On Obsessiveness

Tyler Cowen’s “My days as a teenage chess teacher” is interesting on a lot of levels. For instance, take lesson learned #6 of 7.

“6. The younger chess prodigy I taught was quite bright and also likable.  But he had no real interest in improving his chess game.  Instead, hanging out with me was more fun for him than either doing homework or watching TV, and I suspect his parents understood that.  In any case, early on I was thinking keenly about talent and the determinants of ultimate success, and obsessiveness seemed quite important.  All of the really good chess players had it, and without it you couldn’t get far above expert level.”

I often envy people who are obsessive about anything even remotely socially redeemable—whether being a grand master in chess, or cycling 12,000 miles/year, or knowing more about Mormon history than anyone except a few dozen Mormon scholars. Why do I envy obsessive people? Because I don’t know if I’ve ever been truly obsessive about anything. It seems like it would be fun to be so immersed in an activity that time stops.

And yet, when I take stock of my life, I can’t help but wonder if my lack of obsessiveness about any one thing may be one of my most positive attributes. If it’s not a positive attribute, splitting the difference between similarly compelling forces, is my essence. It’s who I am.

To the best of my ability, I seek balance. Between work and family life. Between intellectual pursuits and physical ones. Between running, swimming, and cycling more specifically. Between listening and talking. Between teaching and learning. Between friends. Between being silly and serious.   

I wonder, should I stop idealizing obsessiveness?

 

Wednesday Required Reading

1. What if the Great American Novelist Doesn’t Write Novels? I need to see a lot more of Wiseman’s work, but the little bit I have seen makes me think that question is not at all hyperbolic.

“The fact that Wiseman’s half-century-long project is a series of cinéma-vérité documentaries about American institutions, their titles often reading like generic brand labels — ‘High School,’ ‘Hospital,’ ‘The Store,’ ‘Public Housing,’ ‘State Legislature’ — makes its achievement all the more remarkable but also easier to overlook. Beginning with ‘Titicut Follies’ (1967), a portrait of a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane that remains shocking to this day, Wiseman has directed nearly a picture a year, spending weeks, sometimes months, embedded in a strictly demarcated space — a welfare office in Lower Manhattan, a sleepy fishing village in Maine, the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory University, the flagship Neiman Marcus department store in Dallas, the New York Public Library, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Tampa, Fla., a Miami zoo — then editing the upward of a hundred hours of footage he brings home into an idiosyncratic record of what he witnessed. Taken as a whole, the films present an unrivaled survey of how systems operate in our country, with care paid to every line of the organizational chart. They also represent the work of an artist of extraordinary vision. The films are long, strange and uncompromising. They can be darkly comic, uncomfortably voyeuristic, as surreal as any David Lynch dream sequence. There are no voice-overs, explanatory intertitles or interviews with talking heads, and depending on the sequence and our own sensibility, we may picture the ever-silent Wiseman as a deeply empathetic listener or an icy Martian anthropologist.”

2. Why Are Great Athletes More Likely To Be Younger Siblings?

“The roots of the little sibling effect may lie in the way younger siblings strive to match their older siblings on the field. This was the case with Michael Jordan, the youngest of the three Jordan boys and the fourth of the five Jordan children. When the siblings were growing up, Larry — who was born 11 months before Michael — was considered a better basketball player and regularly bested Michael in one-on-one games.

‘I don’t think, from a competitive standpoint, I would be here without the confrontations with my brother,’ Michael recalled in the ESPN documentary’ The Last Dance.’ ‘When you come to blows with someone you absolutely love, that’s igniting every fire within you. And I always felt like I was fighting Larry for my father’s attention. …

‘I want that approval. I want that type of confidence. So my determination got even greater to be as good, if not better than, my brother.'”

Alas, did not apply in my family. Oldest Brother routinely whipped my ass on golf courses and tennis courts alike. And Older Brother was a much better swimmer and water polo player.*

3. Amanda Seyfried Finally Stakes Her Claim. How to be wonderfully grounded, against the odds. Buy a farm.

4. Why Andy Mukherjee is losing hope in India. Given it’s impact on the planet, anyone who is not East-Indian owes to themselves to learn a lot more about India. This is an excellent start.

*that’s why this athletic accomplishment was so gratifying

I Could Use a Sports Psychologist

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about my athletic self.

2019 has been all about good health and consistent training. Last Friday I ran my 1,000th mile of the calendar year, thus extending my 21 year streak of 1,000 miles+ running annually. As you age and it becomes impossible to set personal speed records, you have to find other ways to motivate yourself. My secret power is not having played contact sports growing up. My knees are golden thanks to golf and water polo. Being slender no doubt helps too.

