Short cuts and the long way

It’s tempting to take the short cut, to imagine that you’ve found a quicker and easier (painless!) way of achieving something. Everyone else is a stickler for unnecessary rules, or unimaginative, or caught in habit.

What this view doesn’t take into account is that everything has a price. Whether in energy, time, money or emotional labour. Even the short cut.

Why this is important is that the price for the long way is obvious in advance. You know what you have to do to get there. The sticker is on the box.

The price for the short cut is hidden, opaque. You don’t know what it is but you will still have to pay it. More time maybe. Or more money. Or blood-boiling frustration.

Taking this hidden cost into account, the short cut may not be worth it. You might not be such a genius for thinking of it. Perhaps there is a very good reason “it’s always been done this way”.

Strength training for the chronically busy and tired

Sometimes I have to keep learning the same lesson. Over and over again. This month’s lesson in humility has come from the barbell.

I have had some time off work and decided to push up my deadlift a bit. Two weeks later, beaten and sore, with no meaningful progress in sight, I stopped.

I don’t know why, but I seem to be unable to learn the lesson that there is a limit to what I can recover from. With my current life circumstances I’m pretty limited in what I can handle and the recovery strategies I can implement.

Sleep, for example. I hear that it’s good for getting stronger. Unfortunately I have small children and one of them wakes up a minimum of twice a night, every night. I also work shifts, which doesn’t help matters.

I am not genetically gifted. I’m also not young enough to, as my friend Kyle says, live on KFC and cigarettes and still make progress. I also have very little free time, given the demands of work and family.

So, once again I found myself looking at programs that aren’t too demanding. If they make me stronger, all the better.

I kept coming back to Dan John. As far as I can tell he is one of very few writers on strength and conditioning who is not a total meathead. He acknowledges that sometimes less is more, and that no-one has all the answers. Above all, he has some sensible guidance for how people with lives outside the gym should train.

Dan’s 40-day program seems to be a sensible choice. It promises to improve strength by pushing up your middling efforts, rather than your top efforts. This makes for an economical training session, in terms of both time and accumulated fatigue. For someone who is teetering on the edge of crushing fatigue most of the time, this sounds promising.

Dan’s recommendations are this: Pick 5 exercises (barbell or kettlebell), preferably aligned with the fundamental human movements. Perform around ten quality reps per exercise at 40%-80% of your 1RM. Repeat daily, or as close to as possible. It should feel easy. Never miss a rep. Stop after 40 sessions and reassess.

I’ve actually had a crack at this program before, but I made the cardinal error of believing that it was too simple, and turning it into a grind session by using heavier and heavier weights. I aim to avoid that this time because, well, I just have to. I can’t train an hour a day and I can’t tolerate the fatigue.

So, here is what I’m doing.

  • Front squat @60kg (60% 1RM) – Squat movement
  • Overhead press @40kg (57% 1RM) – Push movement
  • Clean and Jerk @50kg (58% 1RM) – Explosive movement/hinge
  • Bent over row @50kg (I dunno. 60%?) – Pull movement
  • Snatch-grip deadlife @60kg (Probably about 50% 1RM) – Hinge

So far I’ve done three sessions and it feels easy. There’s always the possibility that my lifts won’t improve, and I’m ok with that. At the moment, in my current life situation, if I can just keep practicing the movements and not go too far backwards, I’m happy.

I’ll report back when I’m further through the program.

Gambling

I’ve never really warmed to gambling. I understand that it’s one of those things that you’re meant to at least slightly enjoy, especially in Australia where the value of “having a flutter” is a foundational cultural myth. It doesn’t even leave me cold – I find it stressful and mildy boring.

I don’t claim to be particularly virtuous here. I just suspect that my brain is wired slightly differently to many people in this respect. There appears to be a pretty strong correlation between potentially addictive behaviours and particular neural configurations, and I seem to be deficient in the bit that controls impulsive behaviour. This is good and bad. Maybe I’m not as “fun” as the next person.

