One Now, One Later, And One On Down The Road…

The Gift That Keeps On Giving…

When I was 13 years old, the book Pumping Iron was given to me by my mother.  The book’s impact was immediate, and steered me in a direction in which I had no control; a lifetime of bodybuilding.  Bodybuilding morphed into fitness, which ultimately led to a career.  The book that Charles Gaines and George Butler assembled in 1974 was the foundation for my passionate life of exercise.  In a more subtle way, and over a long period of time, Pumping Iron also gave me the foundations for a couple other passions.  More on those later.

Though I opened that book daily and was obsessed by its pictures, I would not actually read Pumping Iron for nearly 5 years after it was given to me.  Since I struggled with reading, I selected only brief passages, and only on occasion.  Who needed words, when George Butler’s black and white photos told a story I was so hungry to see…?

I would spend the next few years of my life putting all my eggs in one basket, and clutching that basket.  Lifting weights was the first discipline I would wholly commit to.  If nothing else, from Pumping Iron, which led to pumping iron, I learned that I had discipline.  In time it became clear that I was not so genetically gifted nor so determined, that competitive bodybuilding would be my dominion.

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My Future’s So Dark…

Elsewhere in my life, I was less disciplined.  By the time I was in my late teens I was a high school dropout with a bodybuilding habit, no skills, and no apparent future.  The US military would be my only hope.  To be considered for the military, I would have to take my GED.  Being dyslexic, I was fearful that my struggles with reading would inhibit this process.  To this point, I had never read a book of any kind from cover to cover.

So with a workout-like discipline, I chose to read an hour per day – no matter what, hoping my reading would improve.  I selected Pumping Iron to read first because I had an interest in its content.  If any book could help pry me from the pictures and place me into the words, this was going to be it.  A funny thing happened on the way to The End…

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Reading Pumping Iron was a chore.  I kept at it, because I believed my future depended on becoming a better reader.   Despite my struggles, there were occasional passages which kept me coming back for more – like a good golf shot on an otherwise fruitless outing.  Charles Gaines crafted phrases that suited my imagination.  Writing of the bodybuilder Pierre Van den Steen, Gaines wrote,

“The little Belgian whose chest looks carved from ice.”

Of Arnold Schwarzenegger performing incline bench presses, Gaines wrote,

“His biceps looked like two grapefruit sliding on greased tracks.”

Reading was a challenge, but images like those provided a sufficient reward.  I completed the book, and felt that my reading actually had improved along the way.  I would read more books prior to taking my GED, but none painted pictures the way that the words of Charles Gaines did.

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It was some lucky combination of intuitive guessing and my improved reading ability which got me through my GED.  I would go on to serve in the US Coast Guard.  It was during my time in the Coast Guard when I began to write creatively.  With Charles Gaines’ descriptive phrase still bubbling under my psyche, I felt like I had something to say, and was somewhat confident in my ability.  This would be a short lived discipline though, as my writing time was a lesser priority than my exercise time.  I would not write again creatively for another decade.

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Workouts And Words…

My pre-dawn workouts, originally inspired by Pumping Iron, were once the most important part of my day.  Those workouts now take place later in the day or in the evening, and though they are still important, writing is what does it for me now.  Eventually writing took priority over lifting.  For nearly 15 years now, I have been writing for one hour every morning, almost without exception, with workout-like discipline.

I like it when the words of others paint pictures in my head.  I also enjoy using words to paint pictures of my own.  Words, in that sense, are the most malleable medium we can use as form of creative expression.  As I sip coffee in bed, with my mammal at my hip, and my 17” window to the world on my lap, I attempt to craft sentences like Charles Gaines did in Pumping Iron, knowing all the while that I am to Charles Gaines’ writing as I also am to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique – much less than, but I still have fun.

Walks And Wonder…

Oh, and there’s been one other influence Pumping Iron has had on me, which I have only now come to realize and appreciate…

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Each morning, after I’m done with my writing session I walk through town with my dog.  As Stroodle takes in the smells of the day, I have come to appreciate how well this town sets up in black & white.  George Butler shot all the pictures for Pumping Iron with a Leicaflex SL2, and those photographs were nothing less than artistic.

