Relationship Representation

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With all my girlfriend and I have been through, it is amusing, appropriate, and somehow very representative of our relationship that our first culinary disagreement was over how to cook a hot dog. Those who know us are probably now laughing themselves silly.

As mentioned in earlier posts, my personality is more of a protector and teacher than caretaker. Despite my profession as a personal trainer and extensive background in martial arts, the protection I tend to provide is more emotional than physical. I try to provide a space where fear is acknowledged but pushed past, where anxiety is welcomed and soothed. When it comes to teaching, I try to teach by example. When I try to teach through words, I tend to revert to an academic style of “imparting knowledge”, which usually comes off as more than a little pedantic. So, teach by example and protect by providing emotional shelter. Though both can have lighthearted elements, they do have a certain gravitas that can come across as dominating, intimidating, or creepy.

My girlfriend, however, is a Brat. It is a title she embraces and thoroughly enjoys. She can be endearing or aggravating, impish or pestiferous. She’ll wiggle like an excited teenager, or pout like a preteen. True, she can be bull-headed, and will jump to conclusions based on emotion and insufficient evidence; but, she is also very intelligent and can present her side of an issue with much more cogency than I can. More importantly, she is very caring. She seeks to make her friends’ lives happier and/or easier. Sometimes it’s through making or hosting a dinner, sometimes it’s volunteering at an event they’re setting up, sometimes it’s as simple as making sure there’s a cold glass of water waiting for those she knows will like it.

Despite the differences in our natures, we are very well matched in the areas that tend to matter the most: ideas, values, and desires. We make a very good team. When aggression, argument, or detail is needed, she usually takes the lead. When diplomacy, multiple viewpoints, or calm certainty is called for, I tend to lead. Not that she can’t be diplomatic, or I can’t be aggressive, at need; but, those modes aren’t our primary modes of thought and action.

We do lots of things together, from grocery shopping to parallel play. With my background in personal training and hers in massage therapy, we occasionally geek out with anatomy and physiology, both the straight up as well as with suggestion and innuendo. When both people understand that the “sodium gradient” can be a reference to cellular respiration AND a reference to a sweaty body, much fun can be had. It is especially gratifying that we can discuss loudly and publicly about the strength and endurance of my pollicis longus, and snicker at the horrified looks we receive. (This post is PG. The full name is abductor pollicis longus, and is one of the muscles that pull the thumb away from the index finger.)

It is no wonder, then, that an argument about cooking hot dogs is weirdly representative of our relationship. If you take the tension between the literal and innuendo, mix it with our mutual desire to make the “best product” possible, garnish it with the acknowledged absurdity of the topic, and serve it with love, you end up with a pretty decent description of our relationship.

Progressive Flailing

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After teaching martial arts for a number of years, I’ve realized a pattern in the progression of students. I’m not talking about ranking, or even proficiency in movement. I’m talking about reaction to stimulus. It has to do with inherent fight/flight reactions. There is a third part of the fight/flight response, and that is “freeze”. The freeze response is what most people refer to as “deer in the headlights” response: somatic muscle stimulation stops, and the person just sits there and watches. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I suspect it has to do with hypersensitivity to perceived threats. So how does this apply to students in the martial arts?

Here’s my new progression:

Freezing, Wildly Flailing, Directional Flailing, Flailing Overcompensation, Directed Response, Appropriate Response, Reflexive Response.

Freezing: When training students, as an instructor, I have to assume the student is going to start here. Thus my “attacks” are slow, linear, and separated from each other. This prevents the overload by greatly reducing the perceived threat. In this stage, it is also a good bet that we have to teach the student it is okay to hit back. Once the student gets the idea that 1) he can hit back and 2) an incoming attack is dangerous only when it lands, then they move on to the second step in the progression.

