Thursday, May 6, 2021

A Little Frog Dying on the Side of the Road

My girlfriend, Christina, and I go for a short walk around our neighborhood just about every morning. It's the sort of thing I used to sneer at. 

"That's not exercising," I'd think, swearing I'd never stoop so low.

I guess never is now. These days, I relish our walks and the thoughts that bubble up, though today's bubbling bubbled over.

She somehow spotted the little frog and stooped to have a look, despite him being no more than two inches long and his coloring blending in with the pavement. He didn't immediately jump, so I bent to investigate as well.

I love frogs. I have since I was a little boy and don't even know why. I just think they're cute, I guess.

Nothing appeared amiss at first. He was just a bit slow to react.

But he was also in the road and that wouldn't do, so we found a stick with which to nudge him. He made a small hop on my first gentle poke to his butt, and everything seemed normal to me.

When Kris said, "I think he has blood on his mouth," I finally noticed everything was all wrong with this little guy (or gal). Not only was he bleeding as she said, but he was also missing parts of his left front and right hind legs.

Needing a pause, I looked away. When I saw the freshly cut grass, it hit me: he'd been caught by those whirling plastic weed trimmer threads and cut to shreds. Not surprising, since the incessant mowing and trimming is a near-daily occurrence in our neighborhood from April through October, but frustrating nonetheless.

I know the grounds crew is just doing the job they're paid to do, but I couldn't help being annoyed seeing the mangled frog and thinking about how humans have this obsessive need to control everything in our environments. Mangling things as we shape them to meet our selfish needs seems to me to be what we do best.

The only other similar incident in my lifetime was arguably much worse. I've blocked out the details of my awful lawn mowing encounter with a nest of baby rabbits years earlier, but I do know I killed at least a couple of them.

I knew this little frog wasn't going to make it, even if he'd managed to instinctively hop when I'd nudged him. I also thought one of God's creatures deserved to be as comfortable as he could for whatever short time he had left.

Kris helped me move him a short distance into the shade at the side of the road next to a bit of water. This wasn't perfect—probably not where he'd have gone to die had he been able—but it was better than laying out in the road.

We often joke about the amount of meat I consume. We've determined it's over a hundred chickens a year (two a week consistently) on top of all the beef, pork, and fish that I also regularly include in my weekly meals.

For the most part, at least until recently, I've thought nothing at all about this. Humans are at the top of the food chain and that's just the way it is in a violent world where survival and sympathy don't often mesh.

After going fishing with my friend Mike and eating a couple of the fish we caught, I had a tiny passing thought about the order of things. It's not like I've never fished before and eaten my catch, but I'm also not out there every weekend and have been especially scarce at the streams in adulthood compared to my youth. So the experience was newish enough that I had this rare moment of self-awareness considering how the fish at the end of my line had given its life to provide me a bit of sport and another meal.

On the heels of my fishing enlightenment, I read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, and the creaky old gears of my mind turned a bit more. Everyone I mention this book to says they've already read it but also never shared any of its wisdom with me, so thanks for nothing. I'll just figure things out on my own.

What I decided is that I won't be scrapping my carnivorous diet for some bean sprouts like Millman, but I did hear his words about the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. I'm starting to pay a little closer attention to those connections.

I'm trying to remember to say grace before meals, for example, just to give thanks for the animal that gave its life so a big fat ass like me can live a while longer. I remember about half the time, but that's better than not at all.

This little brown went back in the stream rather than onto my dinner table.

Like consuming my catch, interconnectedness isn't a new concept for me either. It's just another I hadn't considered in a while. 

My hard-drinking college English professor and coach of WVU's club rugby team, Dr. Fitzpatrick, lectured extensively about how "everything is connected to everything else." He also told me I looked like Sylvester Stallone one night after we'd both had a few too many beers, so consider the source.

I was too young and foolish to immersively read most of the books he assigned, skimming titles I'd have enjoyed like Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany only to extract the information we'd likely be tested on, but Fitz's words resonated with me then and they resonate with me now. That would be the words about connectedness; the ones about Sly didn't ring true with me or with any college women that I recall.

