2017-04-25

Listening To My Body And Then Some

Lately I’ve been in the mood to design my own workout regimen… again. (You may have noticed that I sometimes do this.)

This time around, the theme is listening to my body. If you’ve been following along with my sporadic 2017 posts, you know that I’ve been running a lot and also doing P90X. However, after pulling a calf muscle and then sidelining myself with a lower-back injury of some kind – all within a two-month time frame – I had to do some soul-searching and admit to myself that the fitness regimen I was working with was inadequate for my needs. It’s true that I felt like a super-hero while I was injury-free, but those injuries couldn’t have just come out of nowhere.

Now, the temptation here is to rush to the knee-jerk conclusions: Ryan took on too much, or P90X is “too difficult.” But those kinds of conclusions aren’t any more helpful than stubbornly insisting that my injuries are random and unrelated to my fitness regimen. If I’m going to be smart about this, I’d better approach things with a level head.

Yesterday, I took the liberty of doing just that, and the results were as follows:


Confronting My Reality

It’s time I finally acknowledged some of the shortcomings of my fitness regimen. After all, it seems like every time I try to get serious about training for a race, I pull a muscle. While I don’t think it’s possible to avoid absolutely every injury or physical setback, if there are enough common threads in the onset of setbacks, it’s time to confront your stubborn illusions, overcome them, and learn from the experience.

To wit, the fact that lower back pain and calf injuries have been such a ubiquitous presence in my training life for so many years suggests the presence of a persistent problem that I am not fully addressing. I intend to address that now, so let’s discuss.

I’ll start with the lower back pain. Lower back pain is somewhat common among runners, especially among runners who seldom lift weights. The typical source of the problem is inadequate abdominal strength. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a guy who’s doing “Ab Ripper X” every-other-day, but it is what it is. While herniated discs can happen somewhat “at random,” recurring back pain that gets worse from exercise is not a random event. An ideal-for-Ryan training regimen will include a lot better care for the abdominal muscles.

One smart thing I did while I was injured was scheduling an appointment with a massage therapist. I’m a chiropractic skeptic, but I am a big fan of massage therapy, especially when the therapist is experienced and knowledgeable. After just one 50-minute session, I felt much, much better. My massage therapist helped me identify some tension in my lower leg that had gone unnoticed; namely, in the dorsiflexion of my feet. As per her explanation, insufficient dorsiflexion puts excess pressure on the calf muscle through the connecting tendon. The resulting tension in the calf muscle can cause undue tension in the hamstring, and that hamstring tension can impact the lower back. (The ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone, the shin bone’s connected to the knee bone…)

I’ll admit that it sounds a little far-fetched to suggest that insufficient flexibility in my ankle caused my back injury, but the truth is that her explanation mirrored my experience to a T. When I broke my running streak, it was because I suddenly felt my lower calf muscle tear. The next day, I realized that it wasn’t just my calf muscle, but also a region near the top of my glute. Within a few weeks, my lower back was giving me trouble. Logically speaking, it all seems quite connected.

This means that I now have two major weaknesses to work on: abdominal muscle strength and flexibility in the leg and foot.

That covers my recent injuries, but I have more than just those two problems. One problem – which seems to be genetic, as it is visibly apparent in my father, and was visibly apparent in my grandfather as well – is that weak back and shoulder muscles cause my posture to fall forward a bit too much. This can sometimes result in neck and shoulder pain, but even when it does, it looks unhealthy. The right way to deal with this is to strengthen my back and shoulder muscles to help offset it.

With that, I have a list of three primary weaknesses I want to offset with my future fitness regimen: Abdominal strength, upper back and shoulder strength, and overall flexibility.

Designing My Solution

Now that I know what I need, it’s time to think about how best to address my needs.

Thinking first about abdominal strength, let’s consider how best to approach this. Because my lower back a weakness of mine, I’m going to have to consciously avoid abdominal exercises that put excessive strain on the spine – at least until I can build up the necessary strength. So, more planks and fewer sit-ups, and if I choose to do leg raises or hip raises, I should do the versions of those exercises that include support of the spine. Leg-based plyometrics are also out of the question, at least for the time being. (And, believe me, this makes me sad. I love my box jumps!)