I’m just a chimp with smartphone, and do nothing which I would consider artistic, but I have fun with it, as I have fun with writing and lifting, and that my friends explains all the picture above which have almost nothing to do with this story.  Be well…  rc

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The Ongoing Battle…

I have invested far too much in seeking precise answers to questions that I know have no clear ones.   Chief among these questions is this…

Just because we are capable of doing something physical, and we can refer to it as a form of exercise, does it mean that we should take that action…?

My formula for answering this question has (almost) always defaulted to the risk/reward ratio.  That is, does the risk involved with performing the exercise outweigh the reward…?

I think I have spent the last couple of decades making what I think are good choices based on using the risk/reward formula, both for me as well as for my clients.

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Even so, there are times when I step under a bar to do a squat or lay on a bench to push a weight vertically away from my body, and I will ask myself if this is the right thing to do.  If I am wrong, and I am wearing myself out prematurely or putting myself at risk then that’s on me.

If, however, I ask a client to stand under a bar, to jump, or even to twist, turn or bend, and I haven’t fully analyzed and applied the risk/reward ratio, not only am I a bad trainer, I’m also an ass.

On the surface, I always feel as though I am doing the right thing, but deep down I wonder, and I guess I always will…  Jhciacb

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Richuals…

The Little Ball Of Rituals…

My skin might someday burst for all of the rituals which are packed within me, waiting, not always patiently, to be carried out each day.  From the moment I get out of bed, everything I do that matters, I do ritualistically. Every action has a purpose and must be executed at the right time and in just the right way.  To live a day in my shoes, is to extend one ritual right into another, connecting them end-to-end to form a completed day.

Turn on the coffee pot.  Shower.  Stretch.  Check my electronics. Text my daughter.  Walk my dog.  Hike.  Eat.  Work with clients.  Workout.  Write.  Share time with friends.  Listen.  Wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I own it as if that is exactly where I should be and exactly what I should be doing.  I savor these times, these actions, and each conversation.  I think this is a good way to be.

What makes all of these things rituals to me, and not habits, is that as I am doing them with reverence and appreciation.  Turning on the coffee pot, as I my finger directs the lighted button from left to right, is the only thing which matters at that moment.  We are one, me and Mr. Coffee.  Nothing in my life is as important as watching my dog call our walks to a halt as he pauses to sniff the underside of weed’s middle leaf.  The picture I take of a tree or a bird or teaspoon of peanut butter each morning, and text to my daughter, is always the most important text I will ever send.

When the earliest of my morning rituals have been completed though, and I feel confident that the day will come off okay, then it’s time for the ritual which matters most in my life; my phone call to Miss Trudy.

A Song In Her Voice…

Though we are no longer married, Trudy remains the most important person in my life – tied for 1st place with the daughter we share.  Most mornings, and most evenings I call her or she calls me – just to check in and say hello, and to ensure the other is okay.  So imbedded is this ritual, that very often, as I am preparing to dial the phone, her number shows up on my caller ID, and vice-versa.

My day officially becomes official when I utter the words,

“Good morning, Miss Trudy!”

And she reciprocates,

“Good morning, Mista Roy!”

I think her voice might be what a flower would sounds like if flowers spoke.

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What a voice might look like…

Here’s the thing, nothing big happens – especially with our morning phone calls.  You see, our evening phone calls generally take place right before we go to bed.  Not much latitude there to expand on.  It’s simply light conversation inquiring to about how well each other slept, and about how well our dogs slept.

We might dig a little and inquire about each other’s impeding workday.  Perhaps catch up or discuss any major news that broke overnight.  Talk about the weather.  We may even talk about what we plan to have for lunch.  Occasionally we’ll ask each other about a YouTube link to a song we felt like sharing the day prior.

I lied when I said nothing big happens.  You see, the biggest thing of all happens when I hear Miss Trudy’s voice; I know for certain that I have a true friend and a compadre in my corner.  There is a song in her voice.  Maybe the song is more like a medicine which soothes the stresses of life which often get the better of me.  There is a joy in the simplicity of innocent conversations with her.

When I reflect on all my rituals, and the ones which mean the most to me, and when I consider all we available in the form of vices to help us feel better, I well appreciate that what soothes a confused mind or an aching soul isn’t alcohol, sex, entertainment, or even money.  It is hearing the voice of my dearest friend each morning, and again each night.  May you all hear such sweet music in your own lives.  Be well… rc

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Dad, M*A*S*H, Beavis and Butthead…

My father passed away on May 11, 2012. Though I did have a chance to offer him a proper goodbye in person weeks before he passed, when he died there was no service, no ceremony, nor did I even visit his marker at the veteran’s cemetery in Las Vegas where he is interned. To this day, I still have not paid those respects.

