Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Peter Pan Fandom

There are certain things in life we can eventually outgrow. Things like an appetite for strained squash, or a fascination with strangers’ eyeglasses, or our affinity for wearing Underoos. Me, I’d always hoped I would outgrow my chicken legs, but unfortunately, a scrawny lower body was tattooed on my DNA, sentencing me to a lifetime of extra-saggy shorts and the concealment of fully bloused out jeans.

But what about being a sports fan? Is that something we can – or, more to the point, should – outgrow?

To be a fan is, in a lot of ways, to be a child. Your welfare and wellbeing, your very existence, is entirely dependent on the actions of others. There’s a lot of screaming and pouting when things don’t go your way. You have no perspective, viewing the world through your own, single-minded prism. And what you obsess over, what sets off tantrums and leads to stomping feet and streaming tears, is typically nothing more than a meaningless playground game.

When you’re a kid, though, there’s no harm in getting worked up and crying over such inconsequential matters. In fact, it’s a necessity, a means to mature and develop, and it’d be detrimental in the long run to bypass these growing pains. But at some point, don’t you have to take that next step in the maturation process and shift your energy towards bigger and better things?

I bring this up because I recently celebrated—or, more accurately, was unable to deny the occurrence of—my 35th birthday, and as with any life cycle event, it triggered one of those big-picture, self evaluation montages, like something you’d see in a movie. (Had there been a beach nearby, I would’ve undoubtedly gone there to stare out into the ocean, the fork-in-the-road moments of my past flashing on screen as Colin Hay’s "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin" played over the top of them.) And what became evident was that, while my age continues to change, I really haven’t. My patterns, my priorities, and above all else, my experience of life, they’re all essentially the same as they’ve always been. In too many ways, I’m like a 15-year-old hiding in a 35-year-old’s body (minus the legs), and I’m almost certain that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

This whole dynamic was never more on display than it was last month when the Texas Longhorns played their annual holy war against hated rival Oklahoma. An obsessively irrational UT fan since birth, watching the Horns is typically a hurt-so-good experience for me: I’m miserable throughout, yet I wouldn’t miss it for the world. But looking back, this was one game during which I would’ve happily spent the entire day atoning for all of my sins. Ugly from the opening kick, it got progressively worse and worse, my soul getting sadistically shanked with each passing Sooner touchdown.

Throughout the devastation, I was commiserating long distance with my cousin, Andrew, who’s as insane about UT sports as I am. But unlike me, Andrew is much more of an adult, with real, meaningful commitments and responsibilities—a wife, a successful career, and two young children at home. And as halftime mercifully approached, with the Longhorns buried beneath a seemingly insurmountable deficit, he decided to tap out.

“I’ve got more important things to do,” he said.

Which, in turn, made me ask myself, “Shouldn’t I?”

Friday, September 28, 2012

In Plain Sight

Starting a new job can be a disorienting experience. When you walk into that unfamiliar office on the first day, it’s a struggle to get your bearings, to figure out what’s up and what’s down. You have no idea where to go or what to do. You don’t even know where the bathroom is.

It’s a huge change, for sure, and with every change comes new challenges.

I’ve been dealing firsthand with this transition over the last several weeks, and it’s been more than a little unsettling. I’d been at my previous job for nearly four years, meaning I had every aspect of it wired. Now, I’m having to figure out a new commute, a new office dynamic, and a new set of responsibilities – not to mention a whole new group of Chipotle burrito rollers.

But more than anything, I’m having to figure out how to not let all this new stuff compromise my status as an obsessed, (somewhat) knowledgeable sports fan.

For as long as I can remember, my life has revolved around sports. They consumed my world as a kid when I was playing them, and they still consume it to this day now that I’m primarily a spectator. Before I commit to anything – a trip, a night out, a haircut, even the holiest day of the Jewish year – I mentally check the calendar to see if there’s any conflict with a game or tournament I want to watch. It’s not something I do deliberately…it just kind of happens. Sports are my passion, and following them can be like a full-time job.

And that can be a problem when you have an actual full-time job.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cliffs Notes and Cliches

This is a strange time of year for college football fans. On one hand, there’s a sense of relief that comes from having survived the drought of the offseason. Teams are practicing, media coverage is ramping up and before you know it, Brent Musberger will be telling us at what, exactly, we are looking live.