Upper back and shoulder strength is an easy thing to address. It just means I need to do a lot more push-ups and pull-ups. In particular, I think pike push-ups are going to be extremely important for me because they put a big emphasis on the stabilizing force of the trapezius muscles, in addition to just the deltoids. But I’m going to have to incorporate the full suite of push-ups in order to build adequate shoulder muscle strength, and a big upshot of this is the fact that you can’t do a push-up without also doing a plank: Push-ups are good for abdominal strength, too. It’s like killing two birds with one stone.

That’s just the shoulders, though. I’ll need pull-ups to address the weaknesses in my upper back, and lots of them. I’ve been doing pull-ups for a long time now, but the truth is that, like most people, I always slack off when it comes to pull-ups. I can do three times as many push-ups as I can do pull-ups, and that is just demonstrative of the underlying imbalance that causes my posture issues and neck pain. My goal here is in fact to be able to do as many good-quality pull-ups as I can do push-ups. It’s the only way I’ll ever really fix my problems.

Finally, there’s the matter of flexibility. I stretch a little bit before I go running, and I have been stretching a little bit before each P90X workout recently, but it’s not good enough. I have identified a particular set of leg stretches that tend to make my legs and back feel much better. What I’m going to do from now on is give myself at least 10 or 15 minutes of flexibility training every morning, stretching my tightest, most problematic muscles as far as I possibly can: hamstrings, calves, Achilles tendons, hip flexors, and shoulders. I intend to go through the same stretch routine at night, before bed, and also before I run. That will give me three good stretches per day, and hopefully in time these muscles will start to loosen up.

Conclusion


Now that I know what my weaknesses are, and how I want to address them, it’s time to actually put in the work. In future posts, I’ll be outlining my workouts. I admit that these aren’t always the most thrilling blog posts here at Stationary Waves, but it’s part of what I do here. I’ll try to offset the ensuing boredom with some more interesting blog content, for those who aren’t quite so interested in what workouts I’m doing on a daily basis.

2017-04-21

Album Review: Richie Kotzen - Salting Earth


Richie Kotzen's new album, Salting Earth, opens with the sound of a guitar string being tuned. Or is it the sound of multiple Richies singing drone pitches in an almost Indian mantra sort of way? Or is it the prelude to a crushing hard rock track?

Well, it's all of the above. And from the moment we hear the first tones, we know two things about the new album: We're in for something a little different this time, and it's going to rock pretty damn hard.

If you've been following Kotzen for a while and are familiar with his solo albums, you'll immediately notice that this one has a different overall feel and sound to it. It's still the Richie Kotzen we all know and love, but the album has a sound and spirit all its own.

A lot of that sound has to do with the way the drums and vocals were produced. Compared to other Kotzen records, the drums on this album have a much bigger sound. They're coated with a thick, warm reverb that simply makes them sound huge, and it's a marked departure from the typically quite dry and crisp drum sounds of his earlier records. Could this larger sound be the unwitting influence of having put out two records with the King of Bombast himself, Mike Portnoy, or was it simply a direction Kotzen wanted to take himself for personal reasons?

Then again, with the vocal tracks: that same nice, warm, smooth reverb. But, where it makes the drums sound bigger, the effect on the vocals simply sounds more soulful; maybe more soulful than perhaps he's ever sounded before. In fact, the interplay of the drum sounds and the vocals cast a delicious, old-school warmth across the record. At times it really feels that Salting Earth would have been at home in the late-60s/early-70s golden age of rock and soul. If someone told me that this album had been recorded in Sun Studios, I'd believe them. That's the sound Kotzen was going for here, and that's the sound he achieved. Lordy, it's beautiful.

But there's something else on this album, too, and it's hard to put my finger on. The Richie Kotzen oeuvre is a compelling artistic world that fuses hard rock and vintage R&B, but which often presents stories from the darker side of the human spirit. I don't mean that in a bad way, of course, but the fact is that Kotzen's lyrics have more Robert Johnson in them than, say, Daryl Hall. Kotzen's lyrics are often filled with references to drugs, loss, infidelity, pain, retribution. When Richie Kotzen plays the blues, he plays the blues.

That's just part of the canvas he's painting on. It always comes out in his music, but on Salting Earth, with its heavy-sounding drums, big booming bass notes, growling vocals, and aggressive guitars, and vinyl warmth, he really manages to draw the listener into his world in a way he never has before - at least not in my opinion. Turn the lights off and the volume up, and listen to sounds swirl around you like they do in one of those old, vintage music halls. That's what this album sounds like, and it seems like a poignant example of everything Kotzen does best. Perhaps after the success of working in the more collaborative environment of the Winery Dogs, Kotzen had been thinking about what it is that he does, and who he is as an artist. Or perhaps sometimes the magic just comes together in all the right ways at the right times.

