Courage

A personal narrative.

(I wrote this for a first-year university English course back in 2013. Because it happened around this time of the year and because the subject came up recently I decided to post it here.)

December 10th.  No deadline loomed as large as this one.  Educational. Professional. Financial. I’ve had some important and imperative things happen in my life but this one eclipsed them all for the sheer amount of energy I spent fretting about it.

“If you want to be good at something you need to set and work towards goals.  Our first goal is to be ready for December 10th.” This was Helen, my music teacher, telling me matter of factly that I would be performing in a concert.  It was a cold fall morning but we were warm in the back of the Conservatory, wrapped in the powdery dryness and acrid whiff of electric baseboard heaters. Helen was seated at a black baby grand piano.  The room was austere save for a trim little bookshelf off to one side that held flowers and family photos. I stood off to the side leaning on my music stand, hands clasped around each side as one would grab a steering wheel, and one foot propped up on the stand’s heavy metal foot.

“I can’t sing in front of an audience!  I get nervous enough just singing in front of you,” I said, taking a step away from the stand.

“You’ll be ready,” she reassured me, “you’re doing great!  You’re wonderful!” For me her British accent lent her credibility as a musician.  She took a swig of her coffee and casually tossed her long chestnut hair over her shoulder and gave me a kind of sincere, “I’m serious” look.  I still thought it was a trick.

“But, you’re the teacher.  You have to say that.  I don’t think students would be inclined to stick around if you told them they were no good,” I rebutted.  I placed my hands on my hips, bowed forward slightly, and stood on my toes momentarily to emphasize my point.  I had called he on her ruse and now she had to admit that I wasn’t cut out for this singing business and let me out of doing the show.

“If my students aren’t ready I tell them that they won’t be performing this year and that we’ll aim for next.”  Drat!

“You just need to loosen up.  You’re so stiff! This ain’t the military, Sir!  Pretend like we’re in a smokey club. It’s 2 AM and we’ve gathered around the piano to sing a few songs.  Forget that it’s 7 AM on on a Saturday in the Conservatory. That’s not good for anybody’s mojo.” I relaxed and closed my eyes and put myself in that club.  I heard the low murmur of the patrons punctuated with the clinkity-clink of ice cubes in glasses and the occasional shot of laughter. I could almost smell the smoke.  We ran through “Georgia on my Mind” and I kept my eyes closed so I could keep the mood of the club. “Goood, goooood!” I would hear every so often when I would hit the notes and timing dead on.  “See? You’re fine. Now let’s run through “Ritz.” Take it from the “Dressed up like a million dollar trouper” part and make it staccato. Don’t draw it out or tie the words together. Easy?”

“Uhh…” does she assume I have a clue because I’m old?  I am an atypical music student. Male. Mid-thirties. Military.  The kids always stared at me when I walked in for my lessons , no doubt wondering why someone’s dad was going into one of the practice rooms.  The building housing the Conservatory wasn’t purpose built and hence was about as sound proof as a screen door is waterproof. I could picture them all sniggering at my off-key caterwauling.  I had decided to get serious about music at the age of thirty-three and bought myself a piano and started taking lessons. The voice lessons were a germ of an idea I’d had in the auspices of professional development.  I loathed public speaking. Knowing I had to speak in front of a group rattled me for days in advance. I thought that if I could train my voice a little that I would grow more comfortable with having to use it in an oratory capacity.  The forced concert was an unanticipated bonus.

The night of the show arrived and it had already been occupying my thoughts for days.  I paced the floor and wondered how I had been convinced to do this. I sized up the other singers: two teen-aged girls, two music teachers from the Conservatory, and the local radio personality.  I did not fit into this group. Everyone was very supportive but I still harboured serious doubts as to whether I could pull this off. My nervousness was just continuing to build. I tried not to pay attention to the patrons that were now trickling into the venue.  I didn’t even look around to see what it was like. The nervousness had completely taken over.

The lights were not as bright as I had hoped they would have been.  I could still see the faces in the crowd. The silence began to blanket the room, slowly accumulating like a steady snowfall.  It was my turn.

