Friday, June 27, 2008

The Strongman and the Kid

For as long as I can remember I've been fascinated by strength. When I was little, I knew my father was strong, with biceps like baseballs, and there was something awesome about this to me. He lifted weights in the garage, ran at the junior high track, and did his Army calisthenics routine on the backyard swing set he had built out of thick pipes. These things were all part of being a father, my father, and I wanted to be like him. When I was old enough I followed his ways, and he taught me how.

But I was naturally small, very small, and I felt my difference, my invisibility. Running cross-country and track taught me how to work hard, and to like it, but only amplified the inherited ectomorphic situation. Chronic overuse injuries from running allowed the weight training I was already doing to actually work, and eventually I traded one obsessive-compulsive regime for another.

But disciplines have a way of working on you when you do the work they demand. You can’t hold out forever, and eventually what was rooted in anxiety and adolescent fantasy grew into a method of knowing something of myself. Little by little I became more process-oriented in my gym pursuits, less concerned with the minutiae of routines and macronutrient ratios. This process took another big step forward when, several months ago, I began training 13-year-old Zack, the son of one of Jenifer’s yoga clients. “The Kid” is naturally big, very big, and feels his difference, his conspicuousness. We hit it off very well, and supervising his workouts while conducting my own necessarily took much of the focus off myself. And that’s a good thing.

I was really pleased, then, to be able to invite him to a strongman competition, the World’s Strongest Man Super Series. It was to be held in Madison Square Garden and my friend Jouko would be there as a referee. Perfect.

With the Kid working his GPS, I got us through the Lincoln Tunnel just fine, though in the jam leading up to it the Prius’s energy level had dropped down to purple. I tried not to sweat it, but to be honest I still haven’t read the manual and I didn’t know what would happen if even the two remaining purple bars disappeared from the screen: either the car would stop dead in its tracks and the Kid and I would be at the front end of an impromptu anaerobic training session all the way to the Hotel Pennsylvania, or a cadre of Homeland Security agents would descend from the sky and whisk us into an underground vault beneath the New Jersey Turnpike, where we would be debriefed on a new revision to the Threat Advisory System.

We ran into Jouko in the lobby of the Hotel. His hair was long, his beard unruly, and he looked every bit a Finnish Jesus. He noted that I was not the first person to mention this, and I knew that the disguise was in preparation for his upcoming role as a washed-up Olympic wrestler in Álvaro Brechner’s Bad Day to Go Fishing, based on the short story “Jacob and the Other” by Juan Carlos Onetti. With Jouko was the great Phil Pfister, 2006 World’s Strongest Man and at 6’6” and 375 pounds quite possibly the largest human I have ever met. Shaking his hand was like being enveloped in a gauntlet of bear flesh, and a tremendous honor.

The show wouldn’t start until 7 pm, so the Kid and I hung out in the WaMu Theater as Jouko and Phil (one of the emcees) and the competitors prepared for the show. It seemed to me that these strongmen, each physically exceptional, were more a band of brothers, chieftains from far-flung districts, than a disjointed collection of adversaries. Running the whole affair was the affable, energetic producer, Colin Bryce, who was also once an Olympic bobsleigher.

Jouko is quiet by nature, but here he was in his element, among friends, and it was clear that he was held in high esteem. (Later, while ordering dinner in an archetypical New York deli, Phil turned to me and said simply, “He’s a good guy.”) Even though Jouko retired from competition years ago, this event in particular held special meaning for him. The last time Madison Square Garden hosted a strongman competition, one of the competitors was the Polish strongman Siegmund (Zishe) Breitbart, whom Jouko portrayed in Werner Herzog’s Invincible.

If you’ve ever seen a strongman event on TV, you know that these guys do some pretty crazy stuff: pressing logs overhead, pulling tractor trailers, carrying cars. Stuff that takes a little more oomph than squeaking out one more rep on your triceps kickbacks. The competition began with the Power Medley, or Flip & Carry, in which each man flips a 900-pound tire four or five times, and then hauls a 385-pound weight 50 feet to the finish line.

The next event was probably the most exciting, perhaps because it reminded me of a sick version of Musical Chairs; only there’s no music, you don’t ever get to sit down, and you’re pulling some monster poundages. Enter the Last Man Standing Deadlift, wherein each contestant takes a turn deadlifting a barbell that gets heavier with each round. Jouko pointed out that an Olympic bar, which is more flexible than a powerlifting bar, was being used because it was more dramatic for television (the event—edited down to about 43 minutes—will be broadcast on FOX Sports later this year). Starting weight was 320 kilograms; the last man standing pulled 405 kg, nearly 900 pounds.