It is both impossible and pointless to choose a "favorite" Richie Kotzen album, but this one has all the best he has to offer, and I wouldn't be surprised if you ask me years from now which is my favorite, and I say Salting Earth.

2017-04-11

Freedom, Responsibility, And Lessons From Technology

The Linux world, as people who have been involved with it for years already know, has some amazing advantages. Older systems run very well. Newer systems run even better. Updates are more frequent. Almost all software is free. The user interface (at least with Ubuntu) is really nice. There is nothing you can't do with Linux than you can do with other operating systems, and there are things you can do with Linux that you cannot do with other operating systems. It's better on virtually every level.

So, why don't more people use Linux?

The main reason is that Linux operating systems, by their DIY and open-source nature, require users to be a little more technical savvy. You have to be able to troubleshoot your own problems. You have to be able to pull open a command line interface and interact directly with the kernel. This is enough to scare most people away.

When my father bought our family's first personal computer, way back in the late 80s or early 90s, graphical interfaces and "shells" were not widely used, at least not in the DOS world. Consequently, my first introduction to computers was not through Windows, but through MS-DOS. I had to learn the basic commands for changing directories, running executable files, copying, deleting, writing simple .bat files, and so on. There was a lot to learn, and I was only a grade-schooler, but it wasn't more than a little kid could keep track of on a cheat sheet. It was harder than it is today, but it wasn't daunting. If I had any questions, there were DOS manuals that could help. Self-education closed the gap.

As the years progressed, Windows also progressed. Eventually, the only interface I ever ended up seeing was Windows 95 and beyond. My modest knowledge of MS-DOS commands faded from memory because, let's face it, I didn't need them anymore. Anything I needed to do on a computer I could do from the much easier and more user-friendly Windows interface. I gained some ease-of-use, some security, but I lost the ability to provide for myself.

Running Ubuntu on my home computer has given me back a lot of the freedom I once had. I no longer have to keep running proprietary software (and background processes) from Windows or HP if I don't use those services. I no longer have to have any software at all that I don't actually want or use. If there's anything that I do want - anything at all - it's really just an apt-get command away from me. If I can find a way to make it work, it will work.

The cost of this freedom is having to take ownership of my computing experience. Some people don't want to do that, and I empathize with them, but at the same time they'd feel a lot more comfortable with their home computers if they didn't shy away from that knowledge.

Analogously, I know people who live in big cities and cannot drive. If they need to get somewhere, they are dependent on other people to take them: friends, family members, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, or public transportation. Thus, they must rely on the availability of the providers of driving services. If they can't make arrangements to get somewhere, then they can't get somewhere.

These folks often tell me that they don't need to drive. But it's not just about what's necessary, it's about the freedom to just pick up and go anywhere you want to, whenever you want to, however you want to do it. They don't always appreciate the freedom they're missing because they're afraid of the responsibility involved.

And another analogy: Many young people are reluctant to move out of their parents' home for similar reasons. Suddenly, they'd be responsible for their own bills, food, self-care, etc. It's a lot of responsibilities to take on when they don't "need to." But if they did it, they'd gain a lot of freedom.

You can just imagine what other aspect of our lives this notion touches. There is always a trade-off between the freedom we want and the responsibility involved in obtaining that freedom. The old trope is that freedom in the political world comes with the responsibility of civic duty, but that's not really accurate. Freedom in the political world comes with the responsibility of having to solve problems (like muh roads) without the apparatus of government. That might take some self-motivation. It might require that you do a little self-directed research and make some phone calls to coordinate with your fellow citizens.

Some people are scared of this kind of responsibility. They're certain it will ruin the world. But, if you want to have the kind of freedom that libertarians crave, that's the kind of responsibility that is required.

2017-04-07

In Which Ubuntu Leaves A Good Impression On Me

I am only tech savvy in that I understand very well how to be a user of technology. As for creating or hacking technology, you can count me among the other Luddites.

So, you can imagine my dismay when I powered-up my laptop last weekend only to discover that it wouldn't fully boot. It would go through all of the normal booting protocol, and then when it reached my home screen, it spun and spun, never fully loading all the various applications and services that constitute a home computing experience.