On top of saying grace half the time, I also read more now. Like Mike Tyson said, "Old too soon and wise too late." Or was that a lesser scholar named Benjamin Franklin?

Reading Millman's words about feeling his teacher's presence in the wind rustling through tree leaves—knowing that he needn't wonder any longer where the old man had gone because he was everywhere and had never really left—brought me some comfort. I thought about my daughter, Ruby, and my often desperate longings about where she might be, and that gnawing fear that I'll never see her again eased just a little. 

Maybe if I open my eyes, I can see a little of her now. Perhaps she's here with me all along this walkpart of the stream and the trees and the breeze.

That's why a little dying frog on the side of the road suddenly mattered. She's part of that little frog, too. We all are, and it's part of us.

I was tearing up a little as we moved the frog and promised to come back later. I'd like to say I didn't feel self-conscious about that, but it wouldn't be true. I tried wiping my eyes as we passed some other people continuing on our walk so they wouldn't see me sniffling.

My humiliation was fleeting. In the next breath, I got mad and thought, "To hell with them. I don't even like people. If it was them on the side of the road bleeding from their mouths, I wouldn't lift a finger to help."

I guess I still have some work to do on this idea of everything being connected because I sure don't feel nearly as strong a connection to my fellow man a lot of the time as I do to nature. Besides, if you don't want me to react violently, just like something wild, then maybe don't provoke me with your leering.

When Ruby's death was really raw a few years ago, I'd become infuriated hearing about someone taking the loss of their pet extremely hard. I was clouded by grief and had that all wrong. Nowadays, I roll my eyes harder at mourning the loss of most humans.

What are we compared to the loyalty and unconditional love pets freely give? Destructive and self-serving come to mind. 

We returned early in the evening as promised and found the little frog dead, just as we knew we would. We carried him about thirty yards on a piece of tree bark to a wooded area next to a stream, dug a small grave, placed him in it, covered it with dirt, and marked it with a couple of stones and some wood.

We even made a small cross from a twig before I mumbled something about him returning to his maker, but it's too short to see in the photo. Besides, a visible cross would attract someone to kick it over, and my dwindling opinion of human nature would dwindle some more.

A place to pause on my walks.

Looking closely now at the photo of the little grave we made, I see how it kind of looks like a frog's body with two legs drawn up to each side. We didn't do that intentionally—we were just trying to cover the earth and mark the spot—but I'm glad I noticed the resemblance.

This might all seem a bit silly and melodramatic. Surely I've encountered many dead animals in my lifetime and never took the time to bury them. That's true, but for some reason, I did take the time to bury this one.

Valuing life and recognizing that it matters can't be a bad thing. If we all could do just a little more of that, myself included, then maybe we'd start seeing a little more of the good in each other. 
Maybe I'd also develop a bit more compassion for my fellow man as I continue exploring this idea of interconnectedness.

Rest in peace, little frog. Thank you for the difference you made in my life one dreary day in May.

I'll see you again on a sunny day. I already do.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Water Weights, Billard Barbell, and Tim’s Basement: Memories of My Start in Weight Training

Since I yammer on so much about weight training, I thought I’d share a story about how I got started and why I've persisted for so long.

Every meathead has one of these stories. If you're a fellow meathead, I hope my story brings back memories of your own. If you're not, you still might enjoy reading about how I ended up such an oddball.

My first memory of lifting weights dates back to fourth grade. You’d think a guy who started that early would be really big and strong by now, but let’s just say I’m a slow learner.

I was playing pee-wee football by then. In my community, you could play that level for a couple of years before you graduated to Pop Warner. I wasn’t a bad player, but I was really small, so small in fact that in a school arm-wrestling contest one year the teacher made me go through the girls’ bracket before he’d let me into the boys’ bracket. I was a scrappy little kid, and I distinctly remember thinking I wouldn’t mind having a go at that teacher. Instead, I won the girls’ bracket to get into the boys’ and then did pretty well there too, but I’d had it with being a runt.