You can do it, man.  Count ‘em in.

“One-and-a, two-and-a, three-and-a, four-and-a…”   

100

Success.

I have achieved my goal, I think.  I am roughly 6250 kilometers east of my bathroom scale this morning, again in the UK, ironically.  So, there is no way to be sure, but I am quite confident I made it.  My last weigh-in on the morning of day 99 was 199.2, down one pound from 200.2 the day before following an evening of slight indiscretion while dining at a friend’s house.  Such is life.  Prior to that I had put together a string of 5 sub-200 days with the low point being 197.  

The reward?  Success is its own reward.

All of my clothes fit again.  Now when I catch a glimpse of myself in mirror there is no fear, guilt, or shame.  Make no mistake, this is not out of vanity.  It is out of wanting to be healthy.  The feeling that accompanies eating well and being active far outweighs (groan!) any benefit to change in outward appearance.  That is just a bonus.

How did I do in following the steps I’d laid out and what have I learned?

Food

Healthy eating goes a long way to feeling good all the time.  I already knew that but checking oneself in the moment and taking a second to override the impulse to shove slightly more pizza in your mouth than is reasonably polite is extremely difficult.  Of course, I haven’t eaten a lot of pizza in the past 100 days because I know how hard it is to override that urge.  I’ve maybe had fractions of slices on the rare occasion when it has come into the house via other family members.  But by and large I’ve steered clear of the stuff. 

When you eat too much bad food (which, when you’re generally eating well is not that much, put another way, it doesn’t take a lot) you pay for it. 

Case in point the popcorn I couldn’t refuse the other night.  It was served with the straight-faced announcement, “This is a low calorie snack,” which, even though I got the joke, I wanted desperately to believe.  Half of the nearly uniform popped kernels were dusted in a zesty, cheddar flavoured powder, the rest coated in a sweet caramel.  The combination proved too much and my internal monologue of, “I’ll just have a taste,” was quickly drowned out by the much more gratifying, “OM-NOM-NOM-NOM-NOM!!!!”  That, and a relatively (for me) small quantity of Miss Vickie’s Original potato chips as I barbequed one evening were my only unhealthy snacking deviations. Snacking can still be bad if it is healthy food so I tried hard to be careful with nuts and cheeses.  I find vegetables either too bland to eat in mass quantity, or fill you up long before they become dangerous.

My main weakness is sweets.  I still ate chocolates in moderation and only in the evening after a healthy meal.  Walking past the candy dishes in cubicle land or not buying impulsive candy bars at the grocery store is still extremely difficult to do.

I have been intermittent fasting.  It has been years since I’ve been a regular breakfast eater, although I do like a good breakfast.  I just carried on with that.  Some days, if I knew that my activity level would be low, I would skip lunch.  This one is harder because you have to deal with that gnawing feeling in your gut.  But if you’ve been eating good food (meats and veggies) and drink a ton of water with a few strategically placed coffees you can get by.  Then, if you control yourself and eat healthy, you can eat less at your next meal and be quite satisfied.  Key is to check yourself.

My wife and I had a talk about the changes I’ve been making and I reflected on my capacity for food as I’ve been eating less overall without becoming uncontrollably ravenous.  This caused her to comment, “Yen rentre là-d’dans!” which translates to, “I can’t believe what a pig you are!”

Drink

Far and away, not drinking alcohol was the biggest enabler of success.  This had a three-fold benefit:

  1. Direct caloric reduction – a six pack pushes 1000 calories.  When your needs float between 2000 and 2500 and you’re drinking 2 beers a night or a couple of six packs on the weekend that’s an extra day of eating per week.  52 extra days per year.
  2. Indirect caloric reduction – snacking and drinking are common cronies.  Whether it is a bowl of something salty-crunchy at home or a basket of deep-fried batter at the bar, you can add that to the calories you already don’t need from drinking and your surplus grows.
  3. Drive – nothing removes the motivation to get things done quicker than a couple of bottles of beer.  I have a hard time motivating myself to begin with so mix in a little booze and it’s all over.