On the other hand, we’re not there quite yet, and it’s often those last few steps that’ll kill you. We still find ourselves languishing in this limbo that is equal parts excitement and frustration. As a semi, sometimes observant Jew, it reminds me of walking out of synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur – you’ve made it through the hard part, but until you’ve got some food in your mouth, the fast isn’t actually over.

And so we wait, our game day gear cleaned and pressed but still hanging in the closet, desperate for something – anything – to fill that void between now and kickoff. And the only thing there is to fill it with is talk. Talk from media days. Talk from preseason press conferences. Talk from post-practice interviews. Coaches across the country are stepping behind microphones and loading up reporters’ notebooks with quote after quote, and they’re all singing a similar tune – that their team has never worked harder, has never been stronger and has never been more prepared to take the field. And we, in turn, are digesting, dissecting and discussing every last bit of it as if it’s gospel.

The only problem is that it’s anything but.

Like preseason polls and zip codes, it’s all meaningless – not that that is some sort of groundbreaking revelation. After all, the term “coach-speak” has been around ever since the first coach gave his first interview and gave birth to the first set of clich├ęs. It’s what coaches do, and rationally, we don’t expect anything different from them. We understand that they’re not going to throw their guys under the bus or declare a season dead before a down is played. What would be the point? The (monumental) risk for being honest and revealing simply isn’t worth the (nonexistent) reward.

But as someone who watches countless press conferences and reads countless quotes, I am still struck by how the exact same stuff is said year after year after year. I mean, the exact same stuff. It’s honestly a little uncanny, and I can’t help wondering if coaches are just taking the path of least resistance, or if they could actually be driven by some other deep-seeded motivation.

Beyond basic political correctness, could there really be something more to coach-speak?

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Day Late, A Buck Short

In a constantly connected world, I’m decidedly disconnected.

And honestly, this is largely by design. I only check my email every so often. I check my voicemail even less. And I was probably one of the last people on the planet (with the financial wherewithal) to get a smart phone – which I now almost exclusively use to look at weather forecasts or to read about sports when I’m waiting at a doctor’s office.

It’s not that I’m antisocial. Okay, well it kind of is, but there’s something more to it than that, something much deeper – and something that’s not all that healthy.

There’s this fear I have about what’s potentially waiting for me in each of my respective mailboxes. Is there going to be bad news? Am I going to get sucked into doing something I don’t want to do? Would I really have to pay $69.99 in order to grow four – six inches in all the right places?

My mind conjures up all of these nightmare scenarios, and instead of taking the messages head on – and most likely discovering there’s nothing to worry about – I avoid and evade them for as long as possible, until I’m mentally and emotionally ready to deal with whatever (perceived) peril or danger might be lurking inside them.

It’s the “Ignorance is bliss” strategy – what I don’t know can’t hurt or burden me.

I concede that this behavior is a little ridiculous, and more than just a little rude. It’s led me to leave people hanging entirely too long for a response, and it’s made me abhorrently late with birthday wishes (those reminder emails don’t help if you don’t read them on time). It’s even caused me to miss out on seeing friends who were in town, because I didn’t know they were around until it was too late.

But despite all of the bad it causes, there is actually one area where it does do me some good:

Watching sports. Or more specifically, watching recorded sports.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Oratory of Overreaction

The old saying goes that all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten.

Be nice and respectful to others. Be considerate. Be honest. Be ready to go when the light turns green and there are people behind you who have no interest in waiting for you to fix your makeup or send that text message.

(Okay, so maybe they don’t teach that last one, but here’s a motion to have it added to the curriculum…it’s never too early to learn how to be a tolerable driver.)

But a quick scan of the sports landscape shows that many of its main characters were apparently too busy drinking juice boxes and pulling pigtails to absorb any of these lasting life lessons. From the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program to Bobby Petrino’s Sunday motorcycle rides, there’s a never-ending parade of people treating others poorly and doing big things badly.

And there’s no better example of this than Tiger Woods.

His story is obviously well-known at this point. Once everybody’s All-American, Woods was seemingly the impossibly perfect package, with a spectacular skill set and an infectious, incandescent smile.  He was a lock to be the greatest player ever, and it was a foregone conclusion that he’d break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional major titles.