Two other highlights included the Húsafell Stone Carry and the Axle Lift. The Húsafell Stone takes its name from an Icelandic testing stone: Snorri Björnsson, an Icelandic pastor and playwright, used the 418-pound, triangle-shaped stone as a gate to his goat pen (by Björnsson’s day, Iceland was pretty much short on wood). If you could lift the stone and carry it the 50 meters around the pen, you achieved fullsterkur, or “fully strong” status. The Axle Lift demands that you clean an axle—complete with oversized tires—to your shoulders and then press it. You do that as many times as you can in a minute. Before the show, I could hardly get my hands around the axle and was humbled to learn that it weighed 135 kg, about what I deadlifted in Jouko's gym in Hämenlinna.

It was easy to caught up in the excitement, and while we may not have been as vocal and persistent as the astonishing number of Polish-Americans fans (cheering on Jarek Dymek), the Kid and I were both thrilled by the performances, the camaderie, and the satisfaction of a full day. At one point the Kid told me he felt better about himself after seeing all these big men. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience for him.

Afterwards, feeling like zombies, we said our farewells to Jouko, escaped the streets of New York, and made our way home again on the New Jersey turnpike feeling a little grander: a little less invisible, a little less conspicuous; somewhere, perhaps, between awkwardness and fullsterkur.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

30 Weeks

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hoist the Colors, Indeed: Out to the Ballgame

Last weekend Jenifer and I found ourselves the lucky bearers of tickets to a Lancaster Barnstormers baseball game. 'Round here the attractions are the Reading Phillies and the Wilmington Blue Rocks, but we weren't going to pass up a chance to spend some quality time with my parents.

It's always strange returning home because I know the place better as someone who spent more time running the streets than driving them, and as an adult I rarely know where to go, what to do, where the food is. But thanks to the miracle of mailing lists, we know about and locate the funky Senorita Burrita in the up-and-coming midtown. We grab some great California Mission-style burritos and then, bellies full, in some cases really full, we hike through the stifling haze to the stadium.

Late in the game Jenifer is overheated and hungry and so I am sent to retrieve some ice cream. I scan the menu board and quickly determine that a cone is right out, considering the heat and melting point of ice cream, not to mention my extreme aversion to that messy condition Luke Danes of Stars Hollow aptly termed "jam hands."

Ah, a dish of ice cream. I have a long-standing dislike for the terminology, but the method sounds promising. There's something overly fussy about a "dish" of ice cream, and I didn't especially want to order one now and violate a dearly held conviction of my teenage years, when one of my (well-meaning) neighbors would occasionally invite me in for a dish of ice cream after I finished mowing his yard. A bowl I might have accepted, but not a dish, and in fact I didn't because I was a distance runner in those days and distance runners are crazy.

So I order this dish and in mere moments am confronted with a heaping pile of mint chocolate chip that is bursting beyond its paperboard confines; only then do I discover that a half-pint goes for 25 cents less. I've made my choice, I'm committed, but surely a half-pint is larger than a dish, I tell myself, the former having the ethos of geometry behind it, the latter signifying the forlorn remnants of an estate sale.

I pay the teenage purveyors of ice cream, judge them malevolently for assuredly having no dearly held conviction on the terminology of containers, and return to the fray. It's at this point that I realize we've reached the Act II turning point in the game, for now the Sounds & Furies are blasting in full effect: the lights are flashing, the mad organ player is pounding, Cylo the fuzzy red cow is emitting his grand moo (which is followed by a fat, enveloping bass tone that may well have been copped from the THX sound test), and no less august an American master than Yosemite Sam himself is barking at the opposing team's pitcher to "Quit stallin'!" All the stops are pulled out, folks, and the sun is setting, the carousel beyond left field is a-whirling, and by God if there isn't something close to magic in the air. It's corny, it's cheap, but there's a buzz in the crowd that isn't entirely fueled by seven-dollar beers, a fervor and a fever that's threatening to leak out and spread into the city streets like the MacGuffin in a latter-day Batman movie. Something is Happening and therefore we must Make Some Noise, or maybe it's the other way around, and I teeter between succumbing to the Chiba City hysterics of s(t)imulation and cresting a wave of myth and memory of sunlight days when I, too, played this game and dug my feet into the red dirt and tapped my bat on the dusty and scratched solidity of home plate. This must be something like America, and it's alright.

And this is to say nothing of the movie clips playing throughout the evening on the not-quite-Jumbotrons at the edge of the outfield. We are told that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and I sense the crime in never having seen Animal House; and later I recall with fondness how much I loved The Dream Team upon its release (and realize that it may well not hold up to a present-day screening). But the one that gets me is Elizabeth Swann's Saint Crispin's Day speech from the climax of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. It's a "popcorn movie," and a flawed one, but nonetheless this clip hits me where I want to be hit, and I wonder whether I'm the pregnant one, and then I can't help but laugh (at myself, too) when the pirates' hoisting of the colors cuts to the one-man cheerleading team waving the Barnstormers' standard, brandishing a plastic cutlass, and finally cannonballing into a swimming pool.