I drank water and coffee only.  A lot of water.  No shitty coffee until later in the 100 when I was using it strategically to stave off hunger.  Lots of water is good. 

Exercise

I started out weightlifting and was making okay progress.  I was doing the workouts, weights were going up (the ones on the bar, not mine) and I was feeling good.  But I did start to have knee pain.  I went to the doc and we did some x-rays and he sent me to physio.  I was told in 2015 that I have early onset osteo-arthritis and now the x-ray shows some deterioration.  After one particularly intense training session I was in agony for a week.  I’m assured by my physiotherapist that staying active and properly stimulating the knee will promote the right strength and consequent reduction in pain.  Taking weight off the body takes it off the knee and that’s reason enough for me to pursue weight loss.

It is still cold in Manitoba, snowing as recently as 2 days ago with sub-freezing overnight lows.  I’ve managed to get back on the bike though and hopefully once back from this trip it will be more of a full-time endeavour.

I’ve neglected moving as much as I could so that is my area for improvement in the coming weeks.

Other

I have managed to get up earlier!  It isn’t nearly as hellish as I thought it would be.  There is something magical about finishing your chores for the day to discover that the clock hasn’t struck 12 yet.  I’ve felt lately that I don’t have enough time for everything I want to do but the problem wasn’t the time, it was me.  I was spending it in bed.

I did have a forced period of phone-less-ness after forgetting my charger on a trip.  I turned on power saving mode and kept the phone off most of the time.  I would turn it on in the morning and the evening to check messages.  If I had any other business on-line I would go to the computer to do it, just like in the halcyon days of the early 2000’s.  There was a certain relief in knowing I didn’t have thing and I may try this out some more soon.

There absolutely was no phasing in, or starting tomorrow.  I ran into this thing headlong and so far I haven’t looked back.  I don’t plan on it either.  I chose 100 days because it would be a tough streak to end.  It would encompass enough life events to test my mettle (my birthday, my wife’s birthday, and a particularly stressful time at work).  I chose it after thinking a long time and coming to the conclusion that there is no good time to start making changes, hence the best time is right now.

Also, I’ve decided that this is not the end, but the beginning.

When The Next Action is Inaction

Incremental advancement towards a long term goal like health or wealth involves a lot of waiting and patience.  One of the things I’ve found most difficult is that often the next action is no action at all.  Once you’ve set a goal for yourself, you figure out how it is that you are going to achieve it.  You figure out a system, the major actions and milestones that will get you there, set it up, and start working on what you can work on. But most of the time you’re just trying to leave well enough alone. 

Accounts don’t go from hundreds to millions overnight and the pounds don’t melt away from one weighing to the next.  In order to see progress you have put in the time, then zoom out and see how you’re doing. 

So?  How am I doing?

Wealth

I’ve become a much better saver since I’ve been awakened to the true power of money.  I sold my second vehicle, the beloved Sienna, and bought a bicycle.  That was a great move.  I do miss the van from time to time but I’ve only had one instance where not having a second vehicle cost me a cab ride.  Peanuts when you compare it to a year of full ownership. 

Project Winter Brick.

I did end up driving a lot of the winter.  Project winter bike was a failure.  A tank of a vehicle with poor gear ratio and high rolling resistance.  I rode it to work once and had to stand on the pedals the entire time.  My legs were burning all day and then I had to ride the damned thing home again.  By the time I got around to reconsidering my design, we were in solid minus 40.  There was no incentive to continue biking so I admitted defeat and drove until the weather picked up.

Money is being spent more practically and that which isn’t is being shuttled into investment accounts to quietly do work for me.