This would have been about 1978, and I was already watching a bit of football on television in addition to playing. The first time I laid eyes on Earl Campbell I was fixated on the raw power those tree trunk legs of his could generate. I think maybe the announcer commented that Earl must have been spending a lot of time in the weight room to build legs like that. My ears perked up, and I set out on a quest to build some legs like Earl’s.

Hang on for the ride. I never quite built legs like those, but I tried hard.

I asked my mom for weights for Christmas. She got me a water-filled set from Sears.

The beginning, way back in 1978

Unlike other kids, I lifted my weights. Maybe I wasn’t as dedicated as a mature athlete, but they didn’t just collect dust either. I don't know why I got hooked—I'm sure a psychiatrist would point to my small size and lack of a father figure—but regardless of the exact reason, the pull was strong right from the beginning. It wasn’t long before I’d done enough to outgrow them, so I went back to mom and asked for a real set.

My mom has always sacrificed for her kids. Raising me and my sister alone after our father died when we were young, she’s told me she felt like she had to be both father and mother to us.

One time in college I mentioned over the phone that I liked asparagus. The next thing I knew, a case of canned asparagus showed up on my doorstep. I guess she figured if her son would eat a vegetable to offset some of that beer he was probably swilling, she was going to make sure he had plenty of that vegetable on hand.

The lady in the middle bought us asparagus and anything else we needed.

So when she saw me take a genuine interest in lifting weights and stick with it as a child, she had no qualms about buying me a proper set. Back she went to Sears, and this time she returned with a bench and a real set of weights. The bench was one of those flimsy models that were pretty standard in the 1970s—barely ten inches wide with a scant covering of vinyl and padding over plywood and narrow uprights that looked more like Olive Oil's spindly legs than anything capable of supporting substantial weight.

Why am I whining? Pat Casey did just fine on a bench no better than mine.

The weights, however, were a top-notch home set for the time—cast iron and made by Billard Barbell. I started training more regularly and keeping a training journal. I was proud of my weight set and invited friends over to train with me sometimes, though they never stuck with it like me.

“Whatever,” I thought. Training was my secret anyway.

Lacking squat stands or knowledge of lower body training, my earliest workouts were typical upper-body-focused bro splits. Though Earl was my inspiration, anything resembling his 34" thighs would not come for a few years. I did at least get some leg development from spending time outdoors every day playing neighborhood kickball games and riding my bike up and down the many hills in my West Virginia neighborhood.

I used my Billard set for a good three or four years into middle school, developing a love for home gym training that persists to this day. Though I remained small for my age, I also quietly became one of the stronger kids in my school even if I lacked some of their other athletic gifts.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it. I guess maybe mom sold it when I went to college, but I wish I still had it. I don’t recall ever taking a picture either—remember when we weren’t all tethered to our stupid phones—and I’m afraid the best I can do is this photo I found online.

I’ll tell you who else wishes I had it, or at least the manual—my good friend, Jim Steel, does. That manual, you see, showcases none other than Jim’s boyhood idol, Randy White, demonstrating some of the lifts.

It featured three exercise models. There was a beginner model whose name I’ve forgotten. The intermediate model was Randy. Now if eight-time All-Pro Randy White was only intermediate, then who the heck was the advanced model? That distinction belonged to professional bodybuilder, Bill Grant. I was shocked in writing this article to learn that Bill is still alive and has a website with some cool photos. You can visit it here: Bill Grant Home.

In middle school—it was junior high in those days in my town, encompassing grades seven through nine—my training path went in a new, somewhat more serious, direction. I was a fairly nondescript kid to this point, not particularly noteworthy for much of anything.

I had, however, gained a bit of noticeable chest and tricep development from my regular workouts. Like the simpleton I am, I also liked wearing my t-shirts a little too tight and walking with my arms flared as if I was too big to put them down.

There was a small group of fellow meatheads who would crowd around our school's Universal weight set every day at lunch to get in a few quick sets of benches, dips, pulldowns, curls, and leg presses. The Universal sales rep must have been doing well back then, as I’ve talked to many other people around my age who also recall one of these sets in their school’s gym. Being one of the stronger kids in the small, lunchtime weight training cult may have furthered my burgeoning notoriety.