Then we found out that his affinity for Perkin’s hostesses was stronger than his commitment to his wife, and everything changed. Having calculatingly sold himself as the clean, wholesome family man, he was exposed as the exact opposite.

That his game suffered in the aftermath only made matters worse. Little things that had always been brushed off as the cost of greatness – icy divorces from his swing coaches (Butch Harmon and Hank Haney), abrupt separations from his caddies (“Fluff” Cowan and Steve Williams), drop-kicked seven irons after poor shots – were now pieces of an unlikable puzzle that could no longer be masked by his other-worldly performance. He had transformed himself into the villain whom everybody wanted to root against, myself included.

And that’s why it’s so hard for me to confess to this recent turn of events:

I’ve now become his biggest fan.

Honestly, I never would’ve predicted this could happen, not even prior to the infamous “Fire Hydrant Thanksgiving.” While I’ve always been in awe of Tiger, I’ve considered myself more of a Mickelson guy, and only partly because of the frequent camera shots of his wife, Amy, whenever he gets in contention. But when news of Woods’ scandal broke, I was both dejected and disappointed. The adultery, the lying, the consequences for his family…that was all bad enough, but as a devoted golfer, there was something more to it for me, something much deeper. The game itself is built on a foundation of character, honor and integrity, and it was a shame that one of its greatest players could so completely miss out on its message. I was convinced I’d never be able to look at Woods again and not see his scarlet letter. 

But in the last few months, my view on Tiger has been undergoing a steady shift. And that shift has been in direct response to the pessimistic dialogue that’s been swirling around him within the sports talk universe.

As his lack of wins and generally un-Tiger like results have been piling up, so has the criticism. You can’t turn on a telecast without hearing somebody tear Woods apart in every way imaginable, from the changes in his swing to his emotional and mental makeup. Analysts act as if they’re inside his head, like they know what he’s thinking and feeling. They all claim to be certain about what he’s doing wrong and what he should do to fix it, and they mock him as delusional when he says he’s getting close after finishing tied for 40th. They say he’s lost, and that he’ll probably never find his way back.

They say that he’s done.

Even after he won a couple of weeks ago, his victory was dismissed as little more than a random blip on the heart monitor. It was just a regular tour event, they said, and Tiger’s career is only about winning majors, so nothing will matter until he wins one of those again.

Hearing this blather week after week has made my head hurt. I mean, doesn’t anyone remember how great this guy was? That he’s got 14 major titles? That he was far and away the best player on the planet for over a decade? That he’s undergone two previous swing overhauls and come out the other side as dominant as ever? And what about how he’s responded to adversity in the past? The man won a U.S. Open on a broken leg. How can anyone just write him off so definitively?

This type of impulsive, impetuous commentary shouldn’t really have come as a surprise, though. After all, we live in an impatient, reactionary world, where we love nothing more than to draw generalized, no-doubt-about-it conclusions based solely on whatever it was we just saw. “What have you done for me lately?” rules the day. There’s no room for perspective, and there’s no respect for the big picture.  

And unless you’re talking about the best-selling book you wish you hadn’t witnessed your mother purchasing, there are absolutely no shades of grey.

You see this irrational, know-it-all attitude in every aspect of life, from the economy to politics, but it’s especially prominent in sports. Beyond the fact that sports are this illogical, emotionally charged vortex where fully grown adults live and die with results they have no hand in determining, there’s also a scoreboard that tells us explicitly who won and who lost, who is good and who is bad. This makes it convenient to latch onto the laziest, most unsophisticated storyline and run with it.

Sports history is filled with countless athletes and coaches who, at some point, were prematurely painted by critics as not having what it takes. Peyton Manning. Mack Brown. Phil Mickelson. None of them were considered good enough or tough enough to win big – and then they did.

The prime example of this shortsighted phenomenon right now is LeBron James. Arguably the greatest basketball player in the world, James has had a brilliant career to this point. He’s been the league’s leading scorer, he’s made the All-NBA first team six times and he’s claimed three Most Valuable Player awards. Last year, he led the Heat to the Finals and to within two wins of a championship. This season, he’s carried Miami back to the brink of a title, often without the help of one of his most important teammates, the injured Chris Bosh.

