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Archive for May, 2015

CrossFit and Controversy: Virtuosity in Running

It’s hard to nail down a single, signature aspect of CrossFit. That’s in part what makes the whole gig so compelling, that there very well might be something different that is singularly significant about CrossFit to almost anyone. The candidates for “signature component” would have to include irreducible movements–movements that cannot be broken down into component parts which can in turn be trained separately–and the uncanny ability to create controversy where one wouldn’t imagine it could arise.

Take, for example, running. Is there anything which is more elemental, more basic, more intrinsic to human movement than running? Sure, there are other movements which are equally so (e.g. squat, pick something up), but surely there is nothing more so. And yet CrossFit and CrossFitters manage to be controversial and contentious even here, with running.

At the moment I am sitting with Beth in an otherwise deserted airport in Vermont on the day of the Burlington Marathon. Of note is that we/I are LEAVING while others are running; I find the notion that running 26 miles is somehow a good idea to be, well, odd to be honest. Not running except when called for in a WOD is considered not only odd in the greater fitness community but rather subversive as well. There are surely runners in today’s Marathon who did nothing but CrossFit to train for their odyssey. That’s not just controversial, it’s downright heresy.

Randy and one of his members are at the CF Endurance cert as I type. Here, too, we court controversy by embracing the insights of individuals who believe that there is a better way. Not just a better way to train, but in fact a better way to do the running itself. Less is more when it comes to the volume of training to run distances both long and short, as long as your training and your running are of higher quality. Imagine, teaching human beings that there is the possibility of virtuosity in something as elemental as running.

As a community we are open to the possibility of both true genius, as well as genius by extension (taking a genius concept and creating a practical application). It’s hardly a blind acceptance of either, nor are we necessarily too very quick to accept either, whether we are talking about HQ or the community. Here, too, running is an apt example.

For several years criticism has been applied to Regionals competitions for not including running. How, it was asked, could you stratify the fit if you didn’t ask them to run? In rather classic CrossFit fashion the answer was somewhat slow in coming, and it arrived gift-wrapped in controversy: we would have running on a treadmill. Cue righteous outrage. Talk about controversial. CrossFit, the anti-machine, anti-commercial rebel would use very expensive treadmills in its signature event.

Controversial? For sure, but actually not in the way folks first thought. This is CrossFit, after all, and what appears on the surface is rarely the entire story. There are treadmills at the Regionals. Not just any treadmill though, but one that rewards technical virtuosity as well as everything else one can measure in a run. Athletes will not only need to run fast, but also run well.

One need not engage in any of the intellectual aspects of CrossFit to reap the fitness and health benefits there to be found. There is a nearly endless bounty of inquiry and response to be found if you do, beginning with the exploration of that part of CrossFit that instantly makes sense to you. Like irreducible movements for me. Digging deeper by seeking to see why seemingly innocuous topics are rendered controversial when run through a CrossFit filter is one way to achieve a deeper understanding of what it is you are actually doing when you do CrossFit.

You know, like discovering that there’s more to running than farther and/or faster, there is also better. And that the pursuit of virtuosity is as worthy of your best efforts in the simplest, seemingly least controversial exercises. Like running.


Medicine is a Harsh Mistress

“You can have anything. You can’t have everything.”

A rather unlikely combination of players got me to thinking about “having it all”. You know, the perfect job, marriage, home, life. Like Streisand when she sings “Everything”, the life of “I don’t want much, I just want more”. Friday night and Saturday morning were spent in the company of 5 or 6 physicians who  can only be described as “Alpha Females”; this morning’s reading included a piece on Michigan’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh.

What do Harbaugh and my young professional colleagues have in common? Well, they are in the midst of trying to have it all. While these ridiculously successful eye surgeons are more aware of the costs of their quest than Harbaugh, when pushed they are no less apologetic, no less committed to seeing it through to its logical conclusions.

On the surface it would seem that Harbaugh is poised to live a comically outlandish exmple of a successful coaching life. A winning record at a traditionally over-run college program (Stanford) followed by a Super Bowl game in the NFL (losing to his brother’s Ravens), and now head coach at his Alma mater. It’s all so very believable if you read the article quickly, but there it is in the fine print: “…his 14 year old daughter remains in California with her mother, Harbaugh’s first wife.”

Rut roh. A little bit of Heinlein creeping in here.

Much has been written about the plight of the “successful woman”. Indeed, I’ve written on women in medicine and the fallacy of “having it all” (and been quite enthusiastically eviscerated for having done so). My female colleagues sat with me around a table and over wine we talked at length about their lives. How busy they are in their day jobs. How the added time requirements of being acknowledged super-experts in parts of our shared field add to the challenges of being mothers and wives in nearly direct proportion to the gravitas it adds to their professional stature. We were all away from home on a Friday night for a meeting Saturday morning and the privilege of flying home that afternoon.