I’ve swam farther this year than any other because I joined a Masters Team and went from swimming twice a week to three times. Despite that increase in volume, my splits aren’t much better because swimming is an incredibly technical activity and I haven’t improved my technique.

I hope to hit 5,000 miles of cycling by 12/31/19, which thanks to the sabbatical, is about 10% more than normal. A lot of the peeps I cycle with double that.

I ran a very good marathon a few years ago in Seattle. For me. Even somehow won my age group. I’ve ran a few halves since, including one in July, which also went well despite skimping on long training runs.

But despite the good health and all the cross-training, I haven’t competed in a triathlon for 5+ years, which I guess means I’m retired from the sport. I’m even trying to sell my beater triathlon bike.

I often think about returning to competition and this is where I need a sports psychologist. Friends still enjoy it and I know I could be very competitive in large, difficult races, not because I’m a burner, but because I’m slowing down less than my peers because I was never supe-fast to begin with and I have a very deep cardiovascular base from years of consistent cross-training. Also, while I’m not a burner in any of the disciplines, I don’t suck at any of them either. In contrast, almost every triathlete has a weakness*.

For some reason though, I just can’t bring myself to purchase a new bike, register for races, and show up on starting lines. Here’s how I imagine a counseling session with a pricey sports psychologist going down.

SP: So you’re thinking of returning to triathlon. What’s keeping you from committing?

RB: Aren’t we gonna talk about my childhood?

SP: No, frankly that would bore me.

RB: Well, for one thing I’m usually shelled at the end of training rides and I really don’t want to run off the bike anymore.

SP: Have you always been a wuss or is that a recent development?

RB: I think it’s rooted in my childhood.

SP: Never mind then.

SP: What else is holding you back?

RB: To tell you the truth, when I imagine best case scenarios, winning races, it doesn’t do anything for me. I think what if I swim, cycle, and run faster than a declining number of other economically privileged old dudes. And I conclude, so what.

SP: Often, as in life, in athletic competition the joy is in the journey.

RB: Did you learn a lot of cliches during grad school?

SP: Yes, lots of others I’d happily share if we weren’t out of time. Thank you for coming.

* truth be told, my weakness was the fourth discipline, transitions

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The Deleterious Health Effects of Sedentary Work Cultures

One aspect of my privilege is my education which has enabled me to make a living without sacrificing my body. Roofers, welders, plumbers, farmers, house painters, construction workers, tree cutters, often aren’t as fortunate.

But I’ve noticed a pattern even among my fellow white collar egghead professors. A majority routinely sacrifice their health for the sake of their work because of a deep-seated intellectual bias that prioritizes the mind at the expense of the body. 

Simply put, most of my colleagues have been sedentary for decades. On top of that, generous people take turns providing unhealthy office snacks*. Most professors don’t make time to walk, hike, run, play tennis, swim, cycle, or lift weights because there’s always another lecture to plan, or syllabus or grant to write, or set of papers to mark, or conference presentation to prepare, or faculty workshop to attend.

I like my work and my university, but not nearly enough to sacrifice my health for it. One colleague of mine retired in May and died in July. I didn’t know him so I don’t even want to pretend his lifestyle played any part, but I fear too many of my colleagues will not get to enjoy as many post work years if they do not prioritize their health more than is the norm.

Today marks the end of the world’s longest academic sabbatical, mine. I normally work summers, but I took the summers of 18 and 19 off, the book-ends to my 2018-2019 academic year sabbatical. 15 months, huzzah! Someone call the Guinness Book of World Records**. I won’t be telling any of my colleagues what I’m going to tell you in the next paragraph because the sedentary nature of faculty life is so pervasive my athletic self lives deep in the closet***.

Besides the traditional, publishing a couple of articles, reading a bunch, and updating my syllabi, I also turned the knob up a bit on my regular swimming, cycling, and running volume. Por exemplar, I joined a Masters swim team and so far this year have already swam about the same distance as last calendar year. And SO WHAT if I did stretch and chill in the jacuzzi after some practices! Also, I’m on pace to cycle 5,000 miles this year and maintain my 1,000 mile a year running streak. I was fit when I began my record breaking sabbatical, today I’m a little more fit****.

Am I overcompensating? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’m under no illusions that my active lifestyle will guarantee any kind of post-work longevity because life is fragile. That driver on their cell phone could wipe me out on tomorrow’s ride.

But as long as I work as an egghead professor, I will dare to be different by making time to swim, cycle, and run. In particular, I will not sacrifice the quality of my life to the pervasive work culture of which I’m apart. Please, just don’t out me to any of my colleagues.

*Decent chance I have my first donut in a long time today. #glazed

**Could an educator-reader please tell me if teaching is like riding a bike, I’m afraid I may have forgotten how. Any tips?