Does anybody in the over-fifty crowd remember this contraption?

Whatever the reason for my being “discovered,” a thick kid I didn't know well named Tim approached me one day after Algebra class and asked—more like told—me I should get a note from home to begin riding his bus a few days a week to lift with him. His nickname, derived from his stocky appearance, was "Stump" so naturally, I felt I'd found a friend who knew my secret too, or he'd found me.

Just like that, Tim’s arrival signaled the end to my regular workouts with my Billard set. Looking back, the change was broader than just ending those workouts. In the blink of an eye, I’d become a teenager, and a natural breaking away toward adulthood had begun.

Ready or not, I was now branching out beyond my safety net, even if many of these new friendships were based on my familiar interest in weights. Soon, the broader world would occupy a much larger chunk of my time.

In subtle ways, the small and loving family I’d grown up in began to take a backseat. As I became more immersed in my new adopted family’s routines, I frequently stayed at their home for dinner after training, gorging on Janet’s (Tim’s mom’s) delicious Italian fare.

It’s funny to me how these transitions in our lives often take place seamlessly, without our ever really being consciously aware. I certainly don’t remember the exact moment when my Billard weights began to collect dust in a corner, and I didn’t mourn their passing at the time. It just happened naturally, and I only look back now, wistful both for their demise and for the fleeting nature of time. Perhaps our lack of awareness is a blessing, as we might resist the natural order of things if we could see it coming.

Tim’s father, Gene, known affectionately as Gino, was an Assistant Basketball Coach at our high school. A few years after we graduated, he became the Head Coach and won our school’s second state championship in that sport in 2001.

Gene spent entire family meals sketching plays on napkins, never even glancing at his plate as he ate and mumbling half-hearted responses to questions we eventually stopped asking. A conversationalist he was not. The man was consumed by basketball and knew the sport inside out. I guess maybe he thought he didn’t know so much about short, wide kids who wanted to lift heavy weights to become even wider and run into each other at full speed.

Coach Randolph, another important figure who contributed to our success.

Instead of trying to coach Tim in football or weight training, he simply went out and bought him the finest home gym I’d ever seen and probably ever will see. I descended those basement stairs for the first time and my mouth dropped agape as I was greeted by a real power rack, an Olympic bench, an incline bench with a curved back that was more comfortable than any I’ve used in all my years since, a decline bench, a pec dec, a plywood deadlift platform, a chinning bar bolted into the rafters, a preacher curl bench, Olympic bars, an EZ curl bar, and probably 1,000 or more pounds of Olympic plates.

When COVID closed his commercial gym, Tim, still training today, built this primitive set-up.

Are you one of those people who thinks West Virginians live in shacks and don’t wear shoes? Not only did we live just like most other people, but we also had York Barbell Club, or the next best thing to it, right there in my new best friend’s basement.

Tim and I were pretty evenly matched. Overall, he was a bit stronger than me, but I kept up well. We were both competitive and pushed each other to improve, but above the friendly rivalry, we were genuinely supportive of each other.

Completely absent from my memories is any adult instruction whatsoever. Perhaps Tim or Gene knew someone they never had a chance to introduce me to, but I don’t recall a single role model in my youth who trained or could tell me anything about how to do it—not even a coach—so I figured it out on my own.

I do remember Gene driving us up to Morgantown one cold Saturday during the winter of 1985 to attend a strength and conditioning clinic for high school coaches and players held at Mountaineer Field. There again, I guess he figured if he couldn’t provide what we needed himself he’d go and find it for us.

Winfield High, from several hours away in the mysterious Southern part of the state, stood head and shoulders above the rest. Their Coach was a legend named Leon McCoy who built the Generals into a football power with one of the state’s earliest strength and conditioning programs.