I did though, during the months he was on hospice, write a eulogy for him because we knew death was certain. However, with no service any kind, I never had a chance to share a series of great memories with my dad. The remainder of this essay is a part of what was to be his eulogy…

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When I was in high school I struggled early on. Before I even turned 16 I released myself on my own recognizance. Not long after dropping out, my parents divorced. I spent time with each of them, but eventually I moved out as a self-emancipated minor. I shared an apartment with an older friend who had also dropped out. As you might imagine, 2 high school dropouts trying to make it on their own did not fare too well too long.

At the age of 16 I knocked unannounced on my father’s apartment door on a May afternoon. Groveling, staring at my feet, and with my tail between my legs, I asked if I could live with him.

“Yes” he said, and immediately gave me 3 stipulations, “You can live here, and I won’t charge you rent, but this what I need from you…”

  1. I had to be employed.
  2. I had to be in by 9pm on weeknights, and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
  3. Every night at 10pm we would watch M*A*S*H together. It was his favorite program.

I agreed and lived out those terms. I was already working at a Nautilus Fitness center, rarely stayed out late, and I have always loved M*A*S*H, so this was an easy ransom.

Living with my dad at that time was a good settling in period for me. Though he occasionally traveled, we shared some quality moments during that time. I think this when my father and I began to trust one another on adult terms, and form what he would later call “the bond”.

Fast forward 13 years. My father was now taking fundraising campaigns on a yearly basis. He would take an assignment, say the Montana Historical Society, spend one year conducting a fundraising campaign, and then seamlessly move on to the next one. During this period he spent time in Montana, Kansas, Georgia, and Alabama.

As for me, I was no longer the 16 year old high school dropout. I had a wife, a new baby, and was employed as a scheduling analyst for America West Airlines in Phoenix. After our baby was born, my wife took her to Denver to live, and I flew from Phoenix to Denver on my days off to be with them. Monday through Friday though, I lived alone in Phoenix – in a 3 bedroom house.

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One day the phone rang. My father who had back-to-back campaigns organized for 4 straight years had come up dry, and had just sold his New Jersey home. I have no doubt that he was staring at his shoes as his softer than normal, tuck tail between legs voice asked if he could move in with me until he got another campaign. Without missing a beat…

“Yes” I said, “and I won’t charge you rent, but this is what I need from you…”

I went on to explain that I knew he was working on getting another campaign, but I requested that he be in by 9pm on weeknights and 11pm on Friday and Saturday, and that every night at 10pm he and I watch a show together like we did at his apartment in Denver in 1979.  I could hear tears in his voice as he began to thank me.

That’s when I explained that the show we would be watching was called Beavis and Butthead.

“I’ll pay rent” he said “I’ll pay rent!”

That may be the only time he ever called me a son of a bitch. We both chuckled. He would live with me for nearly 3 months, eventually moving to Las Vegas to get a jumpstart on retirement. He only watched Beavis and Butthead with me a few times. Sometimes parents just don’t understand…

The time we spent together at my home in Phoenix was the best. We dined out nearly every night on his dime. He had the place to himself on weekends while I was in Denver, and we continued, if not perfected “the bond”.

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The day after my father passed in May of 2013 I was on a plane to Athens – to be a father myself. I had promised my daughter who was living and studying in Greece at the time that I would meet her there and I wasn’t about to cancel that trip. When I had to choose between daughter and father, I chose daughter. I have no doubt my father would have approved.

There was no service for my father. His body was cremated, and nobody came to pray. It was a Curtis Lowe moment that could not be avoided. I had intended to visit Las Vegas last October to finally say goodbye to my father.  That never happened.  Life, as they say, got in the way.

