Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page


Big things are happening at my martial arts school. We’re expanding into a new space, including a big new training gym to make room for more students and classes. (If you live in the Harrisburg area, you should come and visit my totally awesome martial arts school, especially with some new classes starting in April.)

We’re not there yet, though. Right now the new gym is a big empty room with hard tile floors and bare walls. There’s a lot of work to do before anyone is going to study forms or exercise in that space. The construction people started last week, and volunteers from among the students and their families have also been at work, painting and making small fix-it repairs. The “old” space is getting some attention too, while the chaos is all underway.

Last night I went in after the evening’s classes were over to join the work crew. When Coach Jose asked what I thought about painting, my reaction was something like “ehrrhm.” I’ve done some painting before, but not much. And in my mind, only when the competent people were around to make sure I didn’t mess anything up (or to fix it if I did).

I’m not experienced at painting or any other kind of construction or remodeling work, but there’s a ton of such experience in my family. My dad is a carpenter and contractor who has built a lot of houses and organized the building of still more houses. His primary career before retiring was as a public school teacher, but there was often building work on the side, especially to get my brothers and I through college. My brothers both put a lot of hours in, helping dad with construction projects, but I didn’t.

At whatever points I did a little work, the usual method was that I’d stand around and look confused about whatever needed doing. Maybe, if I had a specific assignment, I’d make some kind of a start, badly. Dad would see me making a hash of it and say “here, try it like this” and show me a better way. Which I would try, and still probably make hash of. If I did enough of it, my fumbling attempts might even out, but I was still slow, always slow, and never sure if I was doing it well enough. If I really struggled with something, a lot of the time Dad would take over on that bit, and I’d just get out of the way.

Our standards for “normal” get set when we’re young, and it may take a lifetime to change them, if we ever manage it. When I was young, my “normal” was seeing a whole lot of competence about doing physical work and handling really practical things, and me not being good at that, or only learning it really slowly. I didn’t have any concept that the things my parents are naturally good at are very different from my natural gifts. And a lot of the time, when something didn’t go right, I’d stand back and one of them would take over. A big part of my “normal” consisted of the idea that I’m incompetent and clumsy, and that it was better to let other people handle stuff, people who will do it better, and I ought to maybe just not get in the way. It didn’t occur to me to consider where that competence I saw came from — that my dad had been doing construction work since before I was even here, for example, which adds up to a good bit of practice. I just knew he did stuff really easily, and I hated messing stuff up.

Any time I’m not sure about what I’m doing, in just about anything, my default reaction is still to look around and wait for the competent people to show up. I’ll happily hang back and let someone else get in there and go to work, so the whatever-it-is doesn’t get screwed up, which if I’m the one doing the thing, it probably will.

So when the question at hand was painting, my reaction was more or less “ehrrhm.” Which generally interprets as “I’ve done a little bit, but only when Dad was around to make sure I didn’t screw it up.” But Dad isn’t involved in this project. It’s my school, and I’m the one who wants to help make the new space awesome to match the old space. So if painting needs doing, that’s what I’ll volunteer to do.

Cause, seriously, I have painted before, and I didn’t actually screw it up. I’ve used paint brushes and paint rollers, and I know if I’m careful and pay attention it’s not actually that hard. Paying attention is always a challenge with my hyperactive brain, but I know how to do it. Mostly. At least, I usually come back after my thoughts wander off. Eventually.

Coach Jose (who is quite a smart cookie) correctly interpreted my “ehrrhm” as “not a ton of confidence, here” and showed me a room which will be office space, not as public as the lobby or hallway or new gym. It needed some taping first, and then paint.

So I painted it.

I really don’t have much to say about painting to make the process seem interesting, so I won’t try. Put paint on walls. Not on other stuff. That’s pretty much what it boils down to. There were some fussy bits, around fixtures and piping (and I’ll confess I did totally make hash of the corner behind the water heater, but it is hidden behind a water heater and I couldn’t reach and if you don’t like it then I’m sure Coach Jose wouldn’t mind if you’d like to go in and fix it, and I don’t mind at all either.) Furthermore, I managed to not overturn a paint can or tray across the floor, or cover great swathes of myself in paint either, though I was smart enough to wear a very old shirt and impressively disreputable, I-don’t-even-care-if-these-survive jeans just in case. I know I’m absentminded, and I went in prepared. But I didn’t wear much paint home at all.

I don’t know if it’s a job well done. I may have missed some spots, and I didn’t finish the higher walls, where I couldn’t reach and didn’t trust my tired legs on a ladder. But, more of it is done than when I started, and that was pretty much the point all along.

