Is It Okay For Princes To Save Princesses?

I haven't seen the movie, and so I shouldn't overreact; but early reports indicate that the new live-action remake of Disney's Aladdin features a new-and-"improved" Princess Jasmine. This new Princess Jasmine is interested in becoming the sultan herself. She's strong, and capable, and empowered. She can do it!

For the moment, let's set aside the fact that the original early-90s Princess Jasmine was not exactly a swooning damsel in distress; she played an important role in defeating Jafar and was quite headstrong throughout the movie, even going so far as to run away from home rather than be forced to marry a man she didn't choose herself. (Thus, why is making her even more empowered even necessary?)

I have a question for society in general: Is it okay to tell a story about a boy or a man who saves a princess?

I mean, is that okay, or is that problematic? Can boys save princesses, fictitiously speaking? Or does that reinforce the patriarchy?

Is it morally and socially acceptable to tell a young boy a story in which the male protagonist saves a woman who is in trouble, and falls in love with her, and marries her? Or, does that set the boy up to believe that this one story will define his every future interaction with the female sex? If a girl happens to be told the same story, will she be able to suspend disbelief and appreciate its value as a mere work of fiction, or will she, too, be warped by it and conditioned into believing that she is weak, needs saving, and that she must wait specifically for a boy to be the one to save her? Will this one story define her every future interaction with the male sex?

Notice what I am not asking. I am not asking whether every story we ever tell should be constructed this way. I am not asking that we eschew stories about strong girls who solve their own problems. I am not asking that we refuse to tell any stories that shake up the gender roles a little bit and reflect modern values. I am not asking any of those questions because I live in a world and a mindset in which it is possible to tell many different kinds of stories without having to replace one kind of story with another.

I'm just asking, is it okay to tell a story about a boy named Aladdin, who saves a princess named Jasmine? Is it okay to tell a story just about a boy named Aladdin, without having to have some parallel plot arc featuring a prominent girl character? Is it okay if the main girl character in just one story is in trouble, and needs saving, and gets saved by a boy?

Is Super Mario Bros. problematic?

Here's a separate but related question: Suppose it's not okay to tell boys stories about princes who save princesses. Then, what do we suppose boys are going to pretend they're doing when they play make-believe?


Should Have Known Better

Last night, I finished watching the Netflix series The Ted Bundy Tapes. This is a documentary, obviously about notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, which draws much of its content from the 100+ hours of audio recordings collected via interview by two journalists who wrote a book about him. The series also includes a vast amount of file footage from newscasts, showing Bundy's actual courtroom appearances, interviews from jail, interviews outside the courtroom, and so on.

Because this is a documentary series, and because its subject matter is already well-known and widely discussed, I don't mind including information here that might be considered "spoilers" in other contexts. The documentary provides no new insight into Bundy or the murders he committed, it's just a comprehensive collection of archival audio and video footage, combined with some new interviews (mostly of journalists covering the story), in a retelling of a very well-documented story.

So, here comes the spoiler. The series ends with an excerpt from one of Bundy's audio recordings; I think it was supposed to be "creepy," or perhaps "prescient" or insightful in some other way. Bundy muses that anyone looking for answers or explanations for the murders is bound to be disappointed, because such murders could be committed by "anyone." Bundy's supposed last, great insight was that you never know who's going to go on a serial killing spree; after all, look at him, he's a perfectly normal guy, and he did it.

The program closes on that note.

There's just one problem with that.

Ted Bundy was not a perfectly normal guy. Having watched the series and reacquainted myself with the case and with Bundy's statements and behaviors, I was struck by the profound impression that, not only was Ted Bundy an criminally insane narcissist, but he was transparently so. Thus, the shocking thing to me is not that "a normal guy did terrible things," but exactly the opposite: That an obviously sick and disturbed individual could do what he did, and that people in general would consider him witty, charming, intelligent, and "normal." I found it profoundly disappointing that the people who knew Ted Bundy for the most part failed to recognize his illness while he wore it on his sleeve.

The fact that people can encounter extremely unhealthy behavior and come away believing that it's praiseworthy is, for me, one of the great unexplained mysteries of my life. Ted's constant self-promotion and self-absorption should have been off-putting to the people he met. He talked too much, and too much about himself, he smiled too much, his eyes darted around too much, there were too many uncomfortable pauses in conversations, followed by too many left-turn segues on Bundy's part. He talked a lot, but not in a gregarious way, only in a way meant to evade detection or promote belief in his mask. That's not wit or charisma, it's manipulation. And yet people heard it and were charmed.

While watching the program, I thought back to the time I read How to Win Friends and Influence People, that great old handbook on manipulation. In it, Carnegie says that people want to feel important, so if you want to influence them, just make them feel important, then they'll do whatever you want. I've never encountered a more thoroughly sociopathic thesis statement in all my life, and yet anyone else who reads this book considers it to be wonderful, insightful, life-changing. This, too, is another example of someone presenting an idea that should raise cold hackles on one's spine, but when people hear it, they are instead charmed.

There are two possibilities here. One is that the majority of human beings possess a certain understanding of what it means to be charming and charismatic, that they respond favorably when they see it, that manipulative individuals know how to present themselves accordingly in order to take advantage of other people, and that my broken brain is somehow incapable of processing the meta-information. My deficiency thus makes me immune to psychopathic manipulation, but also makes me incredulous about genuinely charming behavior. The other possibility is that there is a tendency among human beings in general to see behavior that they should consider to be disturbing, but to make excuses for it, to redefine it as charisma in an effort to maintain a positive impression of someone who they don't want to believe is bad, and that my broken brain is somehow unwilling to extend that kindness to people even when they deserve it.

I'll let the reader decide for himself which is the more likely possibility. As for me, I find it so surprising and sad that people can encounter so much transparent sickness and come away believing it to be health.


The End, Plus Epilogue

As I mentioned last time, I've come down with another cold, and that makes three colds in five months. Because I have diabetes, it takes me a little extra time to get over these things, and they tax my body a little more heavily than they might tax yours. My half marathon being two and a half weeks away, one week of which will be a taper week to rest my muscles for the main event, this effectively ends my training schedule here and now.

I'll still run the race, of course, but I won't push for my goal time. I'll run relaxed and just try to have some fun. I am disappointed that my months of training fell far short of my expectations, of course; first because I sunk two months into an ineffective heart-rate based training regimen, and second because I managed to avoid injury only to fall victim to virus after virus. I wanted to get my body back into some serious running shape after a long time, and I had some good early indicators that it was working. But that's bad luck for you. Some years, you get lots of colds; other years, you don't get any. It was my turn to draw the short straw, and my bad luck that I drew it while attempting to train for a race.

Any undertaking like this, no matter how unsuccessful, is bound to teach you something, and indeed I learned. Let's review a few important things I learned this year so far.

First, I learned that using heart rate as the primary driver of training is not a good idea. I think it's okay to reference heart rate as one data point among many while you train. But to force yourself into a particular pace - especially a slower pace - merely to adhere to heart rate guidelines is, I think, very foolish. The result of this kind of thing can only ever be slower pace times.

Second, I learned the value of making hard days hard and easy days easy. In part, I stumbled upon this accidentally. My training schedule, like many I've used throughout the years, made interval and fartlek days "two-a-days." That is, I had to go for an easy run in the morning on those days, and a faster/harder workout in the afternoons. That was okay, but I think in the future I'll modify my training so that I run two-a-days on easy days. That way, I'll get the benefit of higher mileage without taxing my muscles overmuch; and meanwhile, I'll be able to dedicate all of the day's energy to my speed workout on a proper speed day. (If you look at the space between workouts as a span of hours, rather than a span of days, this isn't even that large of a change. It just amounts to a little extra recovery time prior to the more difficult workout, which is precisely what I'd want.)

