Rant 41 July 2007: Walk the walk

I’m not just the President of Hair Club for Men. I’m also a client.

In a world where life is uncertain, people like to have someplace to hang their hat. Having such an existential headwear receptacle kinda takes the edge off the sense that at all times we are standing on the edge of the abyss as the ground crumbles beneath our toes. For most of us with busy lives, we’re pretty much one crisis away from totally losing our shit.

Thus, it’s understandable that people latch on to leaders and grand ideas. While having a bevy of flunkies to do our bidding is a fine fantasy, in reality the majority of people find it rather bothersome to be in charge all the time, or even some of the time. Leading isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It requires decisions and independent thinking and responsibility and lots and lots of cat herding. And as we corral the meowing lot into the enclosure, we think “Why can’t I offload this job on to some other sucker?”

Enter the guru. The guru – or genius, or visionary, or whatever you want to call it – is a person who seems to have a grand explanation of the universe while at the same time speaking directly to you, the lumpenproletariat. However this grand explanation, often surprisingly, is not messy at all, but tidy and simple and delivered in a few easy installments. The guru strokes your furrowed brow and soothes you with the promise that if you just buy in then things will be okay. Things will be cool. The toddler puke will come out of the Persian carpet. The sales presentation will go swimmingly. Your problems will be like buttah. Your abs will look like the Himalayas made out of broken glass. Your breasts will defy Newtonian physics and end up as perfect, harmonious, luminous spheres as only a medieval astronomer could invent. Your thighs will be so thin that they will be invisible and people will think your boyish hips are hovering magically above a pair of Manolos.

But the gurus often have dirty little secrets. They can’t do their own workouts and they don’t follow their own advice. Their chemically and/or surgically enhanced physiques make Joan Rivers look like the Ivory Girl. Rumour has it that at least a few big names in the fitness biz are, shall we say, purveyors of bovine excreta when it comes to walking the walk. (Rumour also has it that many are the bona fide real deal. I ain’t sayin’ who’s who.)

Now, not everyone can be an Olympic champion. Like milk, certain things have a best-before date. Injuries, age, and the capricious events of life can be cruel. And eventually, sooner or later, they get their way. So, reasonably, nobody expects a coach or a trainer to be the best of the best all the time. After all, if they were the best of the best, they’d probably be quite busy training and winning things instead of yelling at your sorry ass hauling up and down the track.

Nevertheless it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect people to model the behaviour they expect from others. It’s important here to distinguish between coaching sport performance and training a client to manage the demands of life well enough to make exercise and good nutrition a priority. It’s understandable and entirely sensible that a coach might retire from athletic competition. And given my mediocre athletic gifts it’s entirely reasonable for any grasshopper I train to surpass the mistress. But retiring from self-care, especially when exhorting clients working full time jobs and caring for 2.5 kids to hit the gym and eat their veggies… now that’s another ball of wax. Do as I say not as I do doesn’t hold much credibility for me. I don’t do what Donny Don’t Doesn’t Do. Or something.

I had a client once, a big bear of a man, who in the beginning seemed rather dubious about granting me any authority. He insisted he couldn’t do pushups very well. Then he didn’t want to. Hey, we all have to start somewhere, so I didn’t judge this stance. Maybe he had some childhood pushup trauma. You never know. Anyway, he hemmed and hawed about trying it until I said, “Look, if I do some pushups will you do some too? I’ll match you pushup for pushup.” Looking smug, he said okay.

“Gimme twenty!” he barked. Ha! Leetle girl foolish, he theenk.

Foolish like a fox beeyotch. I dropped and gave him twenty. And then kept on going. By the terrifically ugly end of this set, the only thing creaking my elbows up and down was pure contrary defiant willpower. In the stunned silence that greeted this display, you could pretty much hear my muscle cells clearing the lactic acid with little groaning noises. Without a word, he assumed the position and paid his dues. From that day forward I got me some respect.

I never ask a client or a trainee to do anything I haven’t done myself. They aren’t my guinea pigs. I’m my own guinea pig. Nobody gets advice I haven’t endured and triple-tested. If I’ve got some crazy scheme for them to try, you can rest assured that I was the first Frankenstein to my own mad scientist.

Speaking of scientists, I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Judith Beck, author of the Beck Diet Solution, a cognitive therapy approach to overcoming poor nutritional and lifestyle habits. (You can read my full review on Dietchannel.com.) Right off the bat, what grabbed me was Beck’s almost off-the-cuff mention that she had uesd her own strategies to maintain a significant weight loss for a decade. Now she’s got my attention. In a recent interview from strength coach Robert Dos Remedios, he says that you shouldn’t take anyone’s advice on weight training if they aren’t dependent for a living on what they do. I’d go one step further: you shouldn’t take lifestyle advice from anyone who hasn’t, doesn’t, or can’t take their own advice. Because if we’re teaching people to live better and healthier lives, then it’s our responsibility to do the same. How can we expect Jane Sixpack to hit the squat rack and the produce aisle in good faith if we don’t ourselves regularly smell the iron in both metal and leafy green format?

Robb Wolfe of Performance Menu kindly interviewed me for a feature on Stumptuous a few months ago, and he asked me about my best lifts. When I got to thinking about it, I’m pretty proud of a few good lifts, but more than anything else I’m proud of myself for sticking to this lifestyle for ten years. That’s ten years of illness, injuries, working multiple jobs, long commutes, maintaining friendships and relationships, deaths and births, finishing a PhD, buying and renovating a house and trying to keep its cleanliness down to a dull roar, publishing two books, traveling, battling a sumo wrestler-sized appetite, and a hundred more ups and downs. Each and every one of these things could have knocked me off the track. But they didn’t. Out of all the things I’ve achieved in life, that accomplishment alone – often managed not through any glorious motivation but through pure habit, spite, or orneriness – is one of the most pleasurable and satisfying to contemplate. I’ve stumbled through imperfectly but doggedly, always trying to get a little bit better, and sometimes even succeeding.

You see, progress is not exactly a linear onward-and-upward thing. It’s more like a thousand little tiny stops and starts. Even for the so-called experts, life intervenes with multiple pressures to fail. It doesn’t get any easier. You just get better at managing it, problem solving, and coming up with creative strategies to combat it. You get better at saying no to things that rob your of your energy and better at saying yes to the things that are truly valuable and essential. There is no better time. There is no better life stage. All you have is now; all you have is you. These things that seem to impede you – you don’t wait till they’re done then start your life. They are your life.

You can take it from me.

Krista, age 6, checking out a tidepool in Nova Scotia, June 2007. Ooo starfish!