I didn’t get it perfect right away.  My resolve to drink less beer faded almost immediately and directly with my work ethic when it came to exercise, so demotivating a Manitoba winter can be.  I could blame it on that but that would be a cop out.  A failure to take responsibility.  That takes us to…

Health

I wrote “Will’s Hundred Days” one day in late January.  My call to arms.  A galvanizing manifesto.  A touchstone for my personal well-being.  A plan.  I didn’t post it until day 79 and today is day 89.  I am not at my goal yet so I’m cutting it pretty close but I am pleased with how I am doing and what I have learned so far.

If I had to identify it, the Jesus Nut holding the whole thing together is not drinking alcohol.  I knew that curtailing alcohol would be key but I had no idea how much effect it had had on my life.  In my mind the beer was extra calories, and it led to snacking, and gave momentum to doing little in the evenings and sleeping in in the mornings, and feeling like general crap.

On the way to the pub!

I had tried a Whole30 in 2014 and not really enjoyed the no booze aspect.  It came to an abrupt end as day 28 found me on a work trip in the UK.  Sat in an old stone pub on the river Thames with some good friends I caved to the peer pressure to have a beer.  My refusal to order a beer and explanation of Whole30 was rebutted with what can be paraphrased, “C’mon, really?”  To this I immediately capitulated and ordered a pint of London Pride.  I am also not a “one beer” kind of guy.

This time I made it different.  100 days is significant.  100 days isn’t thrown away with a light scoffing from friends.  Not drinking has empowered me to action the rest of my plan.  I’ve been eating better.  Not snacking (as much).  Lifting weights and being active.  Getting shit done.  Reading more.  Sleeping better.  Being more social (this one surprised me).  Being more confident. Having a better outlook. The list goes on.

A wise man once told me, “Look good, feel good. Feel good, look even better”

A Wise Man

The end is drawing near.  You’ll have to check back to see if I made it but in the meantime I need your help.  I want to celebrate my milestone 100th day.  I’ve traditionally celebrated with a drink but that is off the table.  100 days is too great to immediately sacrifice for a short term pleasure. 

Leave a comment and let me know how you would celebrate an important milestone.

Tough love from the harshest critic…

Hi, everyone. I wrote this to myself as a call to arms in late January. I had intended to post it here for a little public accountability but hesitated. Once I finally decided to post I’d lost my login credentials. So, here it is now. I have a few more in the queue as well. Enjoy!

Good grief, you are one fat fuck.  Yeah, I saw you in the mirror this morning and it is disgusting!  You must be pushing 225, 230?  That is way too much for a guy with so little muscle.  I can’t believe that you’ve let yourself get here again!  You were doing so well before winter hit… biking a lot, eating well… you had it together then you let it all slide… again.

What happened in 2011 when you discovered primal living, paleo, and the like?  You were supposed to become a strong, lean machine but you never stuck it out.  You get caught in these endless loops of drinking beer and eating shitty food.  “I won’t drink today, but I can eat crappy food to feel better (spoiler: doesn’t work) and because I can’t quit everything at once.  Well, I ate crappy food today so because today is shot I can have beer.”  What are you going to do about it?

Well?

Mmm…

Well, the cycle stops RIGHT FUCKING NOW!  Yeah, you had beer and McDonald’s last night but that is no reason to follow up with a breakfast sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, and endless cups of shitty coffee.  Here is the plan, with an END STATE so you can VISUALIZE and WORK TOWARDS that goal.  Are you ready for it?

ARE YOU FUCKING READY??!!!

Good.  Here is the quantitative goal:

Sub 200 lbs bodyweight in the next 100 days.  That means by May 8th, 2019.

How do you get there?

Change the following direct factors:

Food – You eat like shit yet you preach eating healthy.  Start modelling that behaviour.  Here’s how:

  • No shit food (you know what that is)
  • IF.  8 hour window on activity days.  Full fast on sloth days.

Drink – Despite how good it is, there is no need for booze.

  • Water only.  No excuses.  One coffee in the AM… that you make, with love, at home.  Stop drinking that disgusting sludge that passes for coffee at work.

Exercise – get back to it.  It makes you feel good so there is no reason to take “breaks”. 