When there’s something on the line, as in all types of gambling, I immediately become anxious. The process stops being a game to me and suddenly becomes a situation where I have to protect what I have. If by chance I win a hand of poker I become acutely aware of the precariousness of victory and seek to cash out my winnings as quickly as possible. The enjoyment for me is in the “play” aspect – when money is invovled it feels like a school assignment and all the fun is vacuumed up, along with my cash.

Even Australia’s silliest holiday, the Melbourne Cup, means little to me. I attended Cup Day at Flemington once, dutifully bet on horses picked at random, and then lost all my money. My overwhelming feeling was one of relief that I didn’t have to participate any more, having made the token gesture.

No doubt I would be no fun at Vegas. I accept that. But on the up side, I’m not likely to get a pokie addiction either. So there are some benefits.

13 May 2019, Blackburn

I went to vote yesterday. Being an early elector, I forwent the democracy sausage (don’t ask how the sausage is made) in favour of a surprisingly long queue slightly outside of my electorate.

We have a very good-natured democracy, but one still has to run the gauntlet of people handing out flyers. Apart from the ubiquitous redshirts and blueshirts (reminiscent of chariot racing in Byzantium), we were joined by many greens, some aqua, a smattering of yellow placards (although no individuals) and a variety of small-time independents with poor graphic design skills. The only colour not represented seemed to be purple, perhaps because that is the totem of the Australian Electoral Commission and therefore sacrosanct.

Some people take all the how-to-vote cards they’re offered, so as not to offend the rainbow volunteers and to give no hint as to how they intend to vote. I choose to go the opposite path – I accept nothing.  The lower house voting is normally not a problem without a cheat sheet, but the Senate can get quite complicated. I forget whether the Pirate Party are civil libertarians or uncivil buccaneers.

I left with a sense of relief, but with an urgent desire to hear the results. Now! Man’s lot is to be unhappy, and that appears to extend to having to wait for the results of a national popularity contest.

Sunday May 5, 2019, Glen Iris

I spent the afternoon at a trampoline gym with one of my kids. We both had a glorious time, bouncing, flipping, landing awkwardly, trying not to crash into other people.

The place was filled to the brim with kids, being a Sunday. A handful of adults were bouncing too, but the vast majority were patronising the cafe selling overpriced coffee made by teenagers and looking at their phones. Some of them were working on laptops.

I found this all terribly sad.

While I understand that trampolining isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it should be plenty of people’s. It’s super fun. Judging by the number of non participating adults of child-bearing age, I guessed that probably some of them had a medical (orthopaedic) reason for not joining in, which is sad in itself.

But I suspect that the rest of them had some combination of fears – fear of lack of fitness, fear of looking silly, fear of being not very good, fear of hurting themselves.

I think that these fears are probably rubbish. One of the great gifts of adulthood is understanding that most people don’t care about you, they barely even notice you most of the time. Why not exploit that and have some childlike fun?

I mean, really. Do it now before you get old and die.

Unless there’s something on Facebook that can’t wait.

The e-Reader – I may have been wrong

I sometimes feel like I’m ahead of the curve, in other ways hopelessly behind it. For example there seems to be something of a backlash against social media use at the moment, on the grounds of mental health harms and distraction on demand. I like to feel that I was ahead of that particular fashion, abandoning Twitter in 2016 and having largely done the same for Instagram and Facebook since then.

However sometimes I think I’m forward looking and it turns out that I may have been on the wrong road entirely. I’ve waxed lyrical in the past about my love for my kindle e-readers. I wasn’t being deceitful – I genuinely thought they were brilliant, being small, portable, and able to access new books virtually anywhere. In some ways I still do feel this – there’s no doubt in my mind that an e-reader is a fantastic choice for travel.

But I opened my Kindle the other day after not having used it for a few weeks. It just… didn’t do it for me any more. The software had to update itself a few times. It needed a charge. And, as with all electronics, it started to feel slow. I started to feel nervous about accessing my considerable library of electronic books if my Kindle died. I mean, I could use the phone app, but it’s kind of a pain in the arse. Would they be lost forever? How would I get my notes back if they were sitting on a server somewhere in Oregon?