I had experienced this before, but only once. In that previous time, my system became unusably slow in response to the fact that I had deactivated Norton software. It couldn't have been a coincidence, I thought, so I uninstalled the software entirely, rebooted, and voila! My computer was up-and-running again.

This time, I didn't have any Norton utilities to worry about, but I searched my mind for recent experiences that seemed similar. The thought occurred to me that perhaps this problem was being caused by Windows. I'm not entirely sure what made me think so, it just seemed to... click.

Well, the laptop was useless. I couldn't boot up, I couldn't back-up my files, I couldn't do anything other than use it as a coaster. So, after some internet research, I started wondering what might happen if I were to load Ubuntu Linux onto a USB drive and boot up from there. If it worked, and my computer was fully functional, then I had proof-positive that Windows was the culprit. And maybe then I'd at least be able to back up my files from within Ubuntu before buying a new laptop.

Best case scenario: Ubuntu might prove so effective that I ditch Windows entirely.

Long story short: It worked. Ubuntu loaded up flawlessly and I was soon surfing the web to learn how to use the graphical interface to solve all my problems. I quickly learned that the Ubuntu world looks a little different from what I was used to. In order to gain access to my files, I first must "mount" the corresponding hard drive partition onto the Linux file system.

Well, I haven't done that yet. That's what the weekend's for. But isn't it encouraging to know that I can salvage all my old files simply by loading a new operating system onto a flash drive and poking around a while?

These Ubuntu folks may have made a Linux man out of me.

2017-03-08

"I Don't Run Unless Chased"

When the original P90X videos were filmed, instructor Tony Horton was forty-five years old. In a number of the videos, he mentions this fact in support of his argument that a dedication to healthy living – eating right and exercising regularly – will help combat the ravages of age. Or, to put it in his actual language, “That’s why a 45-year-old guy like me, going on 46, still looks like this.”

It’s easy to dismiss his claims as unempirical. After all, he probably has “good genes.” But exercise is perhaps the single best way to combat aging, extend longevity, and prevent chronic, age-related illness. (If you really need to see a citation for these claims, then, okay. Start here.) The simple fact is that exercise will keep you looking and feeling younger for longer.

When I was young – in my teens and twenties – people I knew used to make all sorts of comments about how running is “crazy.” They didn’t say it with admiration, they said it derisively or defensively. They made “jokes” like saying, “I don’t run unless chased.” Har har har. They exalted in their propensity to eat too much crap, drink too much crap, watch too much TV, and do too much nothing. Even in my thirties, people have made these comments to me. They continue to laugh and joke and be some combination of derisive and defensive about how much I like to work out.

But, as I write this blog post, I am thirty-seven years old: decidedly middle-aged, past my prime, and so on. That means that all the people who ever said these things to me are also middle aged, past their prime. We’re all showing the signs of age. But some of us are aging faster than others. I often get ID’d when purchasing alcohol. In one recent case, a cashier checked my ID, shook her head, and said only, “I wouldn’t have guessed it.” A coworker of mine once had a little freak-out session when she found out that I was married, with children. She demanded to know how old I was, and when I told her, she couldn’t believe it. Overweight and with mostly grey hair, she is only a few years older than I am. As a matter of athletic performance, I can still out-run most twenty-somethings and can probably do more pull-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups than most people.

I don’t mention all this to brag, because it’s not anything to brag about, in my opinion. I worked out hard all my life, and I continue to do so. If you want to know what that feels like – to be able to do certain things physically, and to be able to pass for ten or more years younger than your age, and to maintain high energy levels into middle age, and to not really feel your body slowing down as much as everyone else’s seems to – then you have to work out. It’s not too late for you, either. But work out you must.

All that is to say, I’ve finally reached the age when none of my peers are quite so interested in talking about how “crazy” it is that I run every day (56 consecutive days and counting!) or that I do P90X on top of that in the morning. It doesn’t seem crazy, because now they understand that it isn’t crazy. It’s wise. It makes you better off. And they now wish that they, too, had run when not being chased.

2017-02-20

Update: I Feel Like A Superhero

I think it’s time I provided an update on my exercise situation. As you know, I have undertaken to run one hundred days in a row while simultaneously working my way through the famous P90X home exercise program. I had originally described this as “ambitious,” and perhaps it is, but as the days pass it becomes clear to me that I will actually do this.