Third, I learned how to run very long runs again. My training schedule required me to go for runs up to two hours long. That's a long time, and I haven't gone running like that really since my diabetes diagnosis. This year, I finally worked up the fitness level and the guts to give it a try, and I discovered that if I take glucose tablets at the right intervals, and also take them when I start to experience certain physical sensations, I can usually last the whole duration of the long run. This is a huge victory and it actually opens up the possibility that maybe, perhaps, some day, I'll be able to run a full marathon. For me, that's huge.

Fourth, I rediscovered that running ten miles at a time, and more than ten miles in a given day, is relatively easy for me. This is another one of those things that was true prior to my diabetes diagnosis, but which I hadn't really tested since then. I like running ten miles at a time. Ten miles is more than just a nice, round number. It's a distance that feels good to me, one that I've always had an affinity for, at least as long as I've been capable of running ten miles at a time.

Fifth, I learned something about my body composition. Going into this training program, I had been doing a lot of P90X, and I eventually ditched that because I wanted to shed some pounds so that I could run faster. I successfully shed those pounds, and I think losing that weight really did help me run faster. But it was a few pounds of muscle mass, not a few pounds of fat, so it did come at the cost of some "all-around fitness." I am not so interested in proclaiming which kind of fitness is "better" here. In the past, I've spent a lot of time discussing the fact that people who never get in amazing shape have no idea what their bodies are supposed to really look like, much less how they're actually supposed to feel. Even among those who have been in great shape, most of them only know the difference between being in shape and being out of shape. Not very many people know what it feels like to be in different kinds of being in shape. What is it like to be in great shape for distance-running? What is it like being in shape with more muscle mass? How does your body respond to the various tasks of physical exercise under different "shape conditions?" This is invaluable insight into my own body.

Sixth, I learned the variety of cross-training. I haven't done much of that lately, and I miss it. I miss the refreshing fun of going out for a bike ride instead of a run; it might not be as good for the body as a running workout, but it's great for the mind, and that's actually worth something, too. I think people also feel a little better when they train with the objective of having lots of fun at the possible expense of a superior workout. I don't mean that people should switch out hard or annoying workouts in favor of having lots of fun, of course. I just mean that, especially as we age, it becomes more important to foster an all-around, always-exercising, joy-of-motion mentality - what I have called "fostering a culture of activity" - than it is to ensure that each workout inches you closer to a personal record. Put another way, if you always have something to look forward to in working out, you'll work out a lot more effectively than you would if you just mindlessly cranked through a schedule of workouts.

Seventh, speaking of a schedule of workouts, I learned the benefit of actually scheduling workouts, rather than flying by the seat of your pants. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, this doesn't actually work against the previous point. It's nice to know what's coming. It's nice to know what you're doing, not just today or tomorrow, but next Thursday. It helps you plan activities around your workouts; it helps you keep your diet and your bedtime on track. It also helps you add more variety to your training. Humans are creatures of habit and if we don't make a deliberate attempt to break out of our ruts, we will tend to stay within them. Planning on breaking your rut is a great way to succeed in breaking it.

Well, I probably learned a bit more than all of this, too, but I think the list is long enough for one day. Looking back over it, I am feeling pretty good about my year thus far, even if I'm not necessarily in a position to improve my half marathon PR. I feel well prepared for my fitness future, whether or not that includes a great race next month. In the end, I'm quite happy about it.


The Best Way To Spend My Time

Yesterday evening, after feeling dizzy and unwell all day, my body finally succumbed to fever. I lay down on my bed, closed my eyes, and calmly enjoyed the spinning in my head. I say "enjoyed," because what else can a person do, other than let a mild fever run its course? I could moan, groan, cry, and lament my bad luck, or I could embrace my circumstances for what they are and at least try to endure them with a smile on my face.

It wasn't so bad, really. My body was tingly and sensitive, as bodies tend to be when they have a fever. That, combined with the light vertigo and the bodily fatigue added up to an experience that I ordinarily experience favorably, under the right conditions. For example, I sometimes feel similarly after a long run or bike ride and a nice, hot bath. It's nice to drink some cool water, lie down, and spend a few minutes drifting along to the subtle physical sensations. If I have to be sick, the least I could do is try to enjoy what aspects of my situation there are to enjoy.

A little while later, something else that I was able to enjoy happened. My wife and daughter came home, and my little four year old girl tiptoed into my bedroom. She wanted to see if I was asleep. I gave her a big smile and asked how her day went. After some chitchat, she was ready to go play, but without my asking, she paused to close the door behind her so that I wouldn't be disturbed. It would be a thoughtful gesture coming from anyone, but coming from a four-year-old, I thought it was very kind. The door had been open when she came in, so closing it was entirely her own idea. She was thoughtful of me. I'm raising a kind girl.

I thought back to some recent business trips that my wife had taken. She goes out of town fairly regularly, without my daughter and me. That leaves me home alone to take care of all the parental responsibilities. When there are a lot of things to do - school requirements, ballet rehearsals, grocery shopping, all the cooking and cleaning, and of course carving out part of every day to sit down and play with my daughter so that she has some quality home-time with her father - it can be understandably exhausting. Still, there's nothing else I'd rather be doing.

Oh, don't get me wrong. I'd love to have more time to write music, practice my guitar, exercise, have some fun, or just plain relax. The truth is, I easily could do more of those things than I do when my wife is out of town. The reason I don't do them is because I'd rather be a father. I enjoy singing songs with my girl and reading her books. I enjoy playing with her toys or doing a puzzle with her. I enjoy cooking dinner for her and I love it when she invariably "has an idea" and suggests that we bake cookies together or something. And I do it all; I do it because it's incredibly fun. I love spending that time with her, just the two of us. I love what we talk about, and how we play, I love watching movies together and taking her outside to play with a ball or a pair of roller skates. It's great fun, why wouldn't I love it?

Some of my friends and acquaintances find themselves in a similar position from time to time, as most of us do. I never hear them talk about how much fun they're having. I never hear them tell stories about what they did with their children. Mostly, I hear them complain about how much work it is and how much they'd rather be doing something else.

But I don't understand that. Fatherhood is a blast. I wouldn't rather be doing anything else.


An Aesthetic Signal

There's a theory out there, presented variously throughout history, but most recently by Robin Hanson, that all or most human behavior is an attempt to achieve "status" through "signaling." So, for example, if get interested in photography, my main objective is to become a good photographer, which people will then perceive and thus award me social status. I only play guitar for the chicks, basically.

Of course, this is a perfectly plausible - perhaps even likely - perhaps even true - explanation of the behavior of some individuals. Because this theory is certainly true for some people and some actions and some situations, folks have a tendency to go all in on it. The problem with the theory is that it is unnecessarily reductive. Just because some of what I do aims at social status doesn't mean all of what I do is. Just because a lot of what I do aims at social status doesn't mean it is the best explanation for human behavior writ large.

There are many specific problems with this view of human behavior, and I couldn't possibly list them all here. But I got to thinking about one particular weakness of the theory over the weekend. That problem is: human social groups play a weaker role in our lives today than at any prior point in human history. Thanks to the highly individualizing social changes instigated by the internet, rampant marketing segmentation, and Western individualism, people are now less likely to engage in close social interaction. There is no big Saturday night party in today's world, as there was for previous generations. Many young people stay home, while many others prefer to spend their time with a small group of close friends, rather than the larger kind of in-group that would dole out social status.