Wildly Flailing: This is most easily seen in “slap fights”: hands and arms reach out blindly, trying to find a target. It’s also seen in defense as a shotgun barrage of untargeted blocking. It’s roughly the equivalent of the last twitches of a drowning person that might get his head above water—usually unproductive, but better than nothing. Students in this phase are, for the first time, in a situation where the attacks are coming in more quickly and in random sequence.

Directional Flailing: Students in this phase are still flailing, but the area covered is much narrower. Whereas in the Wildly Flailing phase, the flailing happens roughly evenly across the entire half-sphere in front of the student, Directional Flailing happens in more of a cone type area that encompasses the incoming attack. In this phase, the student’s subconscious mind has started to kick in, allowing an inherent understanding of “if the attacker’s right arm is coming in from this direction, it can’t be coming in from any other direction”.

Flailing Overcompensation: In this phase, there is apparently a slowing down of response. What is actually going on, however, is the student is having to consciously overcome the inherent flail response. In other words, the student’s drop in response speed has more to do with fighting himself than being unable to execute the appropriate response. Some flailing will still happen, but if the attack speed is reduced, the correct responses will become more apparent.

Directed Response: The student has now internalized a series of possible responses, but is still in the process of narrowing down the appropriate stimulus response sequence. The movements of a forearm block have been practiced so often that it’s second nature, but the forearm block is lost amidst an index of other possible responses. The response speed is faster than in the Flailing Overcompensation stage, but is still slow enough that the student wouldn’t last long in an actual fight…or even in a sparring match.

Appropriate Response: The student has learned his own hierarchy of stimulus response in both attack and defense. In this phase, the reaction speed picks up again, but the student can only deal with a few sequential attacks at a time since he is thinking about each attack individually. The goal of this phase is to smooth out the stimulus reaction loop to the point where conscious thought no longer has a place in the system.

Reflexive Response: In this phase, the responses are at the operant reflex level (as opposed to physiological reflex). Instead of thinking about dealing with the incoming attack, the reflex takes care of it and the brain can think about other things such as tactics, environment, and self-control.

This progression of responses is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but I suspect you’ll find a certain level of truth in it. Part of the purpose of martial arts classes is to take someone from Freezing to Reflexive Response as quickly (and hopefully painlessly) as possible. As an instructor, I teach responses to stimuli (even attack is a response to stimuli). In order for the teaching to be effective, however, I have to initially teach the responses in a very sterile and uncomplicated way.  In a more dynamic, non-drill situation, the appropriate responses are less obvious, which is why a student who performs very well in the drills can become flustered in the dynamic situation.

The other thing to keep in mind with this progression, is that it focuses on stimulus-response. It does not map to differences in ranks, only to experience with techniques. Every technique (especially in the beginning ranks) goes through this series. Even now, when I learn something new, I usually start in the Flailing Overcompensation phase as I try to fit the new technique in with the rest of my skills. I may even regress slightly into the Directed Flailing phase as I begin a Reflexive Response, remember I’m doing something new, and switch mid-movement.

Irrationality: a double bladed trick of the mind

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Next week is Spring Break and all campuses are closed.  I’m posting next week’s blog early since I won’t have access to a computer until the following week.

I made the first step in restoring communications with some people I wish I’d never lost touch with. It’s a rare day these past few years that I didn’t think about them and the impact they had on my life. At first it was a case of not noticing how communication was slipping. Then I realized that at some point, I had not written or called for nearly a year. At that point, my irrational side made itself known. The internal conversation went something like this:

“I haven’t written in a while. I should probably do that.”

“It has been a long time. They’re probably angry. You don’t want to make them angrier, do you?”

“Are you saying that getting in touch with them will make them angrier than they were when I stopped communicating?”

“Yes.”