That’s assuming I don’t fall victim to some sort of bad luck or act of nature. Let me just pause here to note that the flu is running rampant through my household, but between twin practices of quarantine and running the UV air purifier any- and every-where a flu victim may have been, I’ve managed to avoid catching anything myself. I also have just enough vanity to suppose that perhaps all the exercise I’ve been getting has boosted my immune system enough to ward off a lot of what’s out there. Fingers are crossed, though it’s looking good for me.

So how has it actually been going?

Yesterday I finished my fortieth consecutive run. When I first had the idea of running one hundred days in a row, I actually never dreamed I’d make it this far. To have run forty days in a row already feels like an accomplishment to me. It’s a long time without a true break. Still, I’m trying not to let my guard down here because, when I think about it, I’m still ten days away from the mere half-way point. I feel comfortable running every day now, I never feel like “today is the day I’m not going to make it” (although a day after seriously bruising my foot a couple weeks back, I sure came close). I pack my gym bag every day with confidence, knowing that I’ll be able to get a good run in, no matter how I feel.

That sentiment, I must emphasize, is a big change for me. No matter how much I ran before, I always felt as though I could just take a day off if I wasn’t feeling strong. Now I know that I can keep running even when I don’t feel strong. It’s a big mental shift to go from always having a day off in the back of my head to always completely knowing (in the back of my head), with surety, that I’m capable of running today. It’s as though the motivation to run and the notion of ability are no longer questions. I take it as given that this is possible, and the only matter left to consider is how hard I’ll choose to run. This is beneficial, to say the least.

Last Friday, I completed my thirtieth day of P90X, which marks the end of “Phase 1.” They recommend taking a set of “before” photos, and the a series of progress photos at days 30, 60, and 90, which I faithfully did. To my slight chagrin, my body has experienced almost no visible changes after 30 days. My abdominal muscles are noticeably larger, which is nice, but no one who doesn’t know me well would notice the change. As for my other muscle groups, I don’t think there has been much change to speak of.

At first, I was quite disappointed to see my 30-day photos. I had been working so hard, getting up early in the morning and “bringing it” during the workouts, that I felt like I deserved some gains. When I thought about it, though, I realized that I hadn’t been lifting heavy enough weights to have warranted a major physical change. After all, I am not starting from “zero;” I was already a physically fit person before I started. Many of the big 30-day gains seen in the many P90X before/after shots involve people who are starting from nothing or next to nothing. But even setting that aside, the first phase of the program focuses on bodyweight exercises and calisthenics – great exercise, but not exactly famous for helping a guy get “shredded.” Seen in that light, I realized that it was my expectations, not the program itself, that were out of line.

Still, there have been some major changes going on with my body. First of all, I think I am more flexible now than I have been in years – maybe ever. I can’t stress how important this is. Many of my muscle and joint pains, which were caused by tight muscles, have disappeared. My calf muscles are typically so tight that I cannot even feel when someone squeezes them, no matter how hard they squeeze. Now, they feel loose enough that I can use a foam roller and feel relief. My whole body feels more limber and agile thanks to my newfound flexibility, and it’s been a real positive change. Furthermore, the wrist pain I’ve been enduring for months now, which I attributed to the combination of desk work and holding my daughter in my arms all the time, has dissipated significantly as a direct result of the Stretch X workout video. It’s remarkable.

Another important change, which can be partially attributed to flexibility and partially to new muscle strength, is an improvement in my posture. Whether I’m sitting, standing, or lying down, my limbs and spine align into healthy positions. As someone who has always struggled with bad posture, this has been great. For one thing, a lot of people don’t realize how much better clothing fits when you have good posture; so I look a little better. (Vanity again, but alas, that’s part of working out.) It also makes long drives and long hours of desk work much more tolerable. My core and back muscles stay engaged and insulate my spine from the kinds of stress that’s common of people who spend many hours sitting.

Perhaps my favorite “result” so far has been the increase in my sleep quality. While I’m not getting any more sleep in terms of total hours, I now get as much as two hours more deep sleep per night. My head hits the pillow and I’m gone, asleep until I wake up to my alarm the next morning. As a lifelong light sleeper, I’ve been really pleased by this change.