Indeed, to achieve any significant kind of social status in today's world, one practically has to already possess it. No one is interested in artists or musicians who are not already famous, which is why so much of art marketing is designed to convince the public that a new artist is already a star. You probably couldn't mention any rising stars in the athletics world, either, unless you are already deeply invested in that athlete's team. The only businesspeople you could probably mention by name are those who are famous billionaires right at this minute, or those with whom you had the opportunity to work directly. Ethicists, academics, doctors? Forget it. You simply don't know these people by face or by name.

And that's the point: we might all be motivated to pursue social status, but in this day and age, none of us actually gets it. So, it's a poor explanation for human behavior.

What I have noticed that people do is choose, not an in-group, but an aesthetic. I tried to describe this in a recent post. If you consider yourself a "rocker," then you will generally adopt the "rock aesthetic," and likewise if you consider yourself a fitness buff or a bookish person or a scientist.

Many people who choose an aesthetic in this way often express opinions, but only when they are consistent with their chosen aesthetic. For example, you're more likely to hear about the importance of following the heart from someone who has chosen an artistic aesthetic than you are from someone with a rocker aesthetic, even though they both might believe it. You're more likely to hear about the importance of saving for retirement from someone with a "savvy business guy" aesthetic than you are from someone with a "rural farmer" aesthetic, even though they both live accordingly. These opinions are not so much about how people choose to live as they are memes that people express, especially on social media, to curate a chosen aesthetic.

Today, a lot of people are making impassioned statements about abortion. There is a group of people out there who are very invested in this debate, but the vast majority of people you see who express strong opinions on the abortion debate are not so heavily invested in the debate. Instead, they're presenting memes in support of their chosen aesthetic. A very religious person will post a pro-life meme, effectively informing others of their views on religion, not actually abortion. A person heavily invested in presenting themselves as a "liberal" will send out pro-choice memes for the same reason they send out climate change memes or memes about the homeless. It's not about the issues at all, it's about the aesthetic.

Separating the two concepts in their own minds is often quite impossible. Ask the average person if what they're saying is about the issues or about their general vibe, and he will most often say that of course it's about the issue; even if it's not. So, I don't recommend that you out people when they're engaged in aesthetic curation. I also don't recommend that you spend too much time debating the issues with them. After all, they're not interested in the facts. They're interested in what their memes tell others about their aesthetic. In other words, they're interested in presenting their identity, not their thoughts.

It's a lot easier to question someone's thoughts than it is to question their identity. Don't get confused; if someone is sharing their identity with you, it's not an invitation to debate.


Every Number But The One That Counts

I mentioned a few posts back that I had lost patience with heart rate zone training and was moving back to training "my way." Of course, it's still far too early to decide whether this is a good training decision or a bad one, but I'm already seeing changes in the data my various apps are presenting to me.

The most notable of such data comes from Garmin's "Training Status" report. (I blogged about what "Training Status" is, and how to interpret it, here.) My first day of doing things "my way" was this past Monday, May 6th. From April 26th through May 5th, my Training Status had been shown as "Unproductive." I was working out plenty, but it was apparently not doing my body any good. I felt that way, too. My runs felt sluggish, mostly because I was forcing myself to run slow in order to keep my heart rate down. The moment I decided to train "my way," my Training Status immediately switched back over to "Productive" and stayed there. My VO2 max estimate went back up to 61, from 59. I take these numbers with a grain of salt, but I do believe them in the sense that I think they offer some kind of "directional read."

By contrast, my Fitness graph at Strava has flattened-out at about 90 points. The trend is either flat or even possibly in a slight downward direction there since I switched back to training "my way." So, by Strava's algorithmic estimation, I am perhaps losing a bit of my physical fitness by training my way, versus training according to Garmin's HR zone training schedule.

All of these statistics, however, are generated by running heart rate, speed, and distance data into various "impulses," i.e. mathematical models designed to estimate fitness. So, these apps give me VO2 max estimates, estimates of training load and fitness, of my "status," and so on. That's every number a person could ever possibly want to know about their running.

Every number, that is, except one; arguably, the only one that counts: Average pace.

Relative to my previous week of running, my average pace has increased twelve seconds per mile. That's even after a particularly bad workout on Tuesday afternoon and despite the fact that my heart rate has not increased all that much. The main thing is that I simply haven't deliberately slowed myself down.

Pace is really the only number that counts. If you're capable of running at a particular pace, then you should. If you can't, then you should try to get yourself there. All this heart rate zone training and various "easy runs" versus other kinds of runs are all in service of increasing your average pace. If you're not increasing your average pace - or, if you're an older guy, maintaining a strong average pace - then your training isn't doing much for you at all.

For all the lovely metrics modern running apps offer you, don't forget the one that matters most.


Twists & Turns

I spent the morning wondering what I should blog about. I wanted to write, but the words wouldn't come.

One reason for that is I found out that an old family friend of ours is dying. Not only that, she's dying in a way that there are lessons to learn from. I could have written about that, and about those lessons, but my heart just wasn't in it. I'm sad that it came to this, I'm sad for her and her family, and for my family, as well. I keep thinking about her situation, and about my childhood, and then naturally about my own child.

It's strange to watch someone go from being an ordinary child to being an adult, to being an adult with problems. One can't help but wonder when a person's life went from being about getting good grades and fitting in with childhood peer groups to being about heavy adult struggles and the inability to cope.

When I was a certain age, pretty much the most important thing in the whole world was basketball. Any chance I could get to play basketball, I would. I'd call friends over, and we'd play for hours. We'd play at school. We'd play in athletic leagues. We'd play basketball. What ended all this was junior high team tryouts. Some of us made the team, and some of us didn't. Those who did stopped playing with those who didn't so that they could play with the school team. It's kind of a shame that such a thing would separate us, but I suppose it's only fair. With our basketball-playing group thus dismantled, no further getting together was quite as fun. Eventually the whole thing tapered off. We went our separate ways and got involved in other aspects of our lives.

This sort of thing played out in my own childhood many different times. In the early days, we all ran around together. Later, I got heavily involved in competitive running and spent that time by myself instead. Some of us used to get together and listen to music and jam on our guitars. Then some of us formed a band and the larger group dissolved. Those who weren't in the band stopped playing music and went back to what they were doing before - in this case, Dungeons & Dragons - while the bandmates experimented briefly with being cool. (Don't worry, it was short-lived.)

It's rare to experience a lifelong friendship. I don't have any close friends from when I was a little boy. I keep in touch with some people via social media, but we don't regularly interact. The progressive, lifelong process of becoming more specialized has a tendency to limit our interaction with a broader group. A diverse set of friends can come together, but by adulthood they usually need a common excuse to do it: a book club, a work group, a hobby, etc.

So, it's not that friends ever become less important, it's just that the natural progression of existence is to go from being surrounded by a community of friends to being surrounded mostly by your own family. I'm not at all sure that this is a bad thing.

But every now and then news comes in of an old friend passing away or a former neighbor getting into legal or other trouble, and from our own internal perspective, it's jarring. We weren't there to experience the transition, and so for us it comes out of nowhere. The girl who once had a crush on you passed away in a car accident. The neighbor down the street developed a drug problem. The student-body officer had financial trouble, and then a mental breakdown. The city league teammate you had developed cancer.