And why had I stopped using it in the first place? Because I’d fallen back in love with paper books. The delight of an order of a dozen books appearing at my house in 4-5 shipments due to the perverse arrangements of Book Depository. The pleasure of impulse-buying in Readings. And the undeniable sense of triumph when re-shelving a book that I’ve read, written in, manhandled and generally made my own. I came back to paper books, and they were waiting patiently for me all along.

It turns out that the fuddy-duddies were right. Even though they’re not always the most practical, paper books are magical. E-readers are sensible and the online store can be convenient, but it makes the experience somehow more transactional. Reading becomes less like a treat, more like an industrial process. Book 73% complete.

As it happens, I’ve always felt that way about paper notebooks and diaries. Electronic systems have never sat quite right with me, despite trying my best to use them. For years now I’ve carried around a Field Notes notebook wherever I go. They’re not searchable, occasionally I lose them, and when they’re full I just put them on a shelf. But the experience of writing something down commits it to memory better than a thousand keystrokes.

Robert MacFarlane, the British nature writer, has commented on this idea recently. I think he hits it square on the head.

People sometimes ask me why I don’t use a phone to take notes when I’m ‘out’ in the field. The answer is that phones smash, while notebooks bend. I also like the way that notebooks record where they’ve been not just in terms of what’s written in them, but also in terms of the wear they bear as objects.

Robert MacFarlane

Ultimately, perishable paper may end up having better longevity than any of the electronic formats we use. Electrons are forever, but the devices that store them and the machines that interpret them change with alarming rapidity. Try finding a connector for your 2006 iPod now.

I’m an absolutist in few things, and reading matter certainly isn’t one of them. I still use my Kindle, particularly where weight and size are factors. But it seems clear to me now that the experience of a paper book is an ancient love that shall not be supplanted.

Canberra

Canberra gets a lot of bad press. Some of it is deserved, but less that you might think.

Being the capital of Australia, it suffers the same curse which afflicts Washington DC and Brasilia; namely that it is an invented settlement which has been located for reasons of politcs rather than practicality. In the case of Canberra, a political tussle between Sydney and Melbourne at the time of Federation resulted in the capital being placed somewhere between the two.

The site couldn’t be considered to be particularly prime. In a country where all the major settlements are on the coast, Canberra is several hundred kilometres inland. Prior to to being the site of the national capital it was an enormous sheep station, of which remnants are still visible. Far from the moderating influence of the coastal breezes, Canberra is monstrously hot in summer and bitingly cold in winter. Supply of water is an ongoing issue. Even apart from these impairments, Canberra’s relatively small size (around 400,000 people) and location within New South Wales means that it often ends up being an appendage of Sydney, both politically and logistically. The population is pretty much a 50/50 split between working class rural New South Welshpeople and people from other states who have moved to Canberra to work for the Federal Government.

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View across the “Parliamentary Precinct”

Canberra’s crime, in the eyes of the rest of Australia, is twofold. Firstly, as the home of Australia’s government, it is the obvious target of the Australian population, who like nothing better than to whine and snipe about the politicians which they selected to represent them. Pollie-baiting is a national sport, pursued with enthusiasm by the vast majority of the population, most of whom could do a better job. When asked why they don’t volunteer, a common ground for refusal is having to live in Canberra. Circularity ensues.

The second great failing of Canberra, universally agreed upon, is that it is boring.

SO BORING.

CANBERRA IS SO BORING, I COULD NEVER LIVE THERE.

I think this is interesting. What exactly do people feel they lack?

The place is monstrously over-endowed with cultural institutions of the National variety. The population are in general highly educated and interested in such things as art, beauty, and the meaning of life beyond their tragic office potplant. As a result there are no shortage of cultural events happening, seemingly all the time. So it can’t be that, although it must be said that Canberra isn’t exactly edgy, despite the large student population.

Is it the architecture? Perhaps. The Canberra suburbs mostly look like they were constructed in around 1965 and are under a misguided heritage overlay. It’s an ocean of cream brick and tidy front nature strips out there, with the exception of the houses where nanna has clearly gone to seed along with her garden. The government buildings are either grim 1980s brutalist horrors or 1930s faux-Westminster, but they’re not without their charm. As they’re scattered around the city there is no ghetto of particularly terrible architecture.