What happens next? Well, I started Phase 2 of P90X on Saturday. Phase 2 seems to place more emphasis on actual weight training, so if I’m going to see any gains to my physical size, I imagine they will come during Phase 2 for the most part. Over the weekend, I was also able to go for an eight-mile run – my furthest-distance run in at least two years. So I’m ramping up on both sides of my exercise regimen. That’s encouraging. I feel really fit. It’s a nice feeling, especially for someone in his late thirties. This is some of the best shape I’ve ever been in.


Another thing I’d like to try is making some additional improvements to my diet. I don’t have too many bad habits left, but my body is asking me to get rid of the few I do have. When I have so little room for improvement, it’s hard to give up on my one or two remaining “treats.” Still, it’s tough to imagine going on like this for months on end while still putting less-than-perfect fuel in my body. I don’t want to make too big a deal about this, because I know myself and I know I might not be able to do this. But it’s starting to be the last remaining voice in the back of my mind, the one thing keeping me from feeling as close to perfect as I’ve ever felt. I’m curious about that feeling, and I’d like to see what it’s all about. So, here I go…

2017-01-30

Feeling Ambitious

As January comes to a close I thought I might provide a fitness update.

After reviewing my 2016 stats on Smashrun.com, I decided that, since I came in under 1,000 total miles last year, I ought to try for over 1,000 miles of running this year. That works out to be about 2.75 miles per day, which feels pretty reasonable to me. If nothing else, I need only have a year similar to last year, but without a big gaping break in June.

Reasonable goals are nice and provide good satisfaction when you reach them, but ambitious goals are even more fun.

I had a rather ambitious idea shortly after coming up with my 1,000-mile goal: What if I were able to run for 100 consecutive days, without taking any formal rest days. If I needed a rest day, I could just run very slowly or very low mileage, or both. Given how much I run, the challenge for 100 consecutive days of running is not physical, per se. I won’t find it physically daunting to go out for a run every day for one hundred days. On the other hand, ensuring that my schedule remains free and open such that I always have time to go for a run is quite another story. Keeping my will power attuned to a goal like that is also a major challenge since people like to take days off every once in a while. On a nice and sunny day, or a cold and stormy one, it’s easy to let the workout slide and go do something else. In short, running one hundred days in a row is a challenge that is more mental than physical.

It’s been going well. By the time most of you read this, I will have run twenty consecutive days, a fifth of the way to my endpoint.

Ten days into my project, however, there was another development. My wife because a Beachbody coach and subscribed us to Beachbody On Demand, the company’s streaming video service. It is essentially “Netflix for exercise videos,” if you will, and it comes with the ability to stream the world-famous P90X program. This is something I have always wanted to try, and having it “on tap” in my own home proved to be too great a temptation to resist.

As a result, I am now waking up at four o’clock every morning and working my way through a 60-to-90-minute P90X workout. And that’s in addition to my continued progress toward a hundred days of running.

Today I’m ten days into P90X and twenty days into my running goal. If all goes well, I’ll finish both initiatives on exactly the same day and I will have accomplished two reasonably difficult fitness goals at exactly the same time.

Ambitious? Yes. Will I be able to do it? I’m not sure. But if I do, it might be the most difficult physical undertaking I’ve ever managed. Wish me luck!

2017-01-23

Narcissism And Truth In Politics

These guys are becoming an easy target these days, but in this case they happen to have saddled-up one of my hobby horses, so it's time to comment.

The topic du jour is "post-truth" and journalism. If you're committed to taking the written world only ever at face-vale, as the Sweet Talkers seem to be, then the question is why don't facts matter so much in politics? Why does the mainstream media so often publish lies?

The question not being asked - the question that actually contains the answer - is Why do I keep reading all these articles, even when the majority are ideologically slanted, many are factually incorrect, and the rest don't tell me anything I don't already know?

Well, here's a five-year-old explanation for you. It's got everything we're still talking about today: fake news, ideological polarization, and one important fact about the news you read:
It's easy to guess that the target demo for Fox & Friends is white women over 55 who have to get their teenage kids off to the methadone clinic and are perfectly content with a flip phone. "I don't need a touchscreen to fellowship with the Lord." Fair point. Gretchen Carlson is a standard example of what that demo calls a "well put together woman"-- heavy foundation, dresses that fit easily over Spanx and the hypercoiffed hairdo preferred by men who first ejaculated in the 1970s. I just got the shivers. Fun fact: Michele Bachmann was her babysitter back in the day. "Michele who?" Exactly. Remember how you were told she mattered, and you believed it? Kept you out of the game for 2 years 11 months, well done. Assange was right, the internet does make it easier for us to think for ourselves. 
What's not easy to guess, yet importantly true, is that the other target demo for Fox & Friends is everyone who viscerally hates that first demo. Do you think it upsets Fox that their footage is making The Huffington Post a lot of money? All part of the plan. The battle isn't Red v. Blue, but Purple v. You. You lose.
Post-truth means we have entered an era in which truth is literally unimportant to people. See for example here, which should give you just a taste of the overall argument against Scott Sumner's Rorty-ish tendency to say anything and everything as long as it advances his narrative.