But you wouldn’t think any of that were true, or that any of that mattered, if you listen to the overly negative narrative that follows him around. All you’d hear about is what he hasn’t done – most notably, win a ring – and how he doesn’t have what it takes to get that accomplished. It’s irrelevant how great he’s been or how close he’s come or how, with another opportunity or two, the ball might finally bounce his way. Apparently, if you haven’t done something, that means you can’t do it, nor will you ever be able to do it. 

So until LeBron hoists that trophy, be it in two weeks or two years, that critical scrutiny will continue.

It’s the same thing with Tiger. Strange as it seems, his pre-scandal resume may as well have been assembled by an entirely different player. All that matters to the masses now is what’s happened since then – a two-and-a-half year sample size largely filled with no major victories, injuries, middle-of-the-pack finishes and a handful of rarely-before-seen Sunday failures. 

Nobody seems to care that there have been signs of life, that he appears to be trending in the right direction. Nobody cares that he’s already won two prestigious events this year, or that he’s back up to fourth in the World Golf Rankings. Nobody cares that he’s seventh on tour in the Greens in Regulation statistic, first in Total Driving and third in (adjusted) scoring average. They’d rather bash him, erroneously evaluate his swing changes (if you’re a golf nerd like I am, check out these videos here, here and here to see why many of the so-called experts are flat out wrong in their critique of his swing) and confidently dismiss the notion that he’ll ever get back on top.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying it’s inevitable that Tiger will regain his form, or that he’ll eventually break Nicklaus’ record. It could legitimately play out a million different ways. There were no guarantees he’d do it before he ever drove into that fire hydrant, and now he’s got to carry the weight of that challenge on a beaten up, battered psyche that’s taken almost as much pounding as his reconstructed left knee. Add to the mix a putter that’s not quite as magical – and if there’s one area where the Karma Gods may hold a grudge, it’s putting – and there are genuine reasons for doubt.

What I am saying, though, is that I ultimately have no idea what’s going to happen – and neither does anybody else.

And that’s why when the U.S. Open tees off tomorrow, I’m going to be pulling for Woods to pull through, although it won’t be because I like him, and it won’t be because I’ve forgotten about his sins. I’m not rooting for Tiger, the man, inasmuch as I’m rooting for what a Tiger victory would prove – that there’s value in patience and perspective, that not everything is as simple as black and white, that it pays to let things play out before passing judgment, and that maybe the irrational, loudmouthed detractors aren’t quite as smart and prophetic as they think they are.

The rub, of course, is that if Woods does win, the pendulum will immediately swing to the other extreme. The headlines will blare to the world that Tiger’s back, the critics will boast “I told you so” with their hindsight analysis, and I’ll be left screaming at my car radio to try to make it all stop, crazily convinced that this same reaction I’ve had over and over will somehow lead to a different result.

I guess I was absent the day in kindergarten when they taught us the definition of insanity.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Not Dead, Keep Going

130 days.

A lot can be accomplished in that amount of time. If you’re Forrest Gump, you can run from Alabama to California. If you’re Phileas Fogg (thank you, Wikipedia), you can go around the world 1.625 times. If you’re Kim Kardashian, you can get married twice, although you’ll have to wait an extra two weeks to file for that second divorce.

And if you’re as lazy as I am, you can complete the workout program P90X.

I know, I know…it’s supposed to be a 90 day program. That’s why they put the number “90” in the name. But working out six days a week is a lot, and when you mix the typical, everyday life responsibilities with my occasional “Screw it, I’m going to Chik-Fil-A” moments, even the most structured of schedules can get out of whack.

What counts, though, is that I made it through, and it was every bit as grueling as I had anticipated. Tony Horton, the program’s creator, is an evil genius, and he doesn’t let up for a second, forcing you to bend and twist and push your body to places it’s never been. Even the moves that appear to be the most basic are much easier watched than done, and I invariably ended every workout questioning whether I’d rather set the DVD collection on fire or smash it Office Space-style with a baseball bat.

Fortunately, my efforts did produce some results, although how much, exactly, is difficult to tell. For whatever reason, I didn’t take the recommended “Before” picture when I started (probably because I knew I’d suck in my gut), so I’ve got no reference point to which I can compare my current “After” state. But my chicken legs do appear to have a little more meat on them (although that could just be self-conscious wishful thinking), and my t-shirts do seem to be a bit more form fitting (although that could just be because of weekly washer/dryer shrinkage).