I hope sometime in the coming months to visit the marker where he is interned at the Veteran’s cemetery near Las Vegas.  If I never make it though, that’s okay.  I thank my father every morning for the love that he gave me, the tools he provided to prepare me for life, and for the sense of humor he shared with my brother and I.  In that sense, I memorialize him every single day.  Be well… rc

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Please check back in a few weeks to see what happens when I push the STOP button on the blender in my head. Oh, and there’s this from Lynyrd Skynyrd. Enjoy…

Dear Gabe…

Dear Gabe,

My name is Roy Cohen.  I’m a fitness trainer and blogger living in Fallbrook, California.  My blog, which I understand you cannot access, is a collection of essays that I write each week.  Most of them have exercise and fitness at their core, but more often deviate, if not outrun the ideals of exercise in favor of contemplating some of life’s more complicated issues including family, community, religions, and societal miscarriages.

I have come to know of you and your situation through your mother.  She is both a social media friend, and someone I have consulted with regarding her fitness.  Rather than write an essay for my blog this week, I chose to write my first letter to you, and publish it on my blog. I did this with your mother’s permission.  If you choose to write back, I will be an honest pen pal.

Social media is a fickle platform.  That is, I have come to know and trust your mother through this medium, but she and I have never met.  I do though, consider her a true friend.  Despite that I have come to know a great deal about her, there is much more I don’t know.  That’s just how social media works – you get to know people, but some things fall through the cracks.

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Gabe.  Brother Anthony.  Mother Laura.

Because I know your mother, I have come to know some things about you, though there is also much about you that I don’t know.  For example, I have no idea why you are in prison or for how long.  I only know that you are in prison.

It’s not an exaggeration to tell you that my only true fear in life is the idea that someday I might hear a cell door lock behind me. Like most people, all I really know of the prison system is what I see in movies, on reality TV, and on the nightly news.  Despite that none of these paint a complete picture of what goes on in prison, I think between them they offer some idea of what life must be like.

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Gabe’s dog, Debo.  Debo was lost to cancer late last month.

I write this having no knowledge of your patterns of behavior within the institutions where you have spent time.  If you choose to write back, perhaps you can answer some of the questions I may raise in this letter.  For example, I wonder if you have opportunities to create.  If so, what might you like to create…?  Art…?  Poetry…?  Music…?   To me, fulfilling our creative desires is one of the most important aspects of being human.

Perhaps you spend time reading and studying topics that interest you.  If so, what might those topics be…?  I wonder if you ever have the chance to work at a job within the system and feel productive.  Or, do you simply sit, stand, and entertain your own thoughts all day – alone.  And from that I wonder, what might those thoughts consist of…  And for any of this, I am curious how much time might you be allotted…?

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Gabe’s Uncle, Johnny.  Gabe.  Mother, Laura.

Like most people, I think of prison as being a violent place, so if I’m being honest, I’m also curious if you have ever been the victim of or even the perpetrator of any acts of violence.  I suppose what I’m most curious about is how you would plan to conduct your life if you are released.  That is, what will you have learned from this process…?  How will what you have learned influence who you continue to become…?

Our prison system, in my opinion, is one of America’s most profound tragedies.  I understand the necessity for incarceration as a deterrent, as a form of penalty, and as an instrument of public safety.  Beyond understanding the need for it, I support it.  However, it’s clear that the system has deviated far beyond the intentions of social necessity.  From the outside looking in, it seems society has become quick to remove the human element from those inside.

I always attempt to use that term, human, when I think of or speak of people in prison, rather than using terms like convict, inmate, or prisoner.  We have dehumanized people in the system, in my opinion, to a shameful level.  I try hard to remember that behind every pair of eyes, even for the worst offenders, is a heart, a soul, fears, doubts, desires, and all those emotions which make us human.

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Gabe…

My beliefs on who should get imprisoned, and how long they stay are on the more liberal side.  It makes little sense to me to break up families, deplete the labor force, and take people out of communities in favor of social and political revenge when there seem to be so many sensible alternatives.  I am hopeful that our society will continue to explore the many options which will reduce prison populations, better serve society, and better prepare the humans within them to grow rather than contract.

Anyway, Gabe, I just want to reach out and say hello.  To let you know I support your growth as a human being.  I encourage you to create when you are able.  Study when there is opportunity.  Reflect often, and do so honestly.  Lastly, I’ll offer a piece of advice, given to me by a mentor long ago, which has always served me well:

Make a list of the 10 highest priorities in life.  Review that list regularly.  Change it as your life changes.  Be honest – especially with your first priority and with your last priorities, because they will almost always be wrong.

I hope you write back.  Your mother assures me you will.  I’m at 211 E. College Ave.  Fallbrook, CA  92028.

Take care,

Roy

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