Thankfully, it sometimes works the other way, too. The cranky loner with a scowl on his face overcame his depression and raised a happy family. The aloof snob discovered her alternative lifestyle after high school and became open and welcoming of all people. The poor kid started his own business and got rich. The shy wallflower became a social worker and helped hundreds of people have better lives.

Well, that's life. We all play one of these roles. A major part of my blog's purpose has been to comment on the various paths that lead to ruin, and how to avoid them. Maintain a long-range cognitive time-horizon; leverage principles of individuality in the face of strong negative influence; learn effective communication strategies; don't willingly maintain any serious illusions about your life or your world; always learn, always grow, always feed your sense of self-improvement. We can make the world a better place by being better people.

Nita Strauss And Hard Questions About Sexism

Blabbermouth.net is an online tabloid that covers heavy metal and hard rock music, musicians, and their attendant muckraking. It is essentially a clickbait platform that uses out-of-context quotations and sensational headlines to drive ad revenue though clicks and other such dirty tricks. It has a negative reputation, but despite that fact can be entertaining thanks to the heavy metal community itself, which is comprised of many people who like to joke around.

The typical Blabbermouth news cycle goes something like this: First, some legitimate news outlet reports on something happening in the music world. Second, Blabbermouth re-blogs it on its own spammy website. Third, music fans on social media exchange funny and/or belligerent comments with each other under Blabbermouth's comments threads.

Recently, Blabbermouth reported on guitarist Nita Strauss' latest project, which is called "Body Shred." Although the promotional video (see below) doesn't explain how to "win" the challenge, based on what I can infer from the website, it appears to be somewhat of a cross between DietBet, PledgeMusic, and a private Nita Strauss social media fanclub.

I have nothing against Nita Strauss or this projects, and I wish her all the success she deserves.

Predictably, the Blabbermouth commentariat focused in on Nita Strauss' physical appearance, and not necessarily in a way that emphasized physical fitness, if you know what I mean. Many of the ensuing comments were vague or not-vague sexual references, approving comments on Strauss' worth as eye candy, suggestions that the promotional video looked like the opening scene of a pornographic sequence, and so on.

One can easily imagine that Nita Strauss, being an attractive woman in the music industry, has dealt with her fair share of objectification and harassment, but if these comments are any indication, she has had to deal with even more than I would have expected. Every time I start to gain the impression that society has for the  most part moved on from overt sexism, something like this proves me wrong.

Thus, my first impression of Nita Strauss' Body Shred was sympathy. I felt bad that she would go through the work of putting together what looks like an interesting and worthy project with her partners and sponsors, only to have to try to overcome a dark cloud of sexist mockery. She'll need to overcome that mockery in order for her project to be successful, because no heavy metal fan is going to sign up for "Nita Strauss' Body Shred" if all their friends are winking and nudging each other and making sexist jibes about the whole thing.

That was my first impression, but then I started thinking about it a little more carefully.

As you can see from the photo gallery on Nita Strauss' website, Ms. Strauss dresses pretty modestly compared to some women in the world of rock. She's also an excellent guitar player and performer. The point is, it would be incredibly wrong to suggest that Ms. Strauss has relied on her looks to establish herself and her career.

On the other hand, it would be downright foolish to assert that her looks have played no role in making her famous; after all, she is a beautiful woman in addition to being a good guitar player. Like it or not, "great guitar player who is also beautiful" is a much more marketable entertainment product than "just a great guitar player" is. Furthermore, a simple web search reveals that there are plenty of promotional photos of Nita Strauss that emphasize her physical appearance more than her guitar-playing. I don't fault her for this, and I would certainly do the same if I were in her position. Who knows, maybe I'd even go further. And maybe the fact that she hasn't gone further is one of the reasons she's had as successful a career as she's had. I don't know; I'm no expert here.

The fact remains, however, that Strauss' looks have played an important role in her music career. There's just no use denying it. The release of an exercise program, or fitness challenge, or whatever Body Shred actually is, certainly plays into that aspect of the Nita Strauss business entity. "Ugly Chick Fitness Challenge" would not be a particularly successful business venture; but I think "Nita Strauss' Body Shred" will be. That's an important attribute of the whole endeavor.

So, in light of all that, how do we grapple with this? What is the right way to conceive of a project that ought not become an excuse to objectify someone, and yet which relies on a certain level of objectification in order to be interesting in the first place?

By the way, this question is not unique to this particular fitness challenge. We can go all the way back to the Jane Fonda Workout program, if we want to. Heck, I'm told that my great-grandmother on my mother's side had a big crush on Jack LaLanne. Fitness programs offer us a chance to make ourselves look, not just healthy, but sexy. Fitness videos very often cast professional fitness models, people whose sole livelihood is working out and looking as sexy as possible. Part of the audience they're selling to is the kind of people who watch the jumping jacks in slow motion. If there weren't so many of those kinds of people, the fitness industry would be a lot smaller and less profitable than it is today.

To some extent, fitness is always about looks. But is that good, bad, or neutral? Is it shallow to be motivated by the prospect of looking sexy? Is it wrong to be motivated to get fit just so that you can gain access to videos of Nita Strauss doing jumping jacks in a sports bra? If that's your motivation, but you end up getting fit, winning the contest, meeting Nita Strauss, and being perfectly nice and polite to her, is what you've done still "problematic?" Is it wrong to want to work out at the gym just because a lot of the other gym patrons are good-looking?

All these questions should be relatively easy to answer. The reason they're not is because whenever people like Nita Strauss release fitness videos, people like the Blabbermouth readership post insane and hurtfully sexist comments. I don’t think it's morally wrong to have private, racy thoughts about famous people, and I'm not even sure that it's morally wrong to be motivated by such thoughts (even if it is odd). But there is a line we shouldn't cross. It's obvious when people cross it, but it's virtually impossible to explain in advance of crossing it. And if we only ever approach the line in our imagination, what does morality say then?

Or is everything fair game in the imagination?


Garmin Connect Update

After the latest round of Garmin updates, my Forerunner 645 watch can no longer sync with the Garmin Connect calendar automatically. This means that if I want to schedule a workout and have my watch automatically walk me through it, I need to connect my watch to a personal computer and use the old "Garmin Express" desktop application to manage the file transfer.

Needless to say, this is highly inconvenient. As inconvenient as it is, it's worth keeping things in perspective. Just a few years ago, this was the only way to do it, anyway. It is only Garmin's technological advancement that ever enabled us to move beyond hard-wired file transfers for workouts on running watches. We've been spoiled by modernity. Still, no one likes moving backwards. This was a functionality that I was enjoying from my watch; it's no fun to see it disappear.

From what I can tell, the newer Garmin watches, including their newest offerings just recently released, do not have this problem. They synchronize automatically without issue. My suspicion is that these new watches use a different bit of software code to handle the transfer, and Garmin decided that it didn't want to support the older platform anymore. I work in tech and have some familiarity with this kind of decision-making. From a consumer's standpoint, it can be frustrating, but ultimately it is an economic decision. Every technology company eventually reaches a point where it has to decide how many of its resources it can afford to spend on the support of older products and applications. The world of apps and smart watches moves particularly fast, and unlike Samsung and Apple, Garmin must support devices on multiple smartphone platforms. It is not always as simple as maintaining the old code and adding new code. Imagine supporting every watch on every version of Android and every version of iOS. It's a lot of work, and it's not the only thing that Garmin does as a company. They also develop and manufacture hardware, improve the state of GPS tracking technology, and so on. Their latest app, along with their latest watches even track menstrual cycles and can predict if you're coming down with a cold. With all this new technology being released, I can forgive them for requiring me to simply plug my watch into my computer from time to time to sync my training schedule. It's a minor thing.