Regardless, as I explained here, my hopes for the program went beyond just the potential physical benefits. An honest internal assessment had shown that, consciously or unconsciously, I’d constructed a protective existence for myself, built on keeping things safe and secure. Terrified of the unknown, I seemed to always stick with what I knew, with what was familiar, so as to limit the possibility of failure and embarrassment. My sole goal, my own maxim had become the pathetic antithesis of what you’d ever want to see on a motivational poster:

“Don’t look like an idiot.”

Doing P90X was a way to start to change this. It was a test case of sorts, an opportunity to stretch myself, to prove that I was capable of stepping away from my comfort zone without simultaneously combusting. And even though it was a rough four months, full of sweat, tears and the torture of Single Leg Wall Squats, it ended up being the perfect trial run for the grander experiment that is my life. Within the friendly confines of my own home, I was able to stumble and struggle with little more than my pride at stake, all the while learning (or being reminded of) the following lessons – lessons that will hopefully help me the next time I can summon the courage to actually step out into the real world.

And somehow, I did it all without vomiting…

Nothin’ But 3-irons

There’s a scene in the movie Tin Cup where Roy McAvoy (played by Kevin Costner) is attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open, when he gets into an argument with his caddy, Romeo, over what club he should hit on a particular shot. Things escalate, and before you know it, Romeo has quit in disgust, and Roy has literally broken in half every club in his bag – with one notable exception: his 7-iron. His 7-iron, he explains, is the one club that has never done him wrong, the only thing in his life that he can truly count on.

Then he proves it by using it to par in and advance to the next round of qualifying.

While I’ve never shot even par with it, I do share a similar fondness for my own 7-iron. The way it feels in my hands, the way it sits behind the golf ball, I’ve always loved it. Whenever I line it up, I can’t help having confidence that something good is about to happen.

So it was only natural that several years ago, when I was attempting to play competitively, that I relied on it heavily. Working with an instructor, there were a number of uncomfortable swing changes I needed to implement in order to become the player I wanted to be, and there was no better club to help me implement those changes than my 7-iron. Hour after hour, bucket after bucket, I stood out on the range, hitting it over and over and over. I practiced with it so much that I eventually wore down a slot in its grip where my right thumb rested.

But in using it so often, I was neglecting the other clubs in my bag, clubs that I didn’t have quite as much confidence in, clubs like my 3-iron, for instance. That thing scared me to death. Just pulling it out of the bag made me regress to the days when I was first learning the game, when every hideous shot imaginable – a top, a chunk, a shank – was a possibility. And because the swing changes I was making were challenging enough, I avoided the added anxiety by simply avoiding my 3-iron.

And that’s when the relationship with my 7-iron tipped from infatuation to obsession.

It became my crutch, my pacifier, the only club I trusted. I tried to convince myself that using it so often was no big deal, that the only thing that mattered was that I was putting in the work and honing the proper fundamentals. But deep down, I knew the truth: it was a cowardly approach that was limiting my development as a player.

Instead of improving my weaknesses, I was hiding from them.

What I should’ve been doing was practicing with only my 3-iron. That club was the biggest soft spot in my game, meaning it needed the most work, which meant it should’ve never left my hand – not on the range, not on the course, not even in bed at night.

And those swing changes I was working on? Learning to do them with my 3-iron would’ve been the best way to master them. After all, if I could perform them with that club – the one I feared the most – then I could perform them with all of my clubs. And the confidence I would’ve gained would have filtered down through the rest of my game.

Yet I chose to stick with what felt safest.

And when I started P90X, I initially fell into the same trap. Pull-ups, yoga, abdominal contortions…the workouts were littered with 3-iron shots – moves that I either couldn’t do or couldn’t do very well. And my natural tendency was to recoil, to not put much time into them and wait for the exercises I felt most comfortable doing.

But then the ghosts of My Squandered Golf Past showed up, and they were not happy.

“Where did that approach get you on the golf course?” they screamed. “The point of working out – or practicing, or really any worthwhile commitment – is to get better, to achieve something that you weren’t able to achieve before. So what’s the use in doing all of this if you aren’t willing to strive for that, to attack those weaknesses and turn them into strengths?”

