learned how, at a friend’s baby shower, I came straight home and demanded that we go directly to the toy store. That was really my entry into fitness, and what led me to the marathon. Anyway, I seized the opportunity and taught her how to spin two at once. On her first try, she did it about five times longer than I did. Contagious joy.
I finally found a fun way to move my body that interested and challenged me, something that felt silly and lively. Something I wish we had had in P.E. There are so many of us who need this!
Then I found another woman who taught me the steps to get into a headstand. (One of my bucket list “extremely specific physical goals”). I can balance my knees on my elbows and sort of get my legs in the air. It feels like, if I keep trying this every day, soon I’ll get it!
Then I got strapped inside this giant inflatable hamster ball and rolled around for a while. Yup, there’s video.
Then, suddenly, as I was standing there in this giant ball, a guy popped up with some notes about my meetup. I kept waiting for the critique, but he really just wanted to emphasize what he felt were the most important takeaways. So: whoa. How kind and generous of him to take the time to do this during a party!
The obvious lesson for me is that my default feeling is to never want to do anything. Yet, if I kick myself into gear and physically commit my body, I start really having fun. I make new friends, learn new things, and get some great photos. Then I have to ask myself, if I hadn’t shown up, what about the lady who never would have learned to spin two hula hoops at once? How could I let her down? Show up to things, is what I’m saying. Just show up and allow yourself the opportunity to escape early if you want. Find out what might happen, because you can never know if you don’t go.
Everything could be different by this time next year. A book deal? An improv group? Hugging dozens of people I haven’t met yet? Doing a handstand and walking on my hands across a field? All of the above and more?
What could be different for you?
Functional fitness is my thing. I don’t give a rat’s [censored] what I look like or what other people think about my body. Ha, if you have a problem with how I look, then wait until you hear me talk! All I want is to be able to do awesome stuff and not be distracted by my creaky, wheezing, lumpy old physical vessel. This is why I find myself making extremely specific fitness goals.
Sometimes what I want is something crazy, something I didn’t even know was possible for a human body until I saw someone else doing it. The first time I felt this way was when I saw another kid doing a backflip. The second time was when an older gentleman came to our middle school to do a martial arts demo, and he chopped a board in half with his hand. The third time was when my brother casually mentioned that he had gone for a five-mile run. After that it was a show at the Oregon Country Fair with ribbon aerials and a genuine contortionist.
Tell you what, if I could wake up tomorrow and do any of those things I’d laugh the entire rest of the day. Then I’d go out the door and stop everyone I saw and demonstrate all my stupid human tricks.
Why would I NOT want to be able to do contortions or chop through a board??
The other night, I read about an elderly man who does “wall push-ups.” Oh, that’s kinda sad, I thought, just wall presses? What I was visualizing was something I’ve taught, where you stand facing a wall, put your arms in push-up position, and push back and forth with the wall for resistance. Sure, it works for someone who is building up from chronic fatigue, recovering from surgery, or in physical therapy. Ah, but then I kept reading. What he actually meant when he said “wall push-ups” was that he would do a hand stand against the wall, and then push himself up and down with just his hands. Like an upside-down human pogo stick! OH MY DOG do I need to do this. If this older fella who is in fact older than my own father can do this, then why can’t I? I’ve always wanted to do a handstand.
Then it occurred to me that I have a mental bucket list of extremely specific fitness goals, but they’ve always floated around as unformed pseudo-intentions. Not even a wish, much less a goal. I’m very very good at wishing and goal-setting and making my goals into reality. Why, then, had I never made a real list of these extremely specific fitness goals?
I enrolled in a martial arts academy as my personal challenge for 2018. The warmups wipe me out. I’m already at the point, though, where I’m doing things I never believed I could. Thirty push-ups! Planks for a minute or more! One-armed push-ups! Roundhouse kicks! Box jumps! Using an ab roller without falling on my face! More than one burpee! I appear to have put on ten pounds of muscle already, and my goal for the year was fifteen. As I sit here, I am realizing that any extremely specific fitness goal is within my reach, definitely One Day, probably by the end of the year, possibly by the end of the month, and MAYBE something I could just do later today!