I know that I'm not alone in being affected by this stream of amusements, and I realize, maybe not consciously, that this commonality of feeling is something I haven't felt in this country in a long time. I've felt it in Europe, but it is different there and more differentiated here. Movies, baseball, ice creamheck, even Ol' Blue Eyes crooning as fireworks bloom beyond center fieldwe know these tropes, and even if the common man in the stands holds dearly a conviction on this terminology and judges me malevolently for choosing it, they signal and announce our capacity to fulfill those moments, however brief, when we rise to do our best work in the service and defense of others and ourselves. They will know what we can do! And in this moment I know that this game, this stadium, all this blessed folderol, for this community, is good.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sherpa and the Chairs of Chanticleer

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed and growing sweet —
all this universe, to the furthest stars
and beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.*
Rainer Maria Rilke
We are once again without our Sherpa. She left on Sunday on a bus to Massachusetts and her boyfriend, and we have resumed the usual routine. That’s not to say we’re unhappy, only that we miss our friend, again.

Sherpa is one of our New Zealand Friends, and the one who followed us from Nelson, where we first met, to Wellington before driving us through the North Island to Auckland. More commonly known as Diane, our Sherpa is capoeirista, yogini, surfer, clairvoyant, barista, and, even if she doesn’t yet know it, burgeoning life coach: She’ll Get You There™. She is a New Zealander by way of San Diego, having sailed in a small boat across the Pacific with the family of another NZF, Taya.

Our holiday began last Wednesday evening, when we drove to Baltimore to pick her up. There was something adventurous about the extravagant distance, and something right about picking her up a year to the day since we had returned from the Land of the Long White Cloud. Seeing her again reminded Jenifer and me that perhaps the greatest thing that came out of our trip to New Zealand, apart from the magnificent sense of freedom and possibility, was the friends we made. A reminder that the best of friends pick up whenever they meet as if no time has passed at all.

I recently joked with the very first of these friends, with whom my history goes back over 30 years, that most of our friends are over 50. He said that we need to get out more. I replied that we don’t like young people. He laughed. My statement was not a complaint but a recognition of the Venn diagram of circles we travel in locally through the yoga community, my local men’s group, and the cultural creatives of Phoenixville. And so it’s odd that we should slip so easily into a network of similarly aged new people so far away from home, and odder still that this should have happened in Nelson. It is a town that is surprising international in population and which serves the same function for New Zealanders as the Southwest does for Americans. People go there to escape, retreat, recover, retire.

We wanted to show Sherpa our place, of course, but also something beyond the usual routines and haunts. Sure, Sherpa accompanied Jenifer on her daily yoga rounds, and we visited Artisan’s (where in a fit of nostalgia I claimed the title of Mr. Americano, imbibing my favorite Kiwi coffee drink with not two but three shots of espresso — P-P-P-POW!) But we needed to do something special, only what?

Memory of a brief documentary surfaced (public television being our chief means of contact with the Outer World), an inkling blossomed into an impulse, and suddenly the answer was clear: we would visit Chanticleer Garden. We had been astounded to learn of this place nestled only a short drive away in the horse country of Wayne.

Chanticleer proved amazing from the very beginning. After a picnic lunch alongside a stream, we made our way through the vast lawns and intimate gardens, marveling at the variety of wildflowers and coziness of tree-sheltered hideaways. Sprinkled throughout the property at key viewing points was an assortment of Adirondack chairs, and we tried them all. Delightfully playful and many-colored, one set was even painted with giraffe spots. From the solid New Colonial architecture of the estate to the sculptural benches and footbridges, everything seemed integrated and chosen with care. A fraction of the size of the ever-popular Longwood Gardens, Chanticleer was more private and more immediate. It’s designed to be experienced, not consumed. Truly a pleasure garden.

The remainder of the week found us mostly lazing, in part because my foray into the Wild had brought about the worst episode of allergicality since the elms of Stockholm laid siege to my sinuses two summers ago. We attended a beautiful kirtan on Saturday night, but our thoughts kept returning to the garden of the rooster.

The funny thing about traveling is that you really do learn as much about yourself, your culture, as you do about the foreign destination. At Chanticleer we were traveling previously unknown pathways in our own land and finding ourselves somehow richer, freer. The day was an affirmation of what we already have: a secret world hidden in plain view. In Chanticleer we found a little piece of luck in our own backyard. It gave us the kind of experience we’ve been so fortunate in finding abroad. For all our yearning to be elsewhere at times, we have a pretty good life right here.

*From “Buddha in Glory” in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Copyright © 1982 by Stephen Mitchell.

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