  • Thrice weekly barbell sessions.  The gym is right fucking there.  Just bring your damn clothes with you to work and go knock out the sets.
  • Keep riding!!! It’s cold?  You can handle it. 
  • Anything else any other time… push-ups, squats, sprints, ladder? biking, PT, rolling, hockey, etc.

Address the indirect factors, too… 

  • Get your lazy ass out of bed in the morning!  Anything past 6 am is a luxury… as the weather turns warmer it’ll be a joy to start your day with a little light and movement.
  • Keep minding the pennies!  You are doing great in that department and implementing all this other shit (that you should have been doing all along) will only help.  Crappy food is the worst purchase.
  • Put your phone down!  There’s nothing on there most of the time you’re looking at it, anyway.  You’re usually just hopelessly looking for a distraction from the shit you know you should be doing.

There is no “phasing in” or “I’ll start tomorrow”.  You start NOW and you can tweak as you go.  There will be periods of discomfort and struggle, but don’t they feel better than when you’re struggling from being over-tired, hungover, or full of shitty food?

Get it on!

The Low Flyer’s Flight Plan

Why the Airport Sucks and What to do About It

Everyone is off buying stuff.

I imagine many of you will be, or are already, travelling for the relentless consumption onslaught known as the holiday season.  If this is the case, then consider this when next passing through the airport. (Written back in October)

So, I have to travel to Ottawa for work to rot through some stifling office meetings.  This means I have to pass through one of the greatest money-sinks I know of, the airport.  I am sitting in the departures area of Winnipeg – James Armstrong Richardson as I type, on the far-east side where there are several benches, placed lounge style, by the Starbucks.  Previously my travels would begin here, in line for a coffee and probably a cookie (chocolate chunk, not warmed), but not this time. Throw in a bottle of water or two (depending on the length of travel day), a few magazines, and something I inevitably forgot at home and we’re easily already pushing $50.  

Looking around it is obvious that most folks have spent a few bucks here this morning before even boarding the plane.

Today was supposed to be different.  I had planned on bringing library books, a water bottle, and a healthy snack but I forgot them all in the rush to leave for the simple reason that I enjoy being in bed as long as possible.  

The one thing I did do is have a high protein breakfast and a couple of coffees before leaving the house, which eliminates the need for Starbucks and lunch.  Water fountains will do on the two short hops I have today, and instead of reading, I browsed the bookstore and jotted down some titles to reserve on-line from my local library for later reading or upcoming travel.  If I were smart I would use my time to make a list for future trips and pack the night before, thus eliminating forgotten items, morning-of anxiety, and affording more precious time in bed.

The folks who run airports have done an excellent job of creating needs that we shouldn’t really have.  A lot of flying, or any travelling, involves long periods of sitting or waiting. Because of this we are easily lured into consuming out of no other need than relief of boredom.  Why not feed, water, and entertain yourself prior to that flight? The fact that water cannot be brought through security might make us want it even more once we are on the other side.  This may be less a matter of our collective safety and more some smart lobbying by the beverage companies, no? Being a captive, shut off from the rest of society, we are at the mercy of what is provided to us, all of it at a significant and arbitrary mark-up.  I have admittedly had glasses of wine that cost more than a moderately priced bottle while waiting for overseas flights at Pearson.

No more.

When you do a bit of analysis and planning ahead it is easy to navigate the commercial pitfalls of the airport.  Look at my trip today, for example. Protein based breakfast. Leave the house at 9:10. Board at 10:15, airborne at 10:45. Two and a bit hour flight to Toronto. Had I remembered to bring it, I would eat my healthy snack here. Fortunately, I am somewhat practiced in intermittent fasting and will instead resist the temptation that is beer and pizza at Boccone and embrace the mild hunger that is a by-product of my body using its ample, but dwindling, stored resources.  Airborne again and on the ground in Ottawa at just after 4pm (3, my time), bag gathered, taxi to town, into the hotel, and mere steps to food that I will enjoy much more than had I partaken in the carb-centric, overpriced airport fare. If I am quick, I can have food in my belly by 5pm (4, my time), a fasting time of maximum 8.5 hours, depending on whether or not you forgot your snack.