Stuff I’ve never done but always wanted to do:
Riding a unicycle
Juggling six balls
Walking on my hands with my legs in the air
Push-ups with a clap in between
Completing a triathlon (except I kinda can’t swim)
Two pull-ups in a row
A muscle-up (something my parrot does many times a day)
Getting electrocuted and swimming in ice water in the Spartan Race, cuz YOLO
Wrestling an alligator (which my husband has expressly forbidden so I should probably wrestle him first)
There are some other things that petrify me, but that I would immediately do if I ever woke up and Felt No Fear:
Breaking a board with my hand
Kicking down a door
Learning to sail and then sailing to Hawaii
Hmm. Why am I more afraid of snorkeling than I am of wrestling an alligator? Probably because I know quite a lot about animal behavior and circus tricks, more than I do about swimming? I also think of knife fighting as within my reach because they teach a little in the advanced classes at my martial arts school. Eh, I’ll get to that next year.
I don’t need to do any of my extremely specific fitness goals. In fact, most of them I would probably have to keep private, either because they would scare my mom or because everyone loves to bag on people for sharing their workouts. (Quit trying to tell me about TV commercials all the time and it’s a done deal). I’ve found, though, that goals make life more interesting. My goals make me notice what other people are up to and they make me more genuinely curious and attentive in conversations. It turns out that most people are up to all kinds of crazy stuff that they don’t think to mention.
Forty-two is that cliche midlife crisis age, and I’m totally there. I’ve decided to give myself my dream childhood. Why shouldn’t I? I’m not hurting anybody, or at least if you’ve had a problem with my hula hoop then you were in the way. I’m out earning ribbons for public speaking and stripes on my belts in martial arts and medals for running footraces at a very slow pace. Maybe soon I’ll be cartwheeling and backflipping across the grass.
If you ever hear about me wrestling an alligator, look for me at the marina, because I’m going to be needing that sailboat to Hawaii once my husband finds out.
A funny coincidence came up the other day. Someone I’ve known socially for about a year asked what gym I go to, and then told me that he went to the same place for three years. Wow, really? It’s a martial arts school with a couple hundred students, not exactly a huge 24-hour commodity gym. He said he was in the best shape of his life at that time, and then added ruefully that he should get back on that. I paid attention to that, because he is at least ten years older than I am, and the older I get, the more I realize that matters.
Then I thought: What exactly does “best shape of my life” mean? When would that be?
Am I already there, was I there at some point in childhood, or is there still a “better” “shape” somewhere in my future?
I should throw in there that using the term “shape” is a bit ambiguous. It seems to refer to externalities like physical appearance, and that inevitably touches on What Other People Think. It’s much harder to discuss an internal sensation or overall experience of... what? Strength, agility, speed, power, peace of mind, potentiality...? Harder still when trying to get our heads around internal physical feelings that we may never have felt, like trying to explain a flavor or a musical genre without comparing it to other things.
I can easily imagine a few time periods that could compete for “worst” shape of my life. Crawling on the floor with the flu. Walking around during finals with my eyelid twitching from stress. The first time I ran down a flight of stairs and suddenly felt my back jiggle. The first time I walked up a flight of stairs and my vision started to go black. Swallowing radioactive iodine for my thyroid scan, and then struggling not to cough for an hour even though the enlarged gland caused a constant tickle in my throat. Being strapped to the table for my first nerve conductivity study. Et cetera. Hard times, scary times, sad times.
It’s because of this background of chronic pain, illness, and fatigue, though, that I’m so ready to embrace anything better. This is why I can’t give a care whether other people approve of my external physical appearance. Go ahead and fit-shame me; you won’t be the first. My health is somewhat fragile and I can’t live a conventional lifestyle in a conventionally relaxed, standard physique. I do what I have to do and that tends to result in certain external physical signs.
The body changes tend to be a mix of good, bad, and neutral.
When I was training for my marathon, my feet looked kinda terrible. They wound up growing a half size bigger and I had to get rid of every. Single. Last. Pair. Of shoes I had owned before.
Then I got more into backpacking and I wound up losing the nails on my two big toes. Took six months to heal.
As a cyclist, I learned that I always sweat out the crotch of my clothes first.