***Except for one colleague-friend who follows my workouts on Strava. I should probably get him to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

****No, I haven’t just opted to not write about racing triathlons, I have in fact sold my time trial bike and stopped competing for reasons I’m not entirely sure. As I age, given the attrition of my peers, and my consistent training, I would do quite well. But when I envision best case scenarios, like winning races, I’m still not sufficiently motivated to toe the line. Is there a sports psychologist in the house?

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The Mouse And The Man

Just received the meanest of text messages from the Bad Wife:

“I’m pretty sure I went 49 mph today coming down the hill between the Cove and Holiday Hills. Don’t have a computer so I can’t verify, but I’m pretty sure.”

There’s so much wrong with this text. First of all, what kind of person cycles without a computer?!

Secondly, I had just told the Bad Wife that I set a new cycling speed record during a group training ride in rural Lewis County (redundant). 48.8 mph.

I’m training for the annual sufferfest in Bend, Oregon in two weeks, the Central Oregon 500, which I turn into the Central Oregon 400, or last year 336, due to light snow on McKenzie Pass.

I am happy to report that I’m starting to feel some snap in my legs, but I coulda used a larger cassette on some of yesterday’s climbs. At times, I thought I might have to toss one or both water bottles overboard to breach the steepest pitches.

There were eight of us. I knew seven. Or so I thought. The eighth dude was someone I hadn’t seen in 15-20 years. The last time I saw him I was literally yelling at him at the finish line of the Black Hills triathlon. No, not in my character, but I watched him pass me on the bike, and then, totally ignoring the no drafting rule, suck another guy’s wheel for miles and miles. I did not reel him in during the run and did not take losing well. Keep in mind, this was before I studied Stoicism and got my shit together, by which I mean, got my ego somewhat in check.

Have you ever gotten so angry at someone that your anger ends up being much worse than whatever offensive action the other person committed? Me too.

Not immediately, but with just a little passage of time, I would’ve liked a do-over. As if an Olympic age group triathlon has any cosmic significance.

So imagine my surprise when The Drafter, a friend of a friend I learned, showed up for our group training ride. What to do? I intuited that he still remembered the psychotic break. Damn. Awkward. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking. I know what to do, pretend I don’t remember any of it!

That’s right, as a friend puts it, I was way more mouse than man. Why the hell couldn’t I have apologized and said what I was thinking, “Man, sometimes I think back to that time I lost it at the triathlon and I feel badly, sorry for all that anger.” And we rode together for 3+ hours. And we talked about our 26 year old daughters and life. His daughter is a first year teacher in Brooklyn and he was asking me for advice to pass on to her.

Having obviously moved on even without an apology, he was more man than mouse.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m a loser and that’s the one thing you’ll be most correct about today. You’re also wondering who was stronger two decades later? The Man or the Mouse? He did challenge me on several of the steepest climbs. He really shoulda known better. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

 

Friday Assorted Links

1. This Man Expects to Run a 2:50 in the Boston Marathon on Monday. His passion and commitment are inspiring, but it’s also kind of sad that he can’t imagine what else he might do in life post athletics.

2. Roubaix’s showers a dying part of cycling lore. I’m a privileged, aging, soft lap dog for gentrification; sometimes though, we need downmarket grittiness for contrast if nothing else.

“It’s not the nicest of place to take a shower, to be honest. It’s freezing cold and not much privacy. That’s the beauty of it. It was so grim in there that it was a way to finish off a grim race. Why would you have a nice, comfy seat in a cubicle to have a shower after 260km of hell? It was a race from hell, so they were the showers from hell.”

3. What I’m reading.

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4. What I just watched. Among other reasons to commit the 55 minutes, the incredible vividness of the Charlottesville footage.

Trump’s Takeover.

My Life as a Triathlete

Last night right before bed I got a text from downstairs, “Weren’t you supposed to do a triathlon today?”

A couple of weeks ago I told the Good Wife I was thinking about doing an Olympic triathlon in Portland on July 30th. But I’ve become so flaky about racing the last few years that comment didn’t register with her, so a couple of days ago she suggested that after church we go to Alderbrook for brunch with the in-laws. Which is how I spent imaginary triathlon day.

Once I had eaten my vegetarian omelete and killer breakfast potatoes at Alderbrook, cruised Steamboat Island, and returned home, I turned my attention to how a friend was doing at Ironperson Canada in Whistler, B.C. She was 90% through the run and in first place in her age group, so I sporadically checked in to see if she won and thereby qualified for the World Championship in October in Kona, which happily she did.

I also checked on the 55-59 year old men to see how I would’ve probably done. Because I’m experienced, time my training sessions, and often train with others who do race, I can estimate pretty damn accurately how fast I would’ve gone over the 140.6 miles. I would’ve finished second out of 29 geezers.