“………”

At this point paralysis and inertia kick in and communication continued to lapse. Ladies and gentlemen, my irrational side. (no applause necessary)

As time went on, I felt worse about it. Then I started building walls around that part and tried to ignore it. As it happened, my irrational side got me into this, an irrational event broke the barrier. I got a piece of spam from one of the people I’d lost contact with. Spam is everywhere, so why was this an irrational event? First, he never initiates contact. Getting email from him before I sent one first is an unimaginable event. Second, it was spam. More specifically, someone had hacked into his system and started using his email list to send links to spoofed websites. Despite the email being spam, my irrational side’s little brother started jumping up and down with joy. “He emailed me first!”

I didn’t know if anyone else had let him know, so I emailed him back to tell him his account had been hacked. Then, I added a brief here’s-what-I’m-currently-up-to message and sent it off. The next day, I get a response with no text in the body, but the subject read: thanks for keeping in touch. Irony or sincerity? With him it could be either. Time will tell.

Testing and Nuts

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I’ve decided that postponing tests is not usually a good idea. Especially if you’re not behind in the lecture schedule. My physiology professor sent out a message last week saying that our test on Monday was being postponed to Wednesday due to many requests and his desire for us not to “have a nervous breakdown.” However, he is still going to lecture on the next unit on Monday.

I’d have preferred to take the test and get it out of the way. Now the test anxiety has another two days to build. It’s been my experience that postponing a fear-based encounter only allows the fear to grow. Not only that, but today’s lecture will be going on the following test, not an ideal situation for recall.

As for not wanting to give us a nervous breakdown, I applaud his intent; however, while his physiology is spot on, I would not say the same for his psychology. Short term anticipation (such as delaying a test by two days) only exaggerates the current emotional situation, it rarely ameliorates it.

 

As an antidote to this heightening anxiety, I’d like to recount something that happened in a different class. This other class is an evening class. Those of us in this class have had at least one class with the other people, and most of us have had two or three with the others. It’s been mentioned that this is probably one of the tightest cohorts in this degree program. Before class, while waiting for the others to arrive, we were discussing various and sundry things and bringing in all kinds of innuendo for the most basic and innocent of topics…bringing up memories of junior high. A giggling mood descended on the students even as the instructor called the class to order, despite the late attendance of a couple of other students.

About halfway through the class, the woman sitting next to me (one of the late arrivals) suddenly said in a voice everyone could hear: “I wish your nuts weren’t so far away.”

A brief silence of shock, then the whole room erupted in laughter. Someone across the room had been eating handfuls of mixed nuts. Someone else said, “What would your girlfriend say?” Even the instructor, possibly the most Zen man I’ve ever met, lost it at that.

I suspect it’ll take her a few weeks to live it down.

Slipping into Banality

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I sometimes wonder about me. I’m overloaded in school. I have little to no time outside of school because I’m preparing for school. And what do I do? I download and listen to lecture series on my commute that have nothing to do with what I’m learning in school. This semester, I’m drowning in physiology, struggling to keep up in performance enhancement, and relying almost completely on recall from class in program design. So I grab lecture series on Chaucer, the history of the English language, and reclaiming Europe’s lost literary tradition. I listen to these while traveling from one campus to another.

Why do I do this? I don’t know. Maybe I’m addicted to learning. I know that some of my other recent choice in audiobooks are: Slights of Mind (a book on the neuroscience of perception and stage magic), Freakonomics (a book which uses the statistical and analysis tools of economics on non-traditional subjects), and The Invisible Gorilla (a book which explores our often mistaken assumptions on how we perceive and recall the world around us).

Somebody described my activities to me as “creating a bigger net”. The analogy is the bigger the net, the easier it is to catch fish. Unfortunately, I may be heading towards an information overload. I fully expect, at some point this semester, to be found curled up in the corner of the library, giggling, and saying, “Here fishy, fishy, fishy.”

A Personal Fitness Trainer’s Dictionary

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Late in my high school career, I discovered Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. I was so taken by its cynical and humorous redefining of everyday words, I started doing it on occasion. When given the freedom to be creative with one of my college papers, I used this definition format. I’ve since occasionally come up with new definitions that tickled my fancy. For instance:

Paradox: Two piers side-by-side, one of which cannot logically exist.