Now I’m boxing and doing martial arts, and I’ve had at least one visible bruise at all times since January. I’ve also scraped off my knuckles and broken off a chunk of toenail. Sexy stuff. I get teased because I have yet to find a successful method of controlling my frizzy hair during class, and I’ve resorted to wearing a dorky bandanna as a sweatband.
Athletic me: Frizzy, sweaty, bruised, muddy, looking like a laundry basket.
Ah, but then there’s the inner experience. It starts when the scary stuff gradually fades away. My thyroid nodule disappears and never comes back. I realize I haven’t had a migraine in a year, then two years, then three years, then four years. My shoulder quits spasming. I stop feeling like a human trainwreck.
Then I start to be able to keep up. I can keep up with the other students in class, I can do moves that would have left me quivering on the floor a month earlier, I can ride my bike or run at the same pace as my friend.
Then I start to notice that I’m doing weird things, like opening the pickle jar in one try, or running up a flight of stairs two at a time without losing my breath.
Then I start feeling very, very strange feelings, such as the desire to do core exercises. I read that an Olympian athlete does 700 sit-ups a day and I feel curiosity. Oh? How long does that take? All in one set or throughout the day? What else does she do?
In spite of all the evidence that my body is changing, because my experience of being in my body is undeniably different, it still surprises me when these changes show up on the outside. Brushing my teeth, I suddenly see the new definition in my triceps. Leaning forward, I’m surprised by the roll of my trapezius muscles. Getting dressed, I see the shadow marking my hamstrings. Whoa, what’s going on there?
Arguably, I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’m about to turn 43. I can do stupid human tricks today that I couldn’t manage as an 8-year-old child. I still feel slow and ungainly in class, and I work out next to women and men who are as many as 35 years older than I am now. I can only assume that I’ll continue to improve, especially because I’m due to switch to advanced classes this summer. This makes me feel about 10% scared, 25% excited, and the rest just nonchalant, because it’s inevitable. What’s going to happen, though?
What will the best shape of my life look like, and when will it happen? How will I know?
My bicycle is celebrating its 21st birthday this year. In some ways, I feel like it’s a birthday for me, too, because I believe this very same bike may have saved my life. I credit it with the surprising and sudden disappearance of a thyroid nodule that could have been cancerous. I’ll never know, and neither will my doctors, because I was lying on the gurney waiting to be wheeled in for the biopsy when an ultrasound revealed that it was gone. I got to go home without any holes in my throat. The next day, I was back on the bike.
This poor old bicycle has moved with me something like twenty times. We’re on something like its fifth set of tires, second seat, second set of grip shifts, second quick-release, second chain, fourth set of brake pads, third headlight, second tail light, and even a second lower bracket, because the first one was filled with water when they did our last tune-up. I’m ashamed to admit that my dear old bike spent the past year on the porch, mere yards from the cruel salty sea. I hadn’t been for a ride in something like three years.
I called a local bike shop that offers free pick-up and delivery. Since my husband and I no longer have a pickup truck, it was this or push my flat-tired old rust bucket a mile and a half down the road. When the repair guy came to get it, one of the brake pads actually fell off. So that was embarrassing.
They came back a week and a half later. Repair guy lifted my old bike out of the back of the truck. The light hit it, and it gleamed a deep red, just like the day I first saw it in the warehouse. My bike, Old Paint. A frisson of delight and excitement hit me.
Hey! There you are!
Monday morning, I set off on my first ride. Two miles and a bit, straight up a grinder of a hill to my martial arts gym.
I was a mess. I was leaving late and I didn’t realize that my helmet and all my other gear were still packed away in a storage tub. Executive decision: Be careful and get it out when I get home. My center of gravity was off, and every time I came to a stop light I’d feel like I was going to tip over sideways. When I would pass another bike going the opposite direction, I’d instantly have this strong visual that we were going to smash into each other head first. The only thing that really went well was that I still remembered my hand signals.
Then it came time to lock up. I had to go around the building looking for the bike rack I hadn’t thought to scope out in advance. Then I had to remind myself of how to position my bike so that the U-lock would go around both the rack and the frame.