But I wanted to write about it here on the blog, since I spend a lot of time blogging about smart watches and reporting on their various technological issues. For those of you shopping for a new smart watch and interested in guided workouts that sync to your watch from your app, you'll want to choose a new Garmin watch, rather than one of the older ones.

Coincidentally, this is probably the most convenient time for me to experience this deprecation of features. As I recently wrote, I'm not following the Garmin HR-based training schedule anymore and had been modifying my workouts to involve pace targets instead. That meant that all the future workouts that had been synced to my watch were the old HR-based ones that I had been disregarding while I attempted to re-configure all the workouts on my calendar. For me, it all works out fine in the end. For the next day or two, I can complete my workouts "the old-fashioned way," by simply using my watch as a stopwatch that tracks my GPS data. No big deal. Then I'll finish editing my workouts and upload them to my watch manually. Problem solved.


Applied Assertiveness

A number of years ago, I invested in some assertiveness training from a professional counselor. It was money very well-spent, and I would recommend it if you've ever considered it; maybe even if you haven't.

I was thinking about it this morning because I overheard a couple of conversations that jogged my memory. The conversations were both very similar. In both cases, women were happily engaged in outdoor activities when they were joined by uninvited men. In both cases, the women immediately set to work dropping hints get the men to leave; hints that the men either ignored or failed to recognize. In each case, the understandably frustrated women stated that they hated men who did this sort of thing, and said that they were offended that men would see women outside in public and automatically assume that they need to be chaperoned and kept company.

Naturally, this caused me to think about my assertiveness training, because the solution offered by assertiveness experts to both of these unwanted situations is for the women to assertively state, firmly but politely, that they do not want the uninvited company. The men must then move on without the women. It's true that the men in these situations might have felt angry or offended at being dismissed, but in the assertiveness paradigm, that's beyond the women's control. The women get to control what they say and with whom they associate; they do not get to control anyone else's feelings. The men must bear responsibility for their own feelings here. Such is the risk of attempting to join a stranger without having been invited to do so.

But notice the pattern here. First the women were confronted by a situation they did not want to participate in. Next, they decided to communicate passively to the men, rather than assertively. After passive communication failed to elicit the desired response, the women chose to speculate - negatively - about the men's motives.

We can all think of a handful of likely reasons why men would approach women in public and attempt to join up with them. Not all of those reasons are negative. Absent any direct evidence that the men genuinely thought that the women needed to be chaperoned, I think it would be unfair to claim that this is what the men truly thought. (Of course, the scenario with the highest likelihood was simply that the men wanted to meet women and explore the possibility of romantic chemistry. Mere friendship is also a very likely possible motive here.)

No matter how good the men's motives might have been, however, the women are of course under no obligation to accept their kindness. We all have a right to be left alone; none of us are obligated to become friends with a stranger, no matter how good his motives might be. So, in this case, the solution really does appear to be assertiveness: The women should have simply insisted that the men move along. That way, everyone would have been within their rights and no one's day would have been spoiled by a protracted, unwanted, awkward social interaction.

I'm highlighting these situations to illustrate something that wasn't completely obvious to me when I had my assertiveness training: There is a natural connection between passive communication and negative assumptions about other people's motives. With passive communication, we wait for everyone else to get the hint. If they don't, we become frustrated. That frustration often turns into resentment, and that resentment is often misplaced. Just because you couldn't communicate assertively doesn't mean someone else is a jerk for not reading your mind. And when that resentment grows into a full-scale assumption about the other person's private thoughts and motivations, it goes from being understandable frustration to downright silly fantasy. The world is not made up of angels who catch your hints and devils who do not.

If you want something from someone, tell them. Skip the part where you tell yourself stories about what they might be thinking. You don't know what other people are thinking unless they tell you. And even then, it requires assertive communication.

So stop assuming you know what someone's thoughts are and start communicating assertively.


When You're Just Not Feeling It

I'm now eleven weeks through with a 16-week half marathon training schedule, and I feel slower, more lethargic, and more mentally drained than I did at the outset of the program. I have about four more weeks to train for my half marathon and, for the most part, I won't be following the Garmin schedule anymore. I'll be doing my own thing.

Let me acknowledge a few clear positives about this training schedule. First of all, the initial four weeks of training were interesting because they seem to be geared toward building up the runner's endurance base. I didn't expect this, because the schedule's materials indicated that the schedule was for experienced runners who are already used to interval training. In my experience, that has most often meant that one should only use that training schedule if one is already in shape; but in this case, I think what they meant was that this schedule is appropriate for anyone who runs and who has done speed work in the past. At any rate, the first four weeks are definitely intended to build endurance, and in my view, they succeed in accomplishing this. I had worked my way up to running 60 miles per week, which is something I hadn't done for a decade or longer prior to this plan.

A second positive note is that I did not get injured on this plan, so it appears to be quite safe for most runners. I know, I know… that's only one data point, but I have a pretty good feel for these things. I sometimes felt as though I was putting in lots of miles and getting tired, but I never felt that I was at risk of running-related injury. That's worth something.

Another positive - maybe - is the way the plan is constructed. I've never trained under a philosophy quite like it before. The general idea seems to be that the plan starts with workouts that are all between 10 kilometers and 10 miles in length, plus a weekly long run. Each subsequent week, more of the time spent running those 6-10 miles is dedicated to running in HR Zone 4, the aerobic threshold. So, one starts the plan running mainly in Zone 2, and slowly the plan phases in more and more Zone 4 running. I think the idea is that, by the end of the plan, the runner should be able to run in Zone 4 very easily for extended periods of time, and thus the final half marathon will be a breeze.

For people who have never spent much time running at their aerobic threshold, this might be a good approach to take. For runners who have never run competitively and need to get used to pushing themselves harder and harder, I can see how this might get them used to it. So the plan is not all bad. I can envision a kind of runner who would succeed on such a plan.

For me, however, the plan is a terrible fit. So many of the scheduled workouts are assigned to Zone 2 that my "base rate" of running actually declined. I got used to running slower, and that's not beneficial at all. If a runner doesn't spend adequate time running fast, he loses his speed. I don't see any benefit to slowing down in order to achieve a particular heart rate. There doesn't seem to be any underlying purpose to that. If someone already spends the bulk of his time in Zone 2, then fine, Z2 running is just a proxy for "go for an easy run." But for someone who spends a lot of time running fast in order to run fast, this it's counterproductive to slow down on purpose.

Meanwhile, I found that Zone 4 running wasn't hard enough, either. In some cases it is, such as tempo runs and fartlek interval training. But this schedule pretty much maxed out at Zone 4 for all speed work. So I never spent time training to increase my foot speed. Usually, we use track workouts or other kinds of sprint intervals to build that speed, but there were no such workouts in this training schedule. All intervals were to be performed at Zone 4. There were also no tempo runs whatsoever.

Finally, a lot of the workouts were structured in a way that I found unorthodox and not to my liking. A good example of this is the way long runs are structured in this plan. Yesterday's workout, for example, was supposed to be a one-hour-and-twenty-minute easy run (Zone 2 again), followed by 40 minutes at race pace. How on Earth is a runner supposed to run 40 minutes at race pace after a long, slow slog? The schedule essentially asked me to completely tire my muscles out, and then try to run at race pace. That's obviously never going to work.