“N”, a colleague nearly 15 years younger who is also (I hope) becoming a friend, opined that she felt like she was “half-assing” everything except our shared endeavors as subject experts. That she only felt fully successful, comfortable, and in some way validated, in the company of her expert consultant peers. The moment, shared with knowing nods by each woman present, was brief.

Personally, I am late to this consulting game, roughly at the same “level” as colleagues in their mid- to late-30’s (I am 55). Barring some unlikely stroke of good fortune (e.g. I might actually be as smart as I think I am, and someone might actually agree), I will end my career rising no higher than the middle of the pack. Why is that? Well, let’s spend a moment with Heinlein, as my wife Beth and I did when I was ~34.

Just like my very impressive young colleagues, when I was in my early 30’s I was approached to offer insight into the needs and desires of my generation of physicians. Being a male physician I acknowledged the advantage of fewer societal expectations regarding responsibilities outside my career, and the massive leg up from a spouse who left her career behind to run the domestic side of the team. Good, bad, or indifferent, what my wife and I did then was explicitly calculate the cost of that success.

In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” Heinlein’s lunar society is run as a nearly pure libertarian experiment, fueled by a single philosophy: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Your mother told you the same thing: there is a consequence to everything you do (or don’t do). What Beth and I did, what Harbaugh didn’t do and what my colleagues only later have done, is prospectively calculate the costs of success in one domain paid out from the accounts of the rest of a life’s domains. Gains in one almost always come at a cost or loss in others. Certain of the effect on our family (despite my gender-driven advantages), the costs to be paid at home, Beth and I opted to forgo the opportunity. For 10+ years the only place I went was home for dinner.

What was the cost to me for having taken myself off the consulting carousel? Who knows? I might have been a certifiable big deal in the world of my day job. For sure, the White family left a lot of money on the table. Harbaugh chose differently and left a 14 year old daughter, and all that represents, in California. My young colleagues, the Alpha Females who are quite rightfully sitting at the table of experts despite their tender years? What will be gained, and at what cost? We shall see…they shall see.

In the end, Heinlein (and your mother) continues to be right, no matter what currency we use to calculate cost: TANSTAAFL.


The Immortal Mariner

We are but mortals. Billionaire or barkeep, the vessels of our voyage will all come to rest just as deeply, just as empty. Born low or high, eventually we shall all be bourn aloft or below, our sails forever furled. Shod in buckles and bows, or like my Father, with cardboard to cover the holes, each of us enter and exit equally bare.

None of us are to be spared.

There exists a path to immortality, though, at least of a sort. However shod, however adorned our vessel, the course of our travels is forever marked by its intersection with that of our fellow wayfarers. The power and character of that immortality depends on the depth and character of those encounters.

You see, no memory is spared.

Who will remember you? How will you be remembered? As your vessel slows, becalmed in an ever more shallow breeze, will you be accompanied? Have your travels brought other vessels closer, tenders still knotted? How large was your fleet? At the end will it be your vessel or your voyage that is remembered? Your shoes or your footprints?

“Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.”
–Thomas Gray

The journey to immortality travels through friendship.

The Sands of Time

The world, life, has always seemed to me to be as an hourglass, the tiny individual grains of sand appearing at the mouth of the funnel from nowhere. The top is empty, after all, else we’d know to the grain how long our lives.

So there, just above the narrow tunnel between “to be” and “been” appears a moment, on its way to becoming a memory, in that fleeting time of “now”. From there it falls through to join other moments come and gone. These we can see, of course, as they fill the bottom of the hourglass. Shake the glass and they come into view.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that my hourglass was nearly empty? So few grains of time that the bottom was barely dusted? Isn’t that my Mom and Dad right there in that huge Chevy wagon? Man, it’s PACKED with beach stuff. There I am in the “way-back” sitting on top of the chairs and towels. 4 kids in the car; we can’t sit together, of course, because someone might touch someone else! They were so big, my folks, they filled up the horizon. So small now…so fragile…shadows that flit in and out of view.

There’s a goldfinch feeder just outside our window. This morning 6 finches crowded around, a vision of bright yellow, a first for us in our new house. Goldfinches always make me think of my firstborn, Danny. Wasn’t it just last week when we stood, his shoulder to  my chest, atop that observatory, gazing at the display of aerial artistry as hawks and finches dazzled across the field? The bright, curly yellow hair is long shorn, now replaced by a bright red beard. My head is now at his shoulder, but the appearance of a Goldfinch at my breakfast nook still brings back that ever so soft, quiet exclamation: “I really love birds, Dad.”

My caboose, Randy, sang at his Baccalaureate, ready to graduate from High School. Beth and had just become Netty Empsters. How can that be? When did that grain of sand appear? Can we really be here already? Shake the glass just a little and there he is in his Spider Man jammies, the first day of football, “hey Dad, I’m taller than you!” They keep appearing at the mouth of the funnel, another and another and another grain as the sands of my time flow. Can it really be? Are we really here ALREADY? When I report for work at my “second job” at CrossFit Bingo I’ll begin by greeting my boss. Kid named Randy.