I walked into the gym, late, with the crotch of my tights sweated out and looking very not glamorous at all.
The return trip was downhill. A couple of times, I got off and walked, because I felt like I was just going too fast.
That’s fair, because I had to get out and push uphill a few times, too.
By the time I came home, I had ridden almost five miles. That was enough to reawaken my forgotten identity as A Bike Commuter. A Cyclist. An adult child, tooling around on a bike known as Old Paint. My seat was adjusted to the right height and it just felt right, like comfy pajamas if they made your butt hurt later.
That’s the tricky part. The next morning, when I got back on the bike, I remembered exactly what it means to feel saddle-sore.
I know exactly where my hip bones are!
Every single time that I’ve quit riding my bike for an extended period, I’ve had to suffer through a few days of saddle soreness. Every single time, I “remind” myself not to let this happen. “I should at least sit on the bike in the living room, even if I’m not riding anywhere. Just sit there and read a book or something.” Ha. It never happens. No matter what type of exercise you choose, the easiest thing in the world is to quit doing it, never noticing the 1% fade from day to day to week to week to year to decade. Until you try to get back on that horse, and then you do.
I found my helmet and my gloves and my panniers and my handlebar bag and the extra keys to my U-lock. I had to wipe everything down, because it was, heartbreakingly, covered with dust. Like my hopes and dreams of one day completing a triathlon.
We got rid of our car over a year ago, which is relevant. My husband bought a folding bike a few months ago, and he’s been using it to get between bus stops. Since my bike was a rust bucket on the porch, I hadn’t been able to go anywhere with him. Now that I’m back on the bike, we can go together. It expands our ambit and the types of things we can do as a couple. With my panniers, I can do more types of errands, carrying more types of loads. Most importantly, I’m cutting my transit time to and from the gym in half. Being back on the bike is a positive in every way.
The more I study productivity and positive psychology, the more I think that pop culture has everything backwards. How many trillions of articles are there going to be about these topics before everyone starts to realize? Common tactics don’t work. What we need is more strategy. Then we can finally speed up, bounce right over these little speed bumps, and move on to the next thing.
The thing about “getting organized” is that it’s far too vague to mean anything. How do you know what it looks like? I know my clients don’t. They punish themselves with guilt and shame, meanwhile living out the same frantic calamities day after day. The real problem is that they just don’t know what to do. When they start to realize that their problems have simple root causes, they’re always so surprised and relieved! We start with a pain point, like “always being late” or “not being able to find stuff” or “mixed up about money.” Changing just one keystone behavior can completely eliminate all the problems it causes, thereby ending the need to “get organized.”
Those keystone habits?
Almost all household tasks take about five minutes, except for putting away laundry, which is more like 10-15 minutes per load, and cooking, which can be under thirty minutes for dinner and 5-10 for breakfast and lunch. Not a very big time investment for living in a relaxing environment and eating nice meals!
That’s a major part of “weight loss.” I put that in quotes because it’s something that athletes only think about if they’re competing in a sport with weight classes, like boxing or wrestling. Right now, in fact, I’m thinking in terms of weight GAIN because I’m actively trying to put on ten or fifteen pounds of nice solid muscle. Weight loss is a problem for average people because the Standard American Lifestyle is ineffective. It’s ineffective for financial independence, physical fitness, health, ability to stay off pharmaceutical drugs, and also minimalist housekeeping. Whenever you look around and find that 70% of people are in the same situation you’re in, it’s a cultural issue, not an issue of “motivation” or “willpower” or whatever else. Stop “losing weight” and start trying to figure out how to beat the system, the system that is failing us all.
This is how I lost weight.
2, 4, and 5 were permanent. 6 is seasonal but ramps up every year.
I haven’t had to think about “weight loss” for four years. I just put on my clothes. The fit of my favorite jeans tells me more than a scale will. I maintain a capsule wardrobe all in a single size, out of the eight sizes I’ve worn in adulthood. Regaining a lot of body fat would mean replacing my entire wardrobe, and I’m too stingy to pay for that.