This is what I do. I train, I think about racing, but I don’t actually register for any events. I even have a built-in excuse for not racing in our local triathlon each June. Too short.

My hangups are many. I need a good sports psychologist if you have a recommendation. I need to either turn off my computer and put on my wetsuit or come to grips with what I texted back. “It appears as if I’m retired from competition.”

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A picture from my last triathlon.

Let’s Make a Deal

Pay for me to travel to Norway next year to compete in this completely irrational swim-bike-run adventure and I’ll detail my experience for PressingPausers worldwide. My wife will play the role of sherpa. Norway’s kinda expensive (the exact words on a pin my family presented to me mid-way through our extended Norway visit) so I’m going to estimate about $10k.

First I’ll have to “win” a lottery which only ten percent of applicants manage to do.

I’ll also have to gain about 50lbs for the swim otherwise I’ll wash up on the shore of the fjord like a completely frozen, farmed salmon. Your $10k should cover the uptick in groceries in the months leading up to the race.

Can I finish it? Earn a coveted black t-shirt? Let’s find out.

How to Age

Emily Oster’s findings in the fitness essay I included in the previous post rest on the following premise—people exercise to lengthen their lives. I run, swim, and cycle quite a bit further and faster than the research says I should because I enjoy pushing myself. And as far as I know the research doesn’t answer this question: Are the costs of more extreme fitness habits lessened when one increases the volume and intensity of their activities over many years? My gut tells me yes. My gut also tells me cross training lessens the costs.

But I’m okay being wrong because I don’t care if I live to 100. The more familiar I get with the 80’s and 90’s, the more inclined I am to trade quality of life for quantity. Which leads to how to age.

There are two approaches, but I don’t know which is better. The first is to remind oneself on a daily basis that you’ll never be younger than you are at this very instance. Meaning carpe diem. Live with urgency. Do the iron-distance triathlon now because it’s going to be even harder in a few years. Travel the world now because it’s going to be harder in a few years. Hike the Wonderland Trail or the Camino de Santiago before hiking to the mailbox is all you can manage.

The alternative is to accept the inevitability of physical decline and embrace life’s limits. Reject “Bucket List” mania. Live more simply. Slow down, travel less, invest more in friendships. Find joy in daily routines. Watch nature. Enjoy coffee, food, and drink. Go gently into the future.

Two paths in the woods diverge. Which to take?

Apple Watch and iPhones: iNitial Reaction

The Apple Watch. My favorite Apple watcher, John Gruber, said this Benjamin Clymer review of the Apple watch is the best one yet. If Gruber says it, it’s true.

Henry Blodget is smart, that’s why his ignorant comments that the Apple Watch is completely irrelevant shocked me. He’s forgotten history, in particular how unenthused nearly everyone was when the iPhone and iPad were first released.

Having said that, I will not be keeping my word because I will not be buying it this go round. I’ll wait a few iterations. I bought a new watch a year ago. My Garmin Forerunner 10 is one of my favorite possessions. It’s a brilliant watch because it only has the most essential functions I need. Meaning it’s simple to use. And it’s waterproof. And, unless I’m using the GPS feature a lot, the charge lasts several days.

The Apple watch isn’t waterproof. Deal breaker. I do not want to take my watch off every time I hit the pool or bathtub. And allegedly, you have to charge it overnight meaning I wouldn’t be able to use it to wake up. My one-third the cost Forerunner 10 has the perfect alarm—not too grating, but loud enough to always do the trick. No doubt Garmin knows what Blodget seemingly doesn’t, the Watch will get much better pretty quickly and prove brutallly tough competition. I may end up being their last customer. Maybe I should buy an extra “10” or two in case they die a sudden death.

Also, most of the Watch apps will require iPhone tethering. Really, I have to carry a new larger iPhone in order to see fitness data on my Watch? A two-part problem. 1) Getting a comfortable enough, water/sweat proof carrying case so that the phone “disappears” while running. Cyclists will most likely use a case and then just toss it in their back-middle jersey pocket. 2) The additional weight. When you pretend you’re an elite athlete, every gram or ounce counts. :)

I had a great run this morning. It was 52 degrees out and it was pitch black when I left, and 10k later, I was bathed in beautiful morning light. I took three things—shoes, socks, shorts.

The only reason to buy the first Watch is to subject acquaintances, friends, and family to status envy. That is always sufficient motivation for lots of people.

The phones. All previous sales records will be shattered. Sleepless nights for Samsung. Their worst fears are being realized as evidenced by this. I’m holding my AAPL shares and should probably use my Watch savings to buy three and a half more.

I THINK I want one. The pretend elite cyclist in me is thinking 4.7″, but the aging reader is thinking 5.5″. Maybe I’ll take a year to decide.

That collective sigh was my friends who have grown weary of my annoying quirk.