A better way to do long runs is to either do the entire thing at a moderate pace - say, Zone 3 if you're going by HR zones, or just a comfortable pace otherwise - except for perhaps 10 kilometers in the middle of the long run, done at race pace.

A similarly flawed structure permeated the "threshold runs." The schedule would call for a 10-15 minute warm-up followed by 10-15 minutes at threshold pace; then, without pausing for a brief recovery, the schedule would immediately call for 4-6 intervals at threshold pace again; then, another 10-15 minute threshold interval. In other words, the first "interval" would be 15 minutes at threshold pace, plus the addition of a shorter interval, all together, with no recovery in between. The result of this was that my legs would be completely spent by the end of the first shorter interval, and my remaining intervals would be done at a much slower pace.

That's not productive! What would be better? Well, if I needed to do two "long" intervals and six "short" intervals, then I might organize them like this: 3 x 1 km at a hard pace, with 1:30 recovery in between, followed by 1 x 3 km at hard pace with 3:00 recovery. I'd do that twice, with a warm-up and cool-down, and that would be alright. It might be a tough workout, but it wouldn't expend all my energy on the first two intervals and leaving me too tired to benefit from the later intervals.

So, what's next? Next I spend four weeks training my way. You can get a feel for what that is by checking out my marathon training plan in the blog's header links, but basically I'll be doing standard, comfortable runs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; I'll do a speed/interval workout on Tuesdays and a fartlek or tempo run on Thursdays. Saturdays will be long runs, again done my way, and Sundays will be rest days. As for two-a-days, I will likely do morning runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays to try to remain consistent with what I've been doing up to now.

I expect this more traditional training approach will work better for me than the training plan that I've become disillusioned with, but we shall see. That's the great thing about training: the proof of the pudding is in the tasting and the numbers don't lie. So let's see how it goes.


The Instagram Funhouse Mirror

I have an account on almost all social media, but the only social media I regularly use are Instagram and Strava. I've mentioned both of them on the blog before, but I'll say it again. I use Strava because it is very inspiring and motivating; it makes me want to work out more when I see all the fun workouts other people are doing; it makes me want to run faster when I see how fast everyone else is running. Strava is great fun. I use Instagram because seeing nice photographs of beautiful people having lots of fun makes me happy; it makes me also want to go out and have fun. In fact, I like it so much that I created my own hashtag over it: #havefuntakephotos. This hashtag represents the whole reason I like Instagram. If we all spent more time having fun and taking photos of the fun we were all having, the world would be a better place. I just love it.

Participating in all the fun we're having on Instagram, however, is not as easy as it sometimes appears to be. If, like me, you follow a lot of famous people and "influencers," then you're likely to see many several photographs per day that you'd be lucky to snap in two weeks' time. There's a reason for this: famous people and professional "influencers" invest an enormous amount of time, and often a substantial amount of money, in creating content for their Instagram accounts. It's no mere coincidence that models and actresses are always photogenic and ready with a winning smile several times a day. What the viewer is seeing is often a professionally shot photograph, perhaps an outtake from a paid photo shoot, or a photo taken  months ago in ideal conditions, but only posted today.

Like anything else, you must view Instagram while maintaining the suspension of disbelief. There are only two possibilities: Either a person's life is not really what it looks like on Instagram, or the person has enough wealth to dedicate all that time and money to turning their life into an Instagram account. Either way, you, the average person, are not capable of producing the same kind of content on your own Instagram account unless and until you become a millionaire and/or hire a professional to create content for you.

This is all perfectly obvious, of course, but it became more obvious to me when I undertook the seemingly simple task of posting a photo of every workout I completed from the beginning of my 16-week half marathon training schedule to the end. I'm on week #11, and I haven't come anywhere close to posting one photo per workout. One reason is because I don't like to run with my phone (which is also my camera) strapped to me at all times. I'd rather leave my phone home and pick it up again when my workout is over. And when I'm in a rush to get to work or something, I don't always want to invest the extra five minutes in thinking up a clever Instagram concept-shot, figuring out how to snap it, and then posting it on the internet for all to see.

But the more important reason is this: If I posted a photo of what really happens during my workout, then every photo would look almost exactly the same. The photos would all be along similar routes and landscapes. I have about a week's worth of running clothes, so you'd only ever see me in one of seven shirts. I most often take photos right in front of my house, or from the parking lot outside of work, so you'd only really ever see the same two spots over and over again. I could post photos of other stuff - like, the locker room in my gym, or my blender bottle, or the treadwear on my running shoes - and sometimes I do; but I can only really post so many photos of that.

The point is, when you start cataloging life as it actually is, rather than as we would like it to look on Instagram, then it starts to look very repetitive and uninteresting. Granted, my own life might be a bit more routinized than other peoples' lives, but I suspect not by a wide margin. I think most of us do more or less the same things every day. Think of how many bowls of chopped papaya Milind Soman has posted on Instagram. If I followed his lead, you'd see a bowl of oatmeal in my "Stories" each and every day. I don't know, maybe I should do that, but who wants to stare at my bowl of oatmeal? Even I don't look very closely at it while I'm eating it.

Life - real life - is repetitive and, at least in photos, largely uninteresting. That's why our grandparents only ever took photos when the family got together at holidays. The rest of the time, who cares? Would you want to see a photo of your grandpa smiling into the camera from the driver's seat as he headed off to work? Maybe once, and only for ironic reasons. You certainly wouldn't have wanted to go through a box of that stuff when it was time to clear up his estate.

In the funhouse mirror of Instagram, beautiful people appear to be living beautiful lives, but in reality they just have very good photographers and publicists who ably present the Vanity Fair version of their lives. You don't see the daily bowl of cereal, the commute to work, the business emails and the paperwork, the license renewals, the dental floss, or the trip to the grocery store. You don't see the standing in line or the waiting in the airport lounge, you don't see the second cup of tea and the mindless internet scrolling. You don't see the 25,000 steps I took while running last Sunday, even if you did see my post about going for a long run. You don't see the laundry or the dishes.

Instead, you just see the fun parts. It's nice to see all the fun parts, but it's important to remember that, when you're scrolling through a long newsfeed full of nothing but fun parts, there were hours' worth of banalities that lead up to that photograph, and those banalities were not often worth however many "likes" the photo got.

It's fun to see this stuff, but it is definitely not reality.


On Reshma Saujani And Girls Who Code

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to hear a speech made by Reshma Saujani, founder of the organization Girls Who Code. The speech was, in effect, an explanation of why the Girls Who Code organization exists, according to its founder. The speech was quite polarizing to the audience - polarizing for both men and women in the audience, I must note - mostly because Saujani's mission is transparently partisan.

Saujani is, after all, a former politician and two-time failed congressional candidate for the Democratic party. She mentioned this throughout her speech. She mentioned the Democratic Party by name multiple times, and repeatedly referred to herself as a feminist. It's no surprise that a person like that would give a polarizing speech. We live in a polarized world, politically speaking, anyway.

During her speech, I learned a few more things about Saujani. One was that Saujani herself doesn't know how to code. I found this remarkably odd, for a couple of reasons. First, we've all heard that old phrase, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Saujani considers it very, very important that girls learn how to code; but apparently not important enough to warrant learning herself to code. I guess she thinks it's very, very important for other females to learn to code. Note: she never mentioned why she didn't learn to code.