It comes down to the reason people advance a narrative today. It used to be that the narrative was intended to persuade. Now the intent is somewhere between magical thinking (take, for instance, Trump's claim that God made it stop raining for his inaugural address) and quasi-religious team cheer-leading (take, for example, a "women's march" that has no clear policy objective).

Stripped to its essence, "public discourse" has gone from making claims to swearing allegiance to groups who make claims. That's identity politics for you. Note well the difference between "I believe in women's rights" and "I am part of the group that believes in women's rights." The first statement gives you something to talk about; the second statement is... well, I'd use the phrase "a mask," but others would use the phrase "moral grandstanding" What good is it to make claims and support them with evidence if you don't genuflect to our collective sense of identity?

Post-truth means that advertisers and politicians are the same people now. See how many SEO specialists write for think-tanks these days. It's not about the issues anymore, it's about branding. What's your brand? People don't vote according to their party, but according to their brand. That's why you've got Silicon Valley techno-libertarians and "libertarians for Trump." You'd think a bunch of people committed to principle - that is, you'd think libertarians, at least, if anyone - would be able to understand and sympathize with those who voted the other way. But that's not what happened. Why not? Branding.

To be sure, we all want facts to matter. But we just want them to matter. That doesn't mean they actually do. In the end, all these discussions are about branding, which is one reason why I spend so much time emphasizing the importance of results over theory. Political theory in the modern landscape is a "vanity project." It's not about what you believe, it's about how you believe it. Lew Rockwell and Roderick Long are both anarchists. Why does the first name make fans of the second name bristle, and vice-versa, if they're both committed to free market anarchism?

All anyone really cares about is their brand. It's a modern problem.

2017-01-17

It's The Person, Not The Object

Suppose you’re trying to lose weight. You grab all the potato chips in the house, and you throw them in the garbage can, thereby ridding yourself of the temptation. You can’t eat what’s not in the house, after all, so you just rid the house of potato chips and that takes care of the problem.

On one level, this isn’t bad advice. If you have trouble overcoming temptation, then the next best thing is eliminating temptation. All the diet gurus recommend doing this. And maybe all you need to overcome your temptation in the first place is to go a few weeks without indulging in it. After that, the thinking might go, your cravings will disappear and your mind will recalibrate to a potato-chip-free lifestyle. Here’s hoping.

The fact of the matter is, though, that throwing the potato chips out doesn’t solve the underlying impulse control problem. It might help you lose weight, and it might help your palette adjust to new norms, but it won’t help you overcome your urge to seek instant gratification over long-term happiness. The only way you can beat that problem is by teaching yourself to abstain from potato chips even though you want to eat them. You’ll have to practice mindful self-deprivation. It’s not the potato chips’ fault. It’s not the fault of the mere presence  of temptation. It’s your fault. You’re in control. You’re steering the ship.

I was thinking about this in reaction to an interesting piece I read at OutsideOnline.com. In it, author Sam Robinson laments what the Strava app has done to his love for the solitude of running. Ordinarily, I would be inclined to agree. I, too, love the solitude I experience while running. Unlike Robinson, however, I do not allow my smartphone apps to interrupt that process. I don’t check my apps while I run. Even though they are social networks, I don’t allow the fact that people can see my stats to interrupt my thoughts as I run. Running has always been about solitude and meditation for me. Now smart phone app could ever change that.

But it’s not the app doing all this. That’s silly. If you’re so distracted by Strava that you can’t get a good long run in without feeling “connected,” then that’s a personal problem. If you can’t walk away from an internet argument, that’s a personal problem. If you can’t view Facebook without feeling bad about your life (as is true of many people who browse Facebook), that’s a personal problem.