I know it was only last week. Had to be right? We stood there in the threshold, hand in hand. One more step and we’d be all the way there, all the way inside school and surely we’d make it to class on time. Longest step ever taken, but away we went, Megan and I. How could it be, then, that I was Facetiming her graduation ceremony from grad school, the proud recipient of a Masters Degree in Psychology? Yet there it is, a grain of sand scoots down the tassel and joins the rest of the milestones in the bottom of my glass.

The hourglass sits afore me, the sand flows. I see Randy as he looks toward me, looks as I fill his horizon. My gaze drifts toward my Mom and Dad; they are barely a rise in Randy’s sand. Grains appear for me, one after the other. I see behind, before, in the bottom of my hourglass. I stare at the funnel, stare as if I look hard enough the top of the hourglass will fill, I’ll see “to be”.

It’s not possible, of course, you know that. It’s so trite, so trivial, but no less true that the sands pour through more swiftly than we can follow. The less we attend to them the faster they pour. The less attention we pay the harder it is to see them as they settle in the bottom of the glass; we miss them as they pass and then can’t find them as they settle among the other grains of our time. To find them in the bottom of the hourglass we must see them as they pass through the funnel from top to bottom, look right at them lest they be nothing more than shadows.

Where did they all go, those grains, those sands of my time? How many did I miss, shadows on my horizon?


Sunday musings 5/3/14

Sunday musings…

1) Gopher. Not really sure what my varmint is, but something very much like Bill Murray’s nemesis is winning right now Chez bingo.

2) Small talk. The gift of gab. In olden times in the medical world, bedside manner.

It’s just painful to watch/listen to someone who just can’t do it and hasn’t yet figured that out.

3) Buehler. Sometimes it’s necessary to be present. That’s all, just present and accounted for. Not often, but on occasion it’s unavoidable. Very few folks who get to ignore this requirement.

Sadly, I am on the list of folks who must occasionally see and be seen.

4) Cultural relevance. In the course of my day job it is necessary for me to find some sort of conversational common ground with people from all walks of life. I’m a pretty weird dude; heck, we’re all pretty weird in our own way. What makes me, and you, unique can be a barrier to us connecting if one of us doesn’t find some “place” where we can meet, at least conversationally.

Many folks find this in the cultural touchstones found on television. Letterman is retiring this month. Aong with Johnny Carson and a very tiny number of other drivers of cultural currency, Letterman has in many ways created a cultural intersection across which people of all sorts might reach in order to connect.

My diurnal curve forced me to miss all things Letterman, at least until Youtube and Facebook.

Yet I’ve managed to keep myself no more than a slightly amusing single step behind the ebb and flow of our popular culture here in the U.S. Enough, at least, to make it possible to connect with those younger and older, less well or better educated, higher or lower on the economic food chain. It takes a bit of work, if watching Letterman or reading People magazine can be considered work, and I think that’s probably the point.

Connecting across broad societal domains requires a bit of personal cultural relevance, and it’s probably worth the effort to obtain and maintain that no matter what your lot in life.

5) Disruption. The NYT is bleating this morning that technology has disrupted the economy, as if this is somehow new and different and unique to electronic technology. I call BS. Technology, or more specifically new and better technology, has been disrupting economies since the first gathering of pre-humans around a fire.

Think about it for a minute. Is the internet and all of our ability to connect and transmit ideas any more disruptive than the Guttenberg printing press? I think not. Indeed, there was as much call to ban the printing press among the tyrants of that day as we see efforts to restrict access to various sites on the internet today.

There is a multiplier effect seen in new technology of any sort, and early adopters of effective and lasting new tech gain a significant advantage over their competitors. Combine a truly new, revolutionary concept or product with another new technology and you can literally change at least a part of the world.

Papyrus -> Guttenberg -> Radio -> TV -> Internet. Fingers + Toes -> Abacus -> Calculator -> Watson. Think for a moment about other tech, other new ideas, ideologies new and old that piggy-backed on this trend line. Since this is CrossFit.com, think for just a moment about what “CrossFit” in all of its facets would be if the internet didn’t exist, or it it had not been so keenly embraced early on. An interesting exercise to apply to lots of stuff, eh? What would the CrossFit world, heck what would CrossFit as a fitness program be like if the most efficient means of spreading CrossFit knowledge was the printed and spoken word?

The NYT asks if technology is ultimately the answer to solving the disruptions of technology. That’s as silly as bemoaning the disruption itself, and lacks as much intuition as the original premise that modern tech is somehow more disruptive than historical technology. If you use the creative disruption produced by a new technological development to solve the issues created by the last technological disruption, what do you get? Well, in the fitness world at least, you get CrossFit.

The challenge now, for CrossFit and other present day disrupters, is to figure out what the next disruption is likely to be, and then use that next new technology to remain culturally relevant.

I’ll see you next week…

Posted by bingo at May 3, 2015 7:48 AM

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