The second reason I thought it was odd that Saujani doesn't know how to code relates to her reasons for founding her organization in the first place. The way she tells the story, she gained some familiarity with the tech community and started asking herself, "Where are the girls?" She then looked into the matter and discovered that girls don't often choose to study computer programming or become coders. Shen then reasoned, as feminists are wont to do, that girls choose other career paths for reasons of the Patriarchy; namely, the world of computer programming is supposedly "toxic," and "we" teach girls from a young age that they can't do things like code.

Saujani's point is that, if girls want to code, we should support them in that choice. To the extent that anyone ought to be supported in their choices, I agree. That is, if my daughter decided she wanted to learn to code, I'd help her learn and give her all the encouragement she deserves.

But it's important to note that Saujani chose to do something else with her life, other than code, because that's what she wanted. And, according to Saujani herself, girls are choosing careers other than coding, because that's what they want. It is not, however, what Saujani wants girls to choose. Saujani wants girls to make a different choice: to code. So Saujani started an organization whose mission is to steer girls away from what they would otherwise choose to do, toward coding instead.

That is, Saujani doesn't want girls to do as they choose. She wants them to do as Saujani chooses. That doesn't sound like any version of feminism that's appealing to me.

Of course, a straight-forward, albeit cynical, reading of the situation is this: Saujani wants to influence young women and nudge them toward her political ideology. Currently, coders and data analyst hold a lot of power within American society. We're the "cool" career (for now), we command high salaries, and the executives at our firms hold the ear of the Washington power brokers (again, for now). So what Saujani really wants is a piece of that power.

This makes the situation increasingly more odd, though. Saujani is obviously an intelligent woman; so intelligent that I'd wager she'd make a great coder. She is also a reasonably high-profile woman with a certain amount of fame, and that would be enough to get her a foot in the door at any top tech firm, if she had coding chops, too. It seems to me that she could have earned a seat at the same table with a lot less effort if she had done it "the old-fashioned way," by taking a good coding job and working her way up.

Hearing her speak, however, it's as though the thought never even occurred to her. The politician's mentality is something I will never fully understand.

P.S. - Throughout Saujani's presentation, she slung various insults at the stereotypical male coder, and the audience got a big kick out of it, judging by the laughs. I didn't think it was funny, though, and more importantly, I thought it weakened her case. Here's a woman ostensibly trying to, among other things, eliminate discrimination and harassment of women in the high-tech workplace while she herself is committing the same kind of harassment against the males in that environment. Again, that doesn't sound like any version of feminism that's appealing to me.


Life On The Scene

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much influence our chosen social scenes affect our lives, often times in unexpected ways. For example, it’s well documented that former drug addicts usually have to stop hanging around their old, drug-using friends in order to avoid a relapse. It’s not that those friends deliberately try to sabotage the addict, it’s just that the social environment itself promotes drug use. Similarly, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, people whose friends are interested in eating right and working out tend to exercise more often and eat healthier food than other people. And again, it’s not that fitness enthusiasts pressure everyone else to live a healthy lifestyle, it’s just that the atmosphere they create when they socialize promotes physical fitness and a good diet.

Our malleable human minds seem to adapt to the social conditions we’re living in. What you see, hear, and experience becomes your version of normal. And while “being normal” is an individual choice, it seems as though normalcy itself is environmentally dependent.

Consider also, for example, the fact that everyone in every small town in America listens to country music. Everyone. Every small town. Why? It mostly comes down to the fact that country music is what gets played in small towns. These folks like to camp, and go fishing, and ride horses; it’s not because they’re genetically predisposed to enjoy these activities, but because the prevailing culture places a high value on them. We’re influenced by the people around us.

This is obvious enough at the cultural level, but less obvious at the friendship level. We’ll all readily admit to being influenced by our friends, but I think we tend to understate just how much the prevailing sense of normalcy among a group of friends defines what each individual sees as “normal.” I’ve known people who became drug users only because one or two people in their friends group became so; and soon enough, the entire group was using. It’s not all bad news, of course. I’ve known other groups of friends who all got interested in saving for retirement, and before they knew it, they were all exchanging tips and tricks to save the most possible.

Those are single-activity examples. What I’m really interested in is how choosing a particular social group for one reason influences several other, unanticipated aspects of life. For example, a lot of people get into the heavy metal scene because they love the music. There’s nothing about the music that demands that a person dye her hair or wear a metal-studded bracelet, get tattoos, and ride motorcycles. But, invariably, there’s a social culture surrounding the heavy metal music scene, and as one becomes more active in socializing over heavy metal, one becomes more interested in those other things, too.

Some of those things are fine, like riding motorcycles and dying your hair. Other things are not so good for us, such as staying out late, drinking heavily, smoking, vaping, and so on. 

Again, my interest is in how choosing one kind of scene influences other aspects of your life. Or, more specifically, my life. My social scene, when push comes to shove, is the distance-running scene. I never realized how much I identify with that social scene until much later in life, when I spent some years away from that scene and then entered a race one day. I showed up, and my friends all said, “Look, Ryan. Everyone looks like you!” They were right. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who looked like me, dressed like me, spoke like me, and acted a bit like me. I was “home.” Weird.

Well, distance-running is a fun sport that promotes good health; those are the good things that come with being part of that scene. What about the other things that go along with distance running, the unanticipated things, perhaps the negative things? 

Well, distance runners actually drink a lot of beer, and that’s not so healthy. They obsess over their sport a lot, are a little bit neurotic, and, because distance running is an individual sport involving a lot of time spent alone, they tend to be a bit self-absorbed. When I spend too much time in the distance running community, I, too, am susceptible to those things.

There is also a sense of style that goes with distance running. Short hair, t-shirts, running shoes on every occasion, hemp bracelets and necklaces, running watches. Truth be told, I love all these things, and the only reason I can make sense of is because that’s the style within my community. Still, it’s not always a positive. Among my non-running friends, I am perhaps the least stylish one. The only people who understand my sense of style at all are those who have seen me among my running community. That’s when it clicks and they realize that I’m not just an unstylish schmo. I’m just a distance runner.

I think it is an illuminating exercise to consider what community you belong to, what positive things come from being a member of that community, and also, what potentially negative things.


"Then You're Not A Daddy"

I was playing with my daughter at a playground in a park recently when two young boys ran up to the swing set we were playing on and struck up a conversation with us as they, themselves played.

Because the boys didn't know who we were, they did not make any assumptions about my relationship to my daughter. For example, because I was referring to her as "kid" or "kiddo" as I spoke to my daughter, one of the boys, perhaps about four years old, asked me if I had "stolen her."

My daughter laughed and said, "No! He's my daddy!"

"Then why do you call her 'kid'?" the boy asked.

"I call her all kinds of things," I explained. "Kid, kiddo, bub, boop, sweetheart… but her name is…" and then I gave her name. The boy looked confused, but he seemed satisfied at having learned what her name was.

A few moments later, the boy said something I don't quite remember, but he was talking in the abstract about how my daughter, like other kids, should behave well. It was a harmless, playful comment, I just don't remember what it was. Something sort of like this: "You better not make any messes, or else your dad will give you fifty swats!"

"Oh, no," I said emphatically. "I would never swat her. We don't do that at our house."

Seemingly accepting the correction, the boy repeated the same comment, only this time he said "spank" instead of "swat." I corrected him again, telling him that I don't spank my daughter, not ever, and that no one hits each other in our household.

The young boy gave me a bewildered, drop-jawed look and said, "Then you're not a daddy." He was very serious.