Coach McCoy (undated)

Our animated Coach, mostly by way of lack of animation, was an even bigger legend named Wayne Jamison. Coach Jamison had so many things right about life and football that he deserves a separate article, but in contrast with Coach McCoy’s visionary approach to weight training, Jamison retained the prevailing opinion from an earlier era that too much would make players bulky and slow. He didn't discourage us from training on our own, but he also didn't promote it through any formal program.

At a time when most schools lacked the funds for good training facilities, Winfield boasted a stellar weight room. We had a running joke, part of which undoubtedly stemmed from the truth, that the entire student body chipped in to build their equipment, with woodshop hammering nails into benches, auto repair casting weight plates, math class painting numbers on dumbbells, physics students figuring out the optimal bar path for lifting, and on and on.

Even in his mid-fifties, Coach McCoy struck an imposing figure forged from his grueling training as he spoke to us that day, and we hung on his words about toughness and commitment. As if his booming voice wasn’t enough motivation, I glanced out the window as the snow began falling and spotted Mountaineer fullback, Ron Wolfley, running the stadium steps alone. Wolfley would go on to a seven-year NFL career with the Cardinals.

Like pouring gas on a fire, we took that clinic as a sign that we needed even more work, never mind the fact we were already training nearly every day. Three-hour marathon sessions became the norm, as did tendonitis, trouble walking right, and trembling hands when we tried to write or answer the phone most days. In retrospect, wrapping Tim up like a mummy so he could walk 500 out and quarter squat it at 15 probably wasn’t the best idea either, but we loved training, and train we did.

A couple of years later when we knocked Winfield from the playoffs in a 10-8 nailbiter on our frozen home field, I wondered if Coach McCoy’s inspiring speech might have contributed just a bit to his team’s downfall in that game. Regardless, when I recognized him at a WVIAC basketball tournament game in Charleston some twenty years later, I practically ran to his seat to shake his hand.

One summer, Tim even told his family he wasn’t accompanying them to the beach—Myrtle Beach I’m sure since everyone knows that’s where all West Virginians vacation—because he wasn’t missing a week of training. I even thought that was a little crazy, but at least I wasn’t in the awkward position of having to sheepishly ask for a key to their house!

Was this passion in my very nature or did my life experiences shape me? I think it’s a little of both.

You can probably teach just about anyone the “why” and the “how-to” of weight training and even help them develop the self-discipline to train with a degree of focus and stick with it long enough to see results. But this consuming love like I’ve had for nearly as long as I can remember? Maybe, like a game fighter, you're just born with that attribute or you're not.

With formative years like this, is it any wonder I’m still enamored with training in my fifties? It’s been such a part of my life I couldn’t possibly part with it. Even as I age and can only do a fraction of what I used to do, I’ll surely press on with a love for the process and the aura of the gym environment.

After four years or so in Tim’s basement that at the same time feel as close as yesterday and as far away as a lifetime ago now, I went off to college, got into powerlifting, and met other quietly determined training partners with stories worth telling as well. Those experiences were all special too, but the genesis for me was that great little football town of Bridgeport, West Virginia, where my water weights, Billard Barbell, Tim’s basement, and most of all, my childhood, all still live in my memories.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Thoughts on Criticism

I started this blog as an outlet for my grief after my daughter, Ruby, died. I haven't posted anything to it in quite some time because, while grief is still an important topic to me and one that plays a significant role in my daily life even some seven-plus years after her death, I've written most of what I want to say on the topic for now.

Rather than confining the blog strictly to grief topics, I've decided to broaden it. I'm quite an introspective person, perhaps too much so at times. I get in my own way with all this sitting around thinking and don't get as much done as I should.

Well, tough shit. Or as Popeye would say, "I yam what I yam."

I need a place to grapple with all this annoying thinking. Ah-ah-ah, don't even start with, "Why don't you just keep a journal, Chuck, rather than subjecting us to your inner musings?"

I already did that, and here's the problem. Some of these thoughts I write down rise above mere journal entries, at least in my not-so-humble opinion of myself. They're not really articles either though. Or if they are, I don't know who would run them.