When you’re “organized” and you don’t have to “lose weight,” there aren’t that many things to put on a to-do list. I used to love writing lists to clear my head when I felt overwhelmed by life. Usually they would include basic household chores. I teach my clients an exercise I call the “101 List,” in which I ask them to walk around their homes looking for tasks that need doing and trying to write down 101 separate items. It’s a great help for a chronically disorganized person who hasn’t yet set up any systems.
That’s the secret, though. Well, one of two. First secret: Build systems and put everything on autopilot so you don’t have to think about it anymore. Basic tasks should not be eating up your mental bandwidth or taking up any more time than they deserve.
Second secret: Don’t write lists; schedule reminders. Put these things on your calendar. Then ACTUALLY DO THEM at the time slot that you decided would work the best for you.
The problem with writing out to-do lists is that it’s like a pressure valve. It makes you feel accomplished, and then you can relax. (This is obviously true in the case of people who add tasks to their list just to cross them off). This is great if you do the things, and if writing out the list helps you to fall asleep more quickly that night. It’s bad if writing the list is the thing you do INSTEAD OF doing the things. The existence of multiple lists in various stages of completion will indicate if this is an issue.
What I finally learned was that most of my energy did not go toward what was important to me. I beat myself up for being disorganized, feeling guilty and ashamed, when my real problem was not understanding what to do about it. I thought I was procrastinating, when my real problems were managing my energy level and mental focus, and of course battling my chronic disorganization. The better I got at managing my schedule and my stuff, the easier it became. That’s when I started to be able to help other people, which is important, because all of us have better things to do than to spend our lives trying to Get Organized and Lose Weight.
We sold our car over a year ago, and we’re laughing. That was $700 a month that we now have available for other things. Most people will immediately shut down any exploration of that topic, because not having a personal vehicle is too radical to even think about. For the curious, this is the sort of strategizing to do.
The first thing we did was to look at our pain points. A “pain point” is any persistent area of stress, annoyance, or frustration in your life, such as losing track of your keys or running out of dog food. We determined that commuting on the freeway every day was the single biggest annoyance in our life. For us, it was worth doing anything possible to rearrange our lifestyle and avoid a freeway commute. We were able to do that very quickly by finding a rental house within walking distance of my husband’s workplace. That gave us about a year to feel what walking everywhere was like while still retaining our vehicle.
Walkable neighborhoods are not always all that easy to find. It’s a sign of privilege. We’re able to afford to live in a safe neighborhood with lots of shops and services nearby. Of course, walking in your neighborhood automatically starts to improve its safety! Each individual person who dares to go out, carrying a phone and video camera, helps the other residents to feel safer and more comfortable going out. (Martial arts training is not irrelevant to this discussion, and neither is dog ownership). In my opinion, car drivers’ assessment of the safety of a given neighborhood is often off-base and unduly paranoid. I’m much more afraid of car drivers than I am of pedestrians!
What about anchors? An anchor is anything that keeps you in a given situation. When my husband and I first got married, we had two anchors: His golden-handcuffs job, and my stepdaughter’s school. For other people, anchors might include home ownership, a spouse’s job, a probation officer, proximity to a certain doctor or hospital, caretaking for an aging relative, military service, owning a storefront business, or anything else that makes a permanent location strategically important. These anchors actually make it much easier to plan around going car-free, or at least ditching one vehicle. You know exactly where you need to be for the foreseeable future, so you can feel more confident in your other decisions.
There are a bunch of ways to transition to going car-free. Some households have multiple vehicles and are paying insurance even on “project cars” that aren’t running. It’s possible to do this if you have a big garage, a big driveway, a lot of street parking, or more than one property. In SoCal, where we live, most neighborhoods will have as many as five cars associated with one house. Street parking is almost impossible to find, and sometimes people are even living in converted garages. It makes sense when there are five or six working adults sharing a house. It makes less sense when it’s one married couple! Count up everything that needs insurance and ask whether any of them can go.
Getting rid of a vehicle frees up the monthly, quarterly, and annual expenses associated with it. Our “$700/month” figure includes car payments, insurance, gas, oil changes, maintenance, parking, bridge tolls, car wash, and every other car-related expense that we no longer have. If we had owned two vehicles, it would have been much higher. Getting rid of a vehicle might also generate a lump sump of cash, which could be used to pay down the loan on the main vehicle; pay off credit card debt; put aside for an emergency savings account; buy a motorcycle, scooter, or electric bicycle; or, what the heck - go on vacation.
