Sunday, January 29, 2012

The British are Coming! The British are Coming!

One of the wild things about living in New England is being surrounded by American history. I work in Lexington, where the first skirmish of the American revolution was fought. Paul Revere's midnight ride ended when he was captured by the British about a mile and a half from my office. The "shot heard round the world" was fired about 17 miles from our apartment, where 400 colonists drove the British away from Concord's north bridge.

This weekend we visited these sites while exploring Minuteman National Historical Park. Very cool :-)

It's kinda fun to know our city was once one of the "Middlesex villages and farms" from which poured some 20,000 militiamen to drive the British back to their garrison on the (at that time) island of Boston.

At the time of the revolution, Lowell was nothing more than a farm. Today it is fourth largest city in Massachusetts and one of the twin county seats of Middlesex county.

Boston, meanwhile, has more than tripled in land area, sprawling into Massachusetts Bay across more than 2,000 acres of landfill into the present home of some 4.5 million Massholes Bay Staters. (Click on the image below for a Boston College animation of the landfill expansion projects over the past 250 years)

An additional note for all the literary buffs out there: we discovered that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne each called Corcord home during parts of their lives. Interesting.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Confessions of a Wimpy Kid

When I finished school three years ago, I was delighted to discover that the real world offers (most) nights and weekends off. In my new spare time, I decided to try something I have assiduously avoided most of my life: exercise.

I decided to fight a deep inner sense of wimpiness, face my fears, get my ass into a gym on a regular basis, and see what happens. Three years into this thing, I think I've found a new hobby. I can't believe I'm writing the following words but I have grown to love exercising. I honestly look forward to getting up at 4:45 to go to the gym.

This is sort of silly but also sort of profound.

Think with me back to the dreaded days of sixth grade PE. I was the wimpy kid--yeah, that wimpy kid: always the last one reluctantly picked by the football team captains, always the one tripping over his own feet during the basketball drills, always the one the bully would yell "faggot" at when the coach wasn't around. That sucked, but for me that wasn't the worst.

For me, the absolute worst days of PE were weight training days. I remember the day I was unable to bench press the standard steel barbell--just the standard barbell with no weights at all. I was profoundly ashamed of myself and felt utterly humiliated in front of my male peers. From that moment on, I consciously did everything in my power to avoid the embarrassment of the gym--or anything athletic, really--for most of the next two decades of my life.

In my head I've always been the wimpy kid. Five years of the Exodus mindjob certainly didn't help anything, as exgay ministers often played into the (thankfully dying) cultural stereotypes of gay guys being "girly men", gays being attracted to men only because they feel unmanly themselves, all gay guys wanting to be hairdressers, blah blah blah. You know the drill. Suffice it to say I've struggled with feeling insufficiently masculine most of my life.

Against that emotional background, it was a pretty significant moment for me the day I was first able to bench press not only the steel barbell but the barbell with 45lb plates on each side. At a superfluous ego level, that moment certainly felt good. But at a deeper level, it helped shatter some pretty powerful negative self definitions I had.

Now hear me out. I want to be clear that I think the American cultural equation of masculinity with athelic ability is bogus. I'm not trying to say that I think lifting weights makes someone masculine.

I'm not exactly sure how to define masculinity, but I know it is NOT picking up heavy things and putting them down again, NOT hurling an object a long distance, and NOT moving quickly from one place to another. I think masculinity rightly defined probably has zero dependence whatsoever on physical motion.

But masculinity rightly defined probably has something to do with acting in spite of one's fears. And in that sense, getting over my deep-seated fear of the gym--my fear of failing at anything remotely athletic--has been something of a masculinity boost for me.

And much to my surprise, I've found that for much of my life I've foolishly avoided an activity I actually really enjoy.


Over the past few yeas, I have grown kinda fond of the soft metallic sound of 45lb plates clanking together. From a scientific perspective, it's kinda amazing to observe how the human body gradually adapts and increases in strength over time. From an emotional perspective, it's been kinda cool to watch the smaller nickle, dime, and quarter plates gradually accumulate on each side of a barbell until one day I can replace them all with another 45. Those days always feel like notable milestones to me.

I had several such milestones 2011: the first day I inclined pressed with two 45s on each side of the barbell, the first day I shrugged with three 45s on each side, the day I first leg pressed with four 45s on each side. Those are always fun moments for the gym rat in me, but they have been interesting to me in a psychological sense as well. In every case, I find myself capable of doing something I had always thought was impossible for me, something I feared even trying before.

And this wimpy kid thinks that's cool :-)

2011 Goal Evaluation - Part 2

Okay, now that I've put things in a little bit of perspective, on to evaluating my 2011 exercise goals.

Quick recap: last January, inspired by my buddy Pomoprophet, I decided to state my new year's fitness resolutions as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-constrained) goals.

Disclaimer: I'm a newbie to working out, and as such I struggle with understanding what is Realistic fitness-wise. So I have been trying to learn by keeping careful records of my goals and progress for the past three years. Today's evaluation is another chance for me to figure out what is Realistic and what isn't.