We hear a lot about how technology is making our lives worse, but that’s a big of a ruse. What’s making our lives worse is our complete and utter lack of impulse control McDonald’s doesn’t make you fat, eating too much makes you fat. Facebook isn’t making you depressed, your jealous, envious narcissism is making you depressed. Strava isn’t taking away your solitude, your inability to forget about social networks for the 45 minutes required to get your run in is what’s taking away your solitude.


I write a lot about defense mechanisms on my blog, and this is one more to add to the pile. We lament the things we have trouble saying “no” to; we seldom lament our own inability to say no. Don’t focus on the objects, though, focus on your own shortcomings. You have to – that’s the only way to begin the hard mental work of change.

2017-01-05

The Narrative Must Advance

There’s a concept that comes up at TheLastPsychiatrist.com: “writing your story toward an ending.” I like this concept, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

The Last Psychiatrist, of course, frames his blog posts in the language of narcissism. He advises people to write their stories toward an ending because a narcissist tends to feel that he or she is the “central character” in a story about himself/herself. When I think about this concept, on the other hand, I tend to think of it in slightly different language: the language of narrative. We all craft narratives about the important things in life. For example, I met my wife at a friend’s house party on Canada Day. When I think back about that party, I think of not as a Canada Day party with my friend, but as “the time I met the woman who would become my wife.” That’s a narrative.

Another example of a narrative is the way we explain our life’s circumstances. Suppose your roommate left some dirty dishes in the sink last night and you had to clean them up in the morning. There are a couple of narratives that might play out in your head. One is, “Argh, my roommate never does the dishes and I always have to clean them up!” Another might be, “My roommate must have had something come up last night; I’ll help out by doing the dishes.” What’s important in this example is that the narrative you choose in a particular situation can have a big impact on how you feel about that situation.

That’s why I always encourage people to craft positive narratives for their lives. Maybe it’s unfair that your roommate didn’t do the dishes last night, but you’ll certainly leave the house happier if you believe you were helping your busy roommate than you would if you believed your no-good roommate never helps out. If you want your roommate to get better at doing the dishes, you’ll have to talk to him. That conversation will go a lot better if you go into it asking how you might help your busy roommate so that the dishes can get done, compared to an antagonistic intervention in which you accused your roommate of being lazy.

Narratives matter, because they influence our reactions and the ensuing series of events.

But life also moves on, and sometimes our narratives – even the good ones – don’t keep up with the changes we’ve been through. Suppose your roommate got a lot better at doing the dishes after your chat. If you don’t take the time to notice that your roommate seldom leaves dirty dishes in the sink, then the next time he does it – even if it’s the first time in months – you might react negatively: “Again!? We talked about this!” But in that example, your roommate will have done nothing wrong. It’s your narrative that’s the problem, not your roommate’s one-off dirty dish.

The key point here is that the narrative must advance. If this sounds familiar to you, it might because I’ve written extensively about a special case of advancing the narrative: The Myth of the Perpetual Beginner. One challenge a lot of novice runners have is that they never figure out how not to be novices anymore. The years go by, but their relationship to the sport stays constant. They never improve their form (to prevent injuries), they never vary their training (to prevent fatigue and stagnation), and they never get beyond the same old routes and group runs. To get to the next phase, where they might enjoy fewer injuries and have a more fun time running, they must learn to advance their narrative, and become “experienced runners,” or at least intermediates.

This concept, of course, goes well beyond the relative trivialities of roommates and running. The Gottman Institute has identified the narrative surrounding a couple’s relationship as one of the most important aspects of a marriage. It can go both ways. If your narrative is all about how your spouse leaves dirty socks everywhere and doesn’t appreciate you, your marriage will deteriorate. If your narrative is all about how you two have a legendary romance that thoroughly enriches you, the two of you will make more of a point to come together (“turn toward each other,” in Gottman’s language) during harder times. But, of course, if you happen to have accidentally created a negative narrative and you want to turn it around, the narrative must advance. You must work on creating a love story between the two of you, and allowing that narrative to become the next chapter of your lives.

It’s easy for relatively stable and established adults to have narratives that get “stuck.” You wake up, you go to work, you come home to family responsibilities, you go to bed. Repeat. Then on weekends, you fill your time up with hobbies, yes, but hobbies don’t always have narratives, unless we infuse them with on. If you like to write, you should work on a writing project, and finish it, and move to the next one. If you like to run, you should train for something, and then do it, and then train for something new.


In all aspects, our narratives must advance, or else we will never really experience the forward progress of a life well-lived. Or so I’ve been thinking lately.