I recently rediscovered The Devil’s Dictionary. It inspired me, or perhaps challenged is the better word, to do another thematic list. Since I’m currently working towards an Associates of Applied Science in Personal Fitness Training, I thought I’d see what I could do with some of the concepts. Some are amusing, some are less than stellar, but it was an interesting exercise. Here are my definitions of relevance to personal trainers:

Cardiorespiratory – if blood were air, pushing this will make your heart gasp

Endurance – a partial trance state which allows you to beat up your body, and your body will thank you…much later

Exercise – Banishing fat through movement instead of bell, book, and candle

Expensive – no longer thinking

Fitness – the quality of being able to wear the clothes you want

Frustration – psychological resistance through which the mind can prove itself wrong

Group Exercise – banishing fat through movement instead of bell, book, and candle…with friends

Guilt – mistaking dross for gold and providing a reason to do better

Gym – a healthy jungle of metal and machine

Heart Rate
How fast does my heart beat for me?
Far less than it beats for you.
And yet it is sufficient
That it beats in time.

Rehabilitation – making your body livable again

Resistance – something by which achievement becomes meaningful

Spa – Special Privilege of Affluence, or less cynically, Sound Preventive Activities

Strength – the ability to bear up under pressure

Train – to do something over and over in order to pull your baggage up a hill

Weigh – something you don’t want to do after you eat too many curds

Wellness – not just the characteristic of being a hole in the ground

Weird Advertising

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Every now and then you see something just enough out of place to twist your mind a little. I’m not talking about something that’s obviously in the wrong place or something that is in bad taste. I’m talking about something that would make perfect sense, if it were in a slightly different place.

I live in Austin, Texas. Lots of good things about it. Also lots of bad things about it. But none of them is the point of this post. One of the grassroots marketing campaign by local businesses is the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign. You see this slogan on T-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons, coffee mugs…the list goes on. It started a few years ago in response to an increase in big box and chain stores. The whole point is that for many years, Austin has enjoyed a reputation for being a little off-kilter…especially when compared to the rest of Texas.

Austin has several bedroom communities which were originally townships in their own right. One of them, Round Rock, seems to have latched on to the “Keep Austin Weird” idea. I’ve seen a number of bumper stickers reading “Keep Round Rock a Little Less Weird Than Austin”. I admit I got a chuckle out of seeing that, and as a marketing idea, it seems to have worked. Another bedroom community, Pflugerville, has almost set itself up in opposition with a “Keep Pflugerville Normal” campaign. A little less effective, especially since it only works in relation to the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign.

With that in mind, I saw something a while back that twisted my mind a little. I was driving through Pflugerville to teach a private lesson when I saw a billboard for 7-11 convenience stores. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself; after all, every business needs to advertise. What caught my eye was the billboard’s tag-line. Normally, if you think of a 7-11 tag-line, you’ll probably come up with “Oh, thank Heaven!” Nope. Not even close. This Pflugerville billboard’s tag-line was “Around Every Weird Little Corner”.

It took me a while to realize why the billboard bothered me. The slogan was awkward and didn’t really mean anything. Then I realized it was about five miles too far northeast. It might have been a good idea. After all, they’re acknowledging (or at least trying to acknowledge) the uniqueness of Austin, play upon its citizens’ pride of where they live. (More cynically, they’re trying to piggyback on an already existing and successful marketing campaign.) Either way, putting a billboard touting “weird”ness in a community that takes pride in “Keep[ing] Pflugerville Normal” seems like such a basic error that I just had to roll my eyes. I’m not sure whether to laugh or pity the advertising group.

Yes, it’s maintained TOPA (Top of Mind Awareness), one of the major goals of any marketing campaign. Unfortunately for them, it’s not a “let’s go to 7-11” awareness, it’s now filed in my mind as “marketing campaign that brained itself coming out of the gate.”

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