So this is the new space in which my blog will operate. If I think it's better than a journal entry in that it has some shareable value, but it also doesn't quite rise to the level of a full-blown article, at least not one with a market, then it goes here.

You're certainly free to skip on past if the words don't speak to you, but hopefully, some of them will speak to some of you some of the time. I welcome any comments, and while I may not respond to all of them, it'll be nice knowing a few people are reading.

Now that logistics are out of the way, let's get to it. Thoughts on criticism, per the clever title above, is the topic of my first entry in the new format.

Criticism stinks!... the TLDR version of my post.

I suppose if someone is being paid to be a critic, then they must do their job. Bosses, teachers, and parents can also rightly criticize from time to time in order to help someone live up to their potential but should do so judiciously, as we should also do our best to accept well-intentioned criticism graciously. Most other forms of criticism, to me anyway, are just jealousy.

Here’s Tom Brady’s pre-NFL draft criticism, written by a scout who was being paid to be critical, so I won’t, in turn, criticize him for writing it. I’m just sharing it as food for thought, and would also caution you to leave your own particular feelings about polarizing Brady out of your reading, lest you miss my point altogether.

"Poor build. Skinny. Lacks great physical stature and arm strength. Lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush. Can’t drive the ball downfield. Does not throw a really tight spiral. System-type player who can get exposed if forced to ad-lib. Gets knocked down easily."

Washington Post reporter, Sally Jenkins, shared that evaluation in a recent column and concluded with her own perceptive take on those aspects of character and will that are so much harder to measure: “From the outside, that is.”

For me, a few thoughts came to mind related not so much to this sort of 
institutional criticism (talent evaluators, film and book critics, etc.) that offers some clear value but more to our self-criticism and criticism of each other. It's the latter that sticks in my craw and that I mostly rebuke.

Don’t tell yourself you can’t do something. Push the negative self-talk aside and just do whatever it is you want to do as hard as you can do it and let the outcome tell you whether it was possible or not. Even then, you may not want to give up after one or two unsuccessful runs at a goal. Regroup, learn from your mistakes, and make another push. Brady himself once went nearly a decade between championships.

Even more important than whatever you tell yourself, don’t tell your kids or significant other they can’t do something. You may think you’re protecting the ones you love, but you’re only handicapping their efforts right from the start and doing irreparable damage both to their psyche and to the relationship itself. Be a source of encouragement or at least shut the hell up. Let them find out for themselves what is and isn’t possible.

Before you open your hateful mouth to criticize a friend, coworker, or even someone you don’t know, do the thing better yourself. The hypercritical person is usually dissatisfied with something in their own life and takes some morose pleasure in bringing others down with them. They’re too scared to risk failure themselves, so they sit on the sidelines and criticize others.

Most of us are perceptive enough to see that sort of pettiness exactly for what it is anyway, so don’t be that person. Live your own life, drawing inspiration from others’ often-unlikely triumphs that can help you achieve your own goals, and don’t dwell so much on their failures.

In many ways, I’m not a very positive person. I even wrote a list of over fifty things I hate that got a few laughs. I prefer unvarnished truth and try not to sugarcoat much of anything I say or write. Overly positive-sounding social media influencers sicken me, because I know they’re frauds who simply want to build fake images in order to sell something. I also openly criticize politicians and systems I think aren’t working, sometimes even changing my mind and looking dumb later.

Despite my negative predilection, I try to walk my talk with the advice I’m giving here. If I see someone trying to accomplish something, I try to be a positive voice of encouragement. If someone brings a project to my attention they’re considering undertaking, I certainly don’t rain all over their parade with all the reasons why I think it will fail. I’ve been disappointed too many times in my own life by people who I thought would be in my corner taking a dump on my ideas that I don’t want to be that crushing blow to anyone else. I may point out something to consider or even that they might do better, but I do so in a spirit of wanting to see them succeed and hopefully they recognize the difference.

We have enough people who never put themselves out there to try to accomplish anything. We should stop tearing those down who are taking on difficult challenges and start building them up. And if we can’t find it in ourselves to do that, then at least do as an old saying my mom used to repeat often advises: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”