More than that, though, it’s another little bit of readjusted “normal.” In the better part of two years that I’ve been studying taiji at this school, I’ve been slowly learning that I’m not fundamentally and hopelessly clumsy, it just takes me a while to develop new physical skills. I’m slowly learning that I am more competent than I give myself credit for, at quite a number of things. And I’m gaining a deeper appreciation for what it takes to develop competence where it is lacking: before anything else, a willingness to step up and try.


Pain and gain

There’s a familiar saying, “no pain, no gain.” It’s familiar because there’s truth in it, like most familiar sayings. There’s a trap inside it, too. Like a number of familiar sayings, it doesn’t tell quite all of the truth, and the part left out matters.

I think this “no pain, no gain” idea primarily comes up out of the world of sports and physical training, which fortunately provide a great place to examine the unmentioned bit as well. Pain and gain are very literal when talking about building muscles: you work muscles, they get sore, then they get stronger. Repeat.

Here’s the part that’s not mentioned, though: pain doesn’t create strength. Pain makes you weak. Not following me? Go do pushups or crunches, or start running. Go do them until you can’t do them any more, until you literally collapse on the ground, not a single motion left in you. Is that strength? On the contrary, it is a moment of both profound pain and profound weakness.

Why does extreme physical exertion cause pain? Because it damages muscles, literally and truly making them weaker. A damaged muscle loses strength. But then the unmentioned part comes in. The body doesn’t stay damaged, it starts fixing itself. It doesn’t just fix itself to the original specifications, either, it makes the damaged muscles stronger than they started. Exertion causes damage, damage causes pain, the body responds to damage with healing, healing creates greater strength. It’s recovery that causes the gain. Not pain.

Okay, so recovery only happens after damage does, and it doesn’t rhyme with “gain” so it’s not nearly as catchy as using “pain,” and if the whole thing works together then why am I being so fussy about it, again? Why does it matter which bit does what when you need all of them together?

It matters because I’m not really thinking about physical training. In that arena, there’s such a close connection between exertion, pain, recovery, and increased strength that it matters less to pull them apart and deal with them separately. For challenges in other areas, though, the pain-recovery cycle isn’t as automatic.

I think about people I know who are strong, capable, successful, and for many of them I can name the ways in which they have worked hard, the ways in which they have suffered or sacrificed. But I don’t perceive them as suffering now. I don’t see them constantly crippled by pain, even if some degree of hardship is ongoing. I think these folks have learned, consciously or not, to engage a kind of pain-recovery cycle, like our bodies do when our muscles are damaged. They exert themselves, but also take time to recover. They aren’t perpetually strong — their challenges sap energy and strength from them, just like mine do for me. But they give themselves time for energy and strength to come back. They are intentional about taking care of themselves in ways that restore strength, and the effect of the pain-recovery cycle for them is just the same as it is for a bicep. They get stronger and stronger, able to take on larger and more difficult challenges.

One of the reasons I’m starting to discover I get stuck, is because of where I get stuck — in the middle of the cycle. I take the idea of “no pain, no gain” to mean that taking on challenges just plain hurts. Period. All the time and relentlessly. Unless you’re able to endure pain and challenge and hardship constantly, unless you have an infinite capacity to suck it up, buttercup, and keep on going regardless of absolutely everything, always, you may as well give up and go home.

Mostly, in that regard, I just go home. Or rather, I stay home and don’t try. I know for certain I don’t rate that well on the “suck it up, buttercup” scale, so it’s easier to just go straight to feeling bad about myself for sucking. Every now and then I get a burst of energy and inspiration and try to do something bigger — pursued constantly, tirelessly, obsessively, in my best imitation “no pain, no gain” style. Until I run out of energy and collapse. At which point I get to feel bad about myself for sucking and failure.

Understanding that pain doesn’t lead to gain without traveling through recovery shows me a saner way forward. Making progress requires real work and effort — and then real rest and nurturing. More work, more pain and sacrifice — then deliberate healing and encouraging. It’s a pattern that can fit inside a day, an afternoon, an hour, a project, a conversation. It uses the pain-recovery cycle in a practical way to grow strength and move steadily forward.

I’ve got several personal challenges right now, one of the biggest being a need for new work. There’s something terrifying, really and actually scary and hard about the process of looking up a new job and making contacts. I don’t wholly know why, but it is. It’s so hard, and right now it takes a lot of strength.