We live in a walkable neighborhood, and the reason is that we chose it when my husband got his current job. He got the offer, we had twelve days to relocate to a new city, and we moved our stuff into storage and stayed in an AirB&B while we scouted the rental listings. Another valid point about going car-free is that we downsized from a suburban house with a garage to an apartment. Not only did we eliminate that $700/month of car ownership, we also significantly cut our rent and utility expenses. We were able to painlessly escalate our retirement savings.
Going car-free is about more than just the money. It’s a straightforward fitness strategy. My hubby just turned 50, and I’m cruising through my forties, so we have to start taking our health and mobility more seriously. He rides the bus for most of his daily work commute, using his folding bicycle to get between bus stops. (That was strategic also, because standard bikes are not allowed inside his building, but he can carry the folded bike and store it in his office). I ride my bike to my gym, adding 20 miles a week to my fitness program. The initial cost of a bike is amortized when you weigh it against what you would have spent on a car, higher rent, a gym membership, or other fitness equipment that you might have bought.
Our overall lifestyle was constructed from the ground up. We have a status meeting every week, and we sat in a cafe and talked out our ideal life. That made it easier to imagine ourselves living in a one-bedroom apartment instead of a three-bedroom, two-bath suburban house with a two-car garage and a car payment. In one way, it was an extreme, radical move, but in another, it was really straightforward. We spent two weeks downsizing our stuff and relocating, and then we were done. My hubby sits on the bus and reads the news for half an hour instead of being tailgated by road-raged caffeine junkies. I ride my bike and get a free warmup before my martial arts classes. Our retirement accounts are filling more quickly than they ever have before.
The result of going car-free is that we’re both fitter and more relaxed, partly because our finances are in such great shape. Because we were willing to downsize into a tiny living space, we can afford to live at the beach. It’s fair to admit that we’re in a position to go to a car lot, take out a loan, and drive home with a new car any day of the year. Most changes are not permanent. We didn’t really risk anything by making a radical lifestyle decision. There was much more risk involved in spending a higher proportion of our income, with comparatively less in savings. We originally agreed to reevaluate after one year, and we already have. We’re in no hurry to ever own a car again. It’s fun and freeing and helps us feel like a team. Plus, we never have to set aside time to “clean out the garage.” Think about it. Maybe going car-free for a while would work for you, too.
Moms attended free at my martial arts school this month. Moms of active students, that is. When I heard the news, a laugh escaped me, which is dangerous because it could easily have resulted in my doing extra burpees. Kickboxing is very far down the list of things my mom is likely to do. Organize a blanket drive for the homeless? Sure. Give someone a ride to the airport? Gotcha covered. Roundhouse kick? Not so much her department. That’s probably true of most women of her generation, because there were a lot of things girls simply were not allowed to do back then. I’d love to have the opportunity to train with my mom and her sisters, to show them how fun it is and give them something they never had.
I’ve seen four sets of parent and child at my gym: two moms with daughters, one mom with a son, and one dad with a son. There are probably a lot more, but the kids’ classes are in the middle of the day and most parents go to the night classes. My guess would have been that a lot of dads would enroll their teen daughters, since my husband put my stepdaughter in tae kwan do.
The first parent I met was a mom who has two teenage sons enrolled in the school; it may have been their idea. One kid apparently has ADHD. I identify with that myself; I wish I’d discovered athletics when I was younger, because it’s such a huge help in taming that inner restlessness. This mom is very petite and very serious about training. She often goes to class twice a day. For her it seems to be a mixture of alone time, stress relief, walking her talk with her kids, sharing an experience with them, and maintaining her ability to show who’s boss. Outsized, outnumbered, out-testosteroned, she’s not going to let teenage boys intimidate her.