Cost: free.  

Benefit: increased tolerance of discomfort, reduced calorie intake, increased enjoyment of the late meal, and $15-$30 or more dollars saved, depending on meal choice.  

Win, win, win, win.  The choice is clear.

Reduced consumption also means reduced demand1.  If you start applying this strategy to 10, 25, 50 percent, or more, of air travellers the impact is huge.    

The airport is still fun without partaking in all that is offered to you on the other side of security.  Don’t forget that you will return to normal civilization (and pricing schemes) on arrival. Embrace your library books, re-usable water bottles, healthy snacks, people watching opportunities, quiet time, and all that is a frugal airport visit.  

Happy holidays and save-on!

1 – Next time you fly, watch how many people throw out a plastic or Styrofoam cup when the cabin crew comes through to clean. If the over 4 billion annual airline passengers all brought their own water bottle and filled it on the other side of security, imagine how much waste would be reduced.

Once in Ottawa I set out to find my dinner (at the grocery store), and a new water bottle.  I stopped at a national chain sporting goods store and found the bottles. There were two sizes, a 1 litre and a 1.5 litre.  The 1.5 L were $8 less than the small ones because the small ones were screened with Marvel comics’ characters.  Happy to add a bigger bottle to my arsenal, I went back to the hotel only to find that it would not fit in the sink for filling.  To do this I had to use the coffee pot to transfer water from the tap to my bottle.

One Year, No, um, Less Beer

Mmm… beer. 

If you got that, you were a consumer of pop culture in the 1990’s, or have spent some time in the company of someone who has.

And who doesn’t love a cold frosty one?  Beer is pervasive in our culture and I cannot remember a time in my life when it wasn’t around.  It was in that old fridge in the garage, at picnics, at parties, at the cottage, on the boat, at dinners, at home, and seemingly everywhere, all the time.  Where I grew up in Ontario, beer was bought at its own store, The Beer Store.  Of course it was an adult drink and you couldn’t have any, which only added to the mystique.  The odd sip was offered by parents and uncles and it did not taste good but, as we learn later in life, the taste is not the thing… it is the effect.

I remember clearly, oddly enough, the first time I drank more than a couple of sips of beer.  It was the spring of 1994.  The days were starting to get longer and warmer, and everyone was itching for the end of the school year and the sweet freedom that came with it.  I played my first season on the school rugby team that year.  Not because I’m a great athlete, but because they were desperate for players and were accepting all comers.  It was a lot of fun and after the season ended our two university aged coaches held a party to mark the occasion.  A keg party.

On the day of the party I went home from school and got the required ten bucks from my dad under false pretenses and took off on my bike to the party.  The beer on tap was Rickard’s Red and from the time I arrived until who knows when, my cup was never empty for long.  The walk around the pool got steadily more hazardous, I sang a smokin‘ duet of Mr. Jones with a teammate, and everyone had a great time. 

At the end of the night I biked home.  I only hit the curb and fell over a few times and stopped at my friend’s house down the street because he insisted I needed some wake-up juice.  It contained a raw egg, hot sauce, and several other ingredients that I can’t remember.  Arriving at home I did my best to store my bike in the back of the carport, wrestling with those doors was tricky even under ideal circumstances, failing miserably and making so much noise that the neighbours thought I was trying to steal a bike and not put one away.

My parents were still up.  I tried to play it cool but there was no saving face.  They were good enough about it and let me go sleep it off.

Thus began a life long love affair with beer. The problem for those of us who are trying to be frugal is that beer is expensive, and completely unnecessary for a happy life. It is also a very social thing which makes it hard to do away with when getting together with other people. 

I’ve taken pauses with beer over the years and it is time for another one.  I initially thought I would try to go a year without beer, as the title suggests but I am a realist and I know that times will come where the suds are being served and I will want to partake.  The challenge will be to think before I drink.  To carefully evaluate the what and the why of each beer and make sure that I’m not having it just because.