Once that tongue lashing set in, my entire mindset shifted. Whenever the particular exercises I struggled with came up, I started digging in like a defense on third and inches. I fought for every rep. I concentrated on correct form. I would pause the DVD to make sure I was doing everything properly, and if I wasn’t, I’d rewind it and do it again.

And whenever I inevitably tumbled, I just tried to not land on my face.

It wasn’t always easy, and it was never pretty, but making the same mistake again was not an option. Sure, it was tempting to let a set slide from time to time, but I knew that giving into that temptation would’ve done more harm than good. It would’ve meant conceding that there was a ceiling of results that I could achieve – that same ceiling that Roy McAvoy ultimately ran into when it was just him and his 7-iron:

Even par.

Body Blows

One thing you are constantly told throughout P90X is to write everything down. How many reps you did, what weight you used, how close you came to blacking out – everything. Each routine has a worksheet, and after every set, you’re reminded to record whatever it was you just did. It’s a valuable tool that not only guides you through the program, but also helps you track your progress from week to week.

But as helpful as the sheets can be, they can be just as deflating. A visual representation of your work, they make it very clear all that you have – and have not – accomplished. And in my case, they were like a scoreboard broadcasting just how pathetically out of shape I was. I’d watch the psychos on the DVDs knock out rep after rep, and they'd make it seem so easy. Then I’d look down at my worksheet and see a rep count that resembled an illegal blood alcohol content level:

Exercise: One-Armed Push-ups

Unless you’re one of those people who actually enjoys working out, you’re probably not doing P90X for the fun of it. You’re doing it because you are trying to change something – your strength, your fitness, your overall health, your ever-expanding gut that doubles as a tray for your nightly Big Mac – and it’s that motivation to change that gets you committed, that pushes you to keep hitting “Play” when you’d normally be hitting the drive-thru.

But few things will extinguish that passion quicker than a lack of results.

If you’re grinding away, working so hard that you can’t lift your arms high enough to apply shampoo to your entire head (this actually happened to me after my first workout…I think I only got my “Costanza Ring” of hair fully clean that day), and yet you’re not getting any return on your investment, the urge to head back to your couch will pop up quicker than you can say "Bacon Explosion."

This exact frustration is something I deal with constantly with my writing. When a topic comes to me, I’m initially invigorated, the same way I was during those first few weeks of P90X. My mind is clear, the ideas are flowing, and I’m energized by the possibilities of what I can potentially create.

But once that opening surge loses its momentum, and I settle into the tedium of the process, things become a bit more challenging. No longer is it as easy as turning on the faucet of inspiration; instead it feels like slamming a sledgehammer against a seemingly impenetrable mental block. Either I can’t think of anything to write, or what I’ve already written reads like poor Miss Teen South Carolina’s answer in the personal interview round. I recognize the words, and I think they’re forming sentences, but they don’t make the slightest bit of sense.

And that’s when the agony of defeat creeps in, when it feels like I’ll never finish. Sure, maybe I’ve worked my way through these types of droughts before, but those were all just flukes. They happened by accident. And I’m not confident I can fool anybody this time around.

So what do I do in response? How do I combat these darkest of hours? I avoid. I do anything I can – refresh my email incessantly, read random movie trivia on, flip through Facebook photo albums of people I’m not even friends with (that’s gotta be, at most, two steps away from real, live stalking) – to duck the inescapable staring contest with that blank white screen.

At some point, the guilt kicks in, and I force myself back behind the keyboard, but that doesn’t make all of the stopping and starting any less demoralizing. If anything, being driven by shame makes my frustrations that much more intense.

But when I’ve stepped back and evaluated myself as a writer, what I’ve realized – although not fully accepted – is that this is just my process. As much as I wish I could, I’m rarely going to sit down and write something exactly the way I want to on the first or second try. It takes time for me to sort through my thoughts. I have to think, to experiment, to tinker and tweak – and sometimes erase the blackboard and start over again. The words I’m searching for are somewhere inside me, I just have to dig for them, one re-write at a time, like a boxer methodically landing body shots, until they are eventually revealed to me.