The second parent I met was a dad who brought his college-aged son to class. This dad is an advanced student, and he came to the beginner class for the occasion. The son was clearly very reluctant, overwhelmed by the warmup, and looking for any reason to escape. He left the room twice in an hour. It’s none of my business, of course, although what could possibly be more fun than judging other people’s parenting? But if this dad genuinely wanted his son to pursue martial arts, it didn’t seem to be working. Why? Maybe because Dad was in the room, observing and giving out instructions? Maybe because Dad isn’t exactly in peak physical condition? The truth is that what we do is extremely physically challenging even without an audience. Taking an attitude that “I can do it, it’s not so hard, what the heck is wrong with you?” doesn’t seem to work very well. [I could probably goad one of my brothers into training with me through this tactic, but not the other, and certainly nobody else].
The third parent I met was the mom of one of the instructors. Like the dad with his son, she came to the beginner class. The mom reminded me very strongly of my own mother: strikingly similar build, coloring, hairstyle, and gentle demeanor. She would do palm strikes with about the intensity you would use to make cookies or give a massage, pat pat. She smiled and laughed softly, nervous and out of her element, but willing. Clearly she was only there to show how proud she was of her daughter’s strength and hard work.
The fourth parent I met was a woman who works in the building. She brought her teen daughter, which I figured out because I could hear them arguing in the hallway while I was in the changing room. Stage mom with aspiring actress daughter decides that daughter is going to learn martial arts; daughter wants nothing to do with it but Mom always wins. The mom peered owlishly at us through the window through almost the entire class, her mouth so pinched that I almost laughed out loud. The daughter was like a Greek chorus, questioning and complaining about every single warmup and training exercise. She declined to tie back her long, thick hair, which was perhaps the only free individual choice she was ever allowed in her young life. She utterly refused to jump rope. I mean, she’s right, warmups suck and they’re uncomfortable and sweaty and they make you look dumb. They work, though! We don’t do it because we want to or because we enjoy it; we do it because we want the results.
Krav Maga is considered the world’s number-one deadliest martial art. Can I just say that it isn’t something to force, coax, goad, or compel someone else to study?
Many of the guests who come to class once or twice are never seen again. This is so far true of all of the guests I’ve described here. The reluctant son of the overbearing dad never came back; if I recall correctly, he didn’t actually finish his first class. The instructor’s proud mama never came back, but she has the distinction of a daughter with enough agency, initiative, grit, and self-discipline to not just train, but teach as well. The daughter of the stage mom never came back, and my guess is that an unconstructive rebellion will quickly arise within her. The only parent-child relationship I’ve seen endure at this school seems to be the one in which the sons asked to join, and the mom wholeheartedly jumped in with them. She has rapidly become one of the fittest and strongest humans I’ve ever seen.
I came to martial arts in midlife because I wanted something that would bring me humility and self-discipline. Probably any form or any school will deliver if these traits are the goal. Having been the step-parent of a teenager, my opinion is that these traits are challenging to inculcate in a child through any means other than personal example. Initiative is not developed by ordering a kid around. Agency is not developed by making decisions for a kid. Of course we want to raise kids who take total personal accountability, kids who are responsible and decisive, kids who are closers and finishers, kids who are doers and makers, kids who keep their commitments. Then we try to stuff these values into their spines by authoritarian methods, external input, and strict rule-setting. I grew into an independent, powerful individual partly through challenging my parents and giving them a lot of trouble!
One day, when my stepdaughter was a young teenager, we went to a party in a park. She wandered off without saying anything. When she came back, I pulled her aside and said she was free to go where she wanted, but she needed to take ten seconds to inform us first. What if someone threw her in a van? I wanted to teach her to escape at least a wrist hold. Let’s role-play: I’m the kidnapper and OOF! She simply punched me in the sternum and knocked the wind out of me. Point taken. Good girl. She’s been supporting herself for a few years now, ever since she was nineteen. When we want them to be independent and powerful, we have to allow independence and power, even when it’s uncomfortable.
It’s too late for my grandmother’s generation; they’re gone now. They had dress codes and they were legally barred from joining many male-only clubs, schools, and organizations. My mom’s generation was prevented from doing a lot of things, too, and even my generation couldn’t do such basic things as join a basketball team. What I do now, I often do with thoughts of my forebears, the ladies who weren’t allowed. I’d fight with my mom if I could, if she wanted to. Maybe it’s enough that I can, and that the next generation can, too.
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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.