After some additional explaining, the boy either understood how discipline works at our house, or he lost interest in the conversation. At that age, it is more or less the same thing, anyway. Still, the situation stuck with me. The question for this small boy was not whether spanking a child is appropriate. The question was much more definition-level than that. To him, a "daddy" is a category of human that is a sub-category of "things that spank children." If someone does not belong to the "things that spank" category, then someone cannot belong to the "daddy" category. And that's just how it is.

We talk about the appropriateness of spanking, but we never consider how that shapes a child's understanding of the world beyond the mere act of spanking or the associated disciplinary situation. How does a child who believes all fathers spank react to the universe?

One possible reaction is that the boy will interact with any male he knows to be a father as though the threat of corporal punishment is always hanging over the exchange. Maybe it doesn't matter; maybe the boy has been through enough spankings that he doesn't fear them. If so, that suggests that spanking is not an effective disciplinary strategy in the long run. If not, then it suggests that spanking is wrong for a different reason, namely that it instills fear and distrust of parental authority figures in children.

I have written in the past about how wrong it is to spank children. All the psychological studies I have ever seen have concluded that spanking is psychologically harmful. There is no scientific argument in favor of spanking. The best non-scientific argument I've heard is that a lot of reasonable people I know were spanked as children and turned out okay. That's not a terrible argument; after all, a process that leads to a widely salutary outcome (good people) is at least potentially a good process. But there's no telling how much better these folks would be, how much better the world would be, had they been given proper discipline rather than spankings.


Pacers Are Unethical: Why "Participation" Ruins The Sport

An interesting discussion arose on Facebook over the weekend.

Last week, I wrote about the website MarathonInvestigation.com, which investigates allegations of cheating in marathons and other races. Most of these instances involve stealing race bibs, illegally duplicating race bibs, or running in races without paying the registration fees. As you can see, a lot of this doesn't quite add up to being what we'd traditionally call "cheating." It's certainly against the rules to steal race swag, but that's more an example of theft than it is an example of cheating at a race.

As it turns out, MarathonInvestigation.com also runs a Facebook discussion group. In my fascination with the world of middling runners who cut corners and steal race bibs, I joined the group to gain more exposure to this world. One recent discussion began when a member of the group posted an article ostensibly about runners who pay professional athletes to serve as their pacers or "rabbits." Despite the somewhat inflammatory title, "Want to Run a Fast Marathon? Pay a Top Athlete to Run It With You," most of the article is about the rise of the coaching industry, not about the prevalence of pacing. Still, many of the coaches in the article freely admit to pacing runners during their marathons, retrieving Gatorade and sports gel for the runners, and even running in front of them on windy days so that the client can draft off them. (Running behind another runner into a headwind, known as drafting, is a way to avoid wind resistance and conserve a lot of energy on a windy day.)

From there, the discussion in the Facebook group took off. To my great surprise, most of the discussion participants didn't see a problem with using a pacer, so long as the pacer himself/herself was a genuinely registered participant in the race. Some brought up the fact that pacing is against the rules in USATF events, but most quickly pointed out that if the race in question isn't USATF-sanctioned, pacing is not expressly against the race rules, and the pacer is not "banditing" the race, they didn't see a problem in using a pacer.

As you can imagine, my opinion is quite a bit different. It seemed rather surprising to me to discover that the prevalent attitude among a group of people who are interested in preventing cheating in road races would take the tack that, so long as something isn't expressly prohibited, it's not a problem. I am not personally of the belief that all permitted things are ethical and that all prohibited things are unethical. In my view, things that are permitted can sometimes be morally wrong; and things that are prohibited can sometimes be morally permissible, or even morally required.

Thus, when it comes to using a pacer in a road race, my view is that it is unethical even if it is permissible. To understand why, we should take the time to examine why using a pacer was ever prohibited by organizations like USATF. If there's really no problem with using a pacer, then why would they ever be made against the rules? I think most people recognize that pacers confer an advantage on the athlete who uses them. Among elite athletes, this advantage is believed to be unfair, that's why it's against their rules. Isn't it hard to claim that an advantage that is deemed unfair at the elite level would somehow be perfectly fine for middling runners?

But why is using a pacer unfair?

Well, one reason is that physical space in a race is limited and therefore precious; occupying some of that space with a teammate whose only goal is to help you run at a particular pace, and has no plans on attempting to with the race himself/herself inhibits the free competitive movement of other athletes. Imagine an important moment in a race occurs during a tight corner turn. If the person I'm trying to pass is running alone, I might have enough space to pass them on the turn, unexpectedly, without wasting too much energy of my own. But if that same competitor is running side-by-side with a pacer, then a race non-participant is blocking my path for a strategic pass. That's not fair. What's to stop such a runner from using twelve different pacers, all of whom surround him and prevent anyone else from passing?

Another reason using pacers is unfair is that it passes off a large part of the sport of running onto someone else. What I mean is, part of the game during a race is monitoring one's own pace and making running speed adjustments accordingly. Not everyone monitors their per-mile pace. Doing so is a major strategic initiative that puts a runner at a distinct competitive advantage. Working with a coach to develop a plan to hit certain mile splits at certain paces is an even more refined version of this. All that's required for this is a stopwatch and the mental ability to remember what pace you're supposed to be running. If a runner can't manage this much, then what has the sport of running become? Essentially, the athlete moves his or her legs while the coach does the rest of the work. Maybe that's what running is to some people, but that's never been what it is to me. The strategic dynamics of a race are, in my view, as important as the physical dynamics. Pacers reduce the mental expenditure required of the competing athlete and thus provide what I consider to be an unfair advantage.

And here we are, back on one of my favorite running-related hobby horses. People who are attempting to win a road race would never even consider using a pacer. They know it's cheating. Even people who are attempting to place well in their age division - weekend warriors and people who are serious enough to compete even if they aren't fast enough to win - do not use pacers. Those who consider running an activity with the power to unleash human potential, who consider it a vehicle for self-improvement and a refinement of their ability to focus mentally through great adversity or great pain, are not inclined to use pacers.

So, who uses pacers? Mostly, it's runners who emphasize the importance of merely finishing. It's the runners who say "anyone who finishes the race is a winner." It's the runners who are willing to do anything it takes to qualify for the Boston Marathon, even though they have no hope of ever winning or placing in the Boston Marathon.

In other words, people who use pacers are the people for whom running is a social signal. They're not interested in competing in a high-profile race, they're only interested in being able to say "I was there!" They're interested in the finisher's medal and the finisher's photo and in telling everyone that they qualified for the Boston Marathon and that they ran in it. They're interested in earning the social signal, but they're not interested in what the signal is supposed to mean. If you talk to such people about running fast, they'll downplay the importance of that, and emphasize participation. "Hey, as long as you get out there and do your best, that's all that matters!" But why, then, is it so important for them to advertise their participation in an exclusive event like the Boston Marathon?

This kind of sentiment, along with stealing race bibs and evading registration fees, is the kind of thing that arises when we make the sport of running a thing about "participation" instead of about competition and winning. When we emphasize the competitive element, then the line between good runners and bad ones becomes clear: those who are fast are good, and those who are not fast are at least not as good as the fast ones. But if we draw the line at "participation," then people find other, less-savory means to express their superiority. They'll resort to using rabbits or stealing bibs in order to be able to say to people that they ran the Boston Marathon. They still want the exclusivity that comes from being a fast runner, but they don't want to have to earn it the way fast runners do: by training hard and learning how to excel in the sport.

So, in the end, this is one more reason why I wish the sport of running would return to its earlier spirit.