What you are reading now is probably the tenth version (at least) of this article. There were times when I sat down to work on it, and I would write and write and write; there were others when I did nothing more than test-drive a particular idea or delete a paragraph that wasn’t any good (the latter was much more common). But regardless of how many words ended up on the page, what mattered was I was getting closer, slowly chipping away, steadily making it better.

And it took each and every one of those sessions to get here.

It was the same with P90X. An exercise in incremental improvement, my body was not transformed overnight, and the progress was not always easily identifiable, often showing up in different shapes and forms. But it was there…I just had to look for it. It was the little things, like how I started taking shorter breaks between sets, or how the soreness gradually subsided, or how the top of my head was eventually reintroduced to shampoo. Obviously, it would’ve been nice to see more defined results immediately, but each of those minor victories added up, rep by rep, inch by hard-fought inch. And before I knew it, I was finally able to take pride in at least one entry on my worksheet:

Exercise: One-Armed Push-ups

Stopping Short

Until four months ago, I hadn’t done a pull-up since seventh grade, back when school administrators thought it was a good idea to force 12 and 13-year-olds to wear those standard-issued, elastic Daisy Duke shorts to gym class every day.

You know, because puberty and its terrifying hair growth weren’t big enough challenges to deal with.

But right out of the box, P90X puts you up on that bar, and you’re shown no mercy. Standard grip, reverse grip, wide front, close hand, “Corn Cob”…you’ve got to do them in every form imaginable. I had forgotten how hard they were, but it didn’t take long to realize that it’d be a good idea to do them with one foot on a chair – partially because I needed that little extra bit of boost, and partially because I didn’t trust the fine craftsmanship of my self-assembled bar to fully support my weight.

As with the rest of the exercises, though, I battled through the growing pains, and my rep totals steadily increased from workout to workout. I loved referring back to those ever-present worksheets, see what I had done the week before, and then try to beat it. It was great motivation, a solo game of “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

But about six weeks in, I noticed that my numbers were beginning to level off. It didn’t make any sense, because I could tell I was getting stronger, and my performance in all of the other areas was improving. And with its trademark “Muscle Confusion,” the program was designed to ensure that you would never plateau. The structure of the workouts, the sequencing of the phases…there was actual science behind all of it, dictating that your results continually get better and better and better.

Clearly something was off, so I started paying close attention to what I was doing whenever it was time to do pull-ups. And what I discovered was that, not surprisingly, this leveling off had nothing to do with the program itself. I was not being failed by science (shocking!), because my body was, in fact, plenty strong enough to produce increasing results.

My mind, however, was not.

Before the start of each round, Tony would remind you to set a goal for the number of reps you wanted to do. That’s when I’d check my worksheet to see what I had done in previous weeks. And with that baseline number in my head, I’d get up on the bar and start cranking them out.

But then the pain would come.

My arms would shake. My back would burn. My breath would elude me, while the sweat would sting my eyes. But as much as that stuff hurt, it wasn’t crippling. Everything was still working. Nothing was falling off, nor was anything going up in flames.

What was debilitating, though, was the mental anguish that came from being in all of that physical pain.

There’s a certain amount of emotional strength that’s required to manage that stress, that allows you to tolerate the agony and fight through the suffering, and my well was dry. I was tired, I was exhausted, and I didn’t want to put up with it anymore. I just wanted relief.

So, as opposed to early on when I was driven to top my worksheet number, I was now content to match it. After all, that number was an improvement from where I had started, and I could write it down again without feeling too badly. It wasn’t an embarrassment…it was acceptable. It was adequate.

It was enough.

A wise man once said that the human mind cannot be denied. What he failed to mention was that it can most definitely do the denying, preventing us from doing something as trivial as getting our chin up and over the bar one more time, or for something that’s far more important. When it’s faced with unsettling distress, its inclination is often to retreat, to give in – and then use its powers of rationalization to convince us that doing so is okay.

While P90X gave me the opportunity to build myself up physically, it most importantly gave me countless, invaluable opportunities to stand at that crossroads where you have to decide if you’re going to lie down, or if you’re going to keep going. Are you going to finish strong? And even though my worksheets show that I failed more than I succeeded, the hope is that those reps will eventually take effect, and that my mental endurance will one day be strong enough to support its physical counterpart.

Because really, unless you’re Frank Costanza, stopping short almost never leads to happily ever after.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?