I’ve been tending to kick myself for not doing more and making better progress. The kicking hasn’t been helping me make better progress, though.

Instead I’m trying to start engaging the idea of the pain-recovery cycle in a conscious way. After doing something hard, I’ll make a point of doing something fun. If I’m tired or mentally frazzled, maybe it’s not the best time to run another search on Dice. It’s time to stop and rest and maybe plan which step to begin with tomorrow. There’s other work I can do, cleaning up my house, getting exercise to build my real muscles, thinking and writing and sharing ideas, playing with yarn, spending time with people I love. All things that nurture me, that give me strength.

If pain is necessary for gain, then I don’t want to get out of it — but I want to take it on practically, sanely, and with a chance of success. Pain costs too much to not add up to anything in the end. Pulling apart “no pain, no gain” and understanding the real guts of it is finally helping me understand how to make that pain count.

Standard Facebook Answers

I don’t spend a ton of time inside the world of Facebook and other social media, and lately I’m less inclined to than ever. Being a big political year in my country, sensationalistic issues and vehement reactions are sprouting fast. Lots of yelling, not a lot of listening. It’s really tiresome.

I don’t think there’s much point in responding to any of it, and I mostly try to ignore what I happen to see. Getting into arguments online doesn’t really do anybody any good, and there’s always someone wrong on the internet. But I’m human, and I see stuff that makes me mad, and then I want to respond, even when I don’t.

Instead of actually responding individually to all of the situations where I could, I’m doing this: writing out a set of standard answers that roll up most of my general reactions when people talk about sensational stuff. I’m just going to write them down and get them out of my system, and then I can refer to them as appropriate. I may add to the list later.

Even better, writing these out is a reminder to myself first. Self, all standard answers apply to you, all the time. Don’t forget that.

Standard Answer 1

I have a question for anyone who posts stuff about “them” and what “they” do and how wrong “they” are about what they believe. How many of “them” do you actually know? Seriously, how many of “them” do you count as good friends? If the answer is “none” or “one,” here’s a further suggestion. Stop saying inflammatory things about people you don’t even know, and go meet some of them. Make some of “them” into real friends, people with real names and faces, people you care about. Ask those real people about what they do and what they believe, and why. Until you really know “them” and “their” lives, how do you know what you’re talking about?

Standard Answer 2

Do you know ________ personally? Are you personally involved in or acquainted with _________ situation? If not, may I suggest you consider what your opinion about it is actually based on? Because it seems to me that you are perhaps lacking in facts and context, and maybe your opinion is actually about something else.

Standard Answer 3

So I know it’s emotionally satisfying to share a clever, pointed graphic about an issue, but you understand it doesn’t actually change anything, right? Doesn’t change the reality, doesn’t change anyone’s mind who doesn’t already agree with you. I think you probably already know that, but just in case.

Standard Answer 4

Whatever thing you say, I have a friend who believes the exact opposite. They are a smart person, just like you are, and they have good reasons for what they believe. So as you go on vilifying the people who disagree with you, just know this: that’s my friend you’re talking about. Someone who I know and respect. Just like I know and respect you.

Standard Answer 5

(Added 3/21/2012)
In general terms, I am much more interested in hearing about what you are for, than what you are against. “For” has a better chance of opening space for discussion and connection. “Against” tends to close ears and cause arguments.

Food for Thought

I didn’t write this one, actually, it comes from Merlin Mann of the awesome “Back to Work” podcast, with co-host Dan Benjamin. Quoting from episode 57: “How many times in the last month did you change your mind because somebody yelled at you? When’s the last time you were persuaded by somebody with a bullhorn?” (Listen to the entire episode, it’s well worth it, but the bit I’m quoting is about 20 minutes from the end.)


If you are reading any of this and saying “right on!” let me stop you for a second and say this very seriously: assume I am talking here to you. You specifically. Maybe, just maybe someone who reads these words never falls down in any of these areas. But I have to say I’m skeptical.

Except about myself. Not in the least skeptical there, I know I screw all of them up. (Except maybe for #3, I don’t repost a lot of pictures.)

On the other hand, If I’ve linked you to any of these answers, it’s because you’re in my list of friends, and I think of you as a friend and someone I respect. It’s my intention to maybe provoke a bit of thought, not argue or call anyone out as wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong.

So in the end, the primary thing I wish is that folks would perhaps yell a little less, and listen a little more. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible, and it changes things for the better. I’m not much good at it yet, but I’ve seen enough to know that much is true.

Happy posting, kids :)