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The National Library, laterally. 60s civic architecture at its finest.

The city is surrounded on all sides by mountains and a gigantic national park, so there’s clearly no excuse for boredom on the part of the adventurously-inclined. I recall a school camp I went on in said park – I walked for two weeks and had no conception that I was half an hour’s drive from the capital.

I think that when people say that Canberra is boring, they mean that there’s nowere fun to get a drink. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a vital component of a good urban existence, but I may be in the minority here. Nightclubs and late-night drinking venues are thin on the ground. The hidden ones in basements are particularly lacking. And it must be said that Canberra’s cafe culture, although developing, is not quite there yet.

When it comes down to it, I wonder whether it isn’t one of those shorthand terms for a city that perhaps once was true, and is now stuck. Think Paris and romance, New York and excitement, Sydney and traffic.

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The relatively un-maligned National Carillon

If so, it’s become pretty ingrained into the cultural mindset, even for the locals. I went on a boat ride around Lake Burley-Griffin, the artificial lake in the centre of town around which are clustered the major institutions. Surprisingly, the captain drove us round for an hour describing the sights in terms of the utmost cynicism and disdain. For him, the High Court resembles a stack of shipping containers and the National Museum is a hodgepodge of lame symbolism with a crane stuck on the top. Only the National Carillon escaped global condemnation, although there were some acid commets on the choice of music and the closure of the function room within the tower.

I do feel that Canberra is under-appreciated as a destination. Most of the frustrations of major cities are absent and as my friend Tommy says, it’s basically massively over-funded country town. For those who are considering a tree change, you could do worse than move to Our Nation’s Capital.

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Saturday night at 7 PM, Braddon

 

14 April 2019, Canberra

Sometimes I drink instant coffee at work. I joke that I do it because sometimes I need to hurt myself in order to feel something. The truth is really that I just like coffee.

It’s tough to live in Melbourne and not have strong views on espresso style coffee. I mean, I like it, and I can detect a bad cup. But a lifetime of nasal dysfunction and a general lack of interest in culinary culture means than Melbourne’s febrile cafes are mainly interesting for the interior design.

I feel that becoming a connoisseur of something, or any other kind of refined aesthete is a risky business. It’s a radically effective way to reduce your enjoyment of mediocre products and to overall decrease life satisfaction. Why would you create in yourself a need that can never be fulfilled?

Anyway, sometimes you find yourself in a situation where a quality product is simply unavailable. Apartment hotels in Canberra on a Sunday morning are just such a place.

7 April 2019, Union road, Surrey Hills, Victoria

In this election season I have been forced to conclude that Clive Palmer’s electoral office are trying to sabotage him.

I mean, look at that poster. Looks like it’s been put together by the year nine work experience kid. Awful Photoshopping, lurid colours, typography that could only be worsened by the addition of WinDings. It’s like the graphic designer hated Palmer’s guts and is playing a gigantic prank on him.

Let’s not forget the slogan. Clearly Clivosaurus wants to be Australia’s Donald Trump, hence the slavish imitation. But in Australia, I don’t think the Cheezel-in-Chief is a sensible role model.

This election may be tragic. It’s already comic.

6 April 2019, Surrey Hills Uniting Church, Victoria

Most churches in Australia give off a strong air of swimming against the tide. The buildings are spic and span, gardens watered and mantels dusted by a committee of keen parishioners. But the demographics are inescapable. There are no young people.

There are twee little poems posted on the bathroom wall about not leaving the lights on. The notice board lists various worthy causes about which the parish should write to the government, with the subtext that what those brown people need is a dose of religion. There is even a magazine extolling the virtues of the church’s youth wing and its members. Yes, they’re exactly the kind of people you’d expect.

Increasingly the church halls are being used for community purposes, just as they always were. But now it’s rehearsal space for the local ballet school, rather than a cake sale or knitting bee. How else to keep the lights on? Money talks.

I wonder whether I’m seeing the last gasp of mass organised Christianity in this country. No doubt many people will still believe. But between child abuse scandals and the even more devastating curse of irrelevance, I suspect that church-going as we know it is fading away, fast.