Okay. I've been taking Measurements all year. Here are the numbers:

2011 Goals and Results

Exercise Goal (lb)
Achieved (lb) Achieved
Level Bench Press+60+60100%
Incline Bench Press+45+45100%
Military Press+60+60100%
Barbell Curl+25+25100%
Dumbbell Curl+15+20,+25133%,167%
Lat Pulldown+50+25?50%?
T-bar Row+90+5561%

First of all, please don't be freaked out and think I do the same eight exercises each time I go to the gym. Thank goodness no--that sounds dreadfully boring and probably not very healthy. The list above is a subset of the exercises I do; this is just the core that I decided to focus on and track all year.

As the top half of the list indicates, I'm getting a little better at projecting what realistic goals are for some exercises for a year (I was not as good with my 2010 goals). As the bottom half of the list indicates, I still have some learning to do about realism.

My performance this year on barbell exercises was good, with the exception of skullcrushers. I surprised myself by performing better than I had thought possible on the dumbbell curling exercises (the two numbers reported in the table reflect different grip positions--the first of the two is pronated grip; the latter is hammer grip)... And what guy wouldn't be happy with better than expected performance on curls? After all, biceps are the male counterpart to ladies' boobs (C and I like to refer to developed biceps as "arm titties" ;-) Incidentally, there happens to be a particularly nice pair of arm titties on one of the waitstaff at a particular restaurant in downtown Lowell. But we certainly aren't so shallow as to let that fact sway where we like to go out to eat. Certainly not ;-) ).

Okay, so what happened on the last two exercises? Two different issues, actually. My ability to measure pulldown performance fell apart when moved to Massachusetts. This exercise is performed on a machine, and the machine in my gym here is graduated differently than the machine in my gym in Illinois (the Illinois machine was graduated in pounds, the Massachusetts machine is graduated in counts--and who knows how many pounds correspond to a count). The number in the table reflects where my performance was on the exercise when we moved out of Illinois in August.

The numbers in the table for the T-bar row reflect my performance in June. By that point in the year, I observed that my rowing form had become poor. I had developed a bad habit of cheating with my legs to kick-start the motion of the bar, which was taking the focus of the exercise off the back (and the cheating motion also just isn't safe). After several weeks of trying unsuccessfully to correct my form, I decided to alter the exercise to force me to use good form. I now use a piece of equipment that immobilizes my torso so I can't use my legs to cheat. As you might expect, the amount of weight I can move on the exercise took a big hit when I corrected my form, and I have not yet surpassed with good form the weight I was lifting with poor form. However, I'm lifting safely with correct form, both of which I think are good things.

I've been drafting my 2012 SMART goals the past few weeks; I'll post them here once I have them figured out.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Office Flirt

C and I constantly absolutely never quote from this sketch to each other. Constantly Absolutely never.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ronald Reagan: not as anti-gay as I had thought

NPR had a very interesting article on Ronald Reagan yesterday. It discussed the modern Republican canonization of Reagan and how the generalizations about Reagan's presidency stack up against his actual presidency.

As you might expect, the real Reagan is different than the rosy Republican legend. The real Reagan eliminated taxes on lower-income Americans while raising them on middle and upper-income Americans. The real Reagan made virtually no change to abortion law, and he communicated with pro-life advocates over the phone rather than in-person.

However, I learned that the real Ronald Reagan is also somewhat more complicated than the entirely anti-LGBT politician recalled in progressive legend.

Within the gay community, Reagan is often remembered for turning his back on HIV/AIDS research during the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The fatal consequence of Reagan's refusal to investing research dollars in treating the disease was exacerbated by the inflammatory anti-gay comments he and his administration made about gays "deserving" AIDS. These facts are not legend, and hundreds of thousands of people--Americans, gay and straight alike--would likely have been spared agonizing deaths had Reagan acted differently. I maintain that Reagan's passive and active opposition to HIV/AIDS research remains a horrible mark on his presidency.

However, what I learned from the article was that Reagan was instrumental in stopping the Briggs Initiative--California's 1978 draconian ballot measure that would have made it illegal for LGBT people to be public school teachers. John Briggs himself, the virulently anti-gay legislator who authored the ballot measure, cited Ronald Reagan's involvement as the principal reason the ballot measure failed. I had no idea. From the Wikipedia article on the Briggs Initiative:

The former state Governor (and later US President) Ronald Reagan moved to publicly oppose the measure. Reagan issued an informal letter of opposition to the initiative, answered reporters' questions about the initiative by saying he was against, and, a week before the election, wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner opposing it.

The timing of Reagan's opposition is significant because he was then preparing to run for president, a race in which he would need the support of conservatives and moderates who were very uncomfortable with homosexual teachers. As Lou Cannon (Reagan biographer) puts it, Reagan was “well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue” but nevertheless “chose to state his convictions.” Extensive excerpts from his informal statement were reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle of September 24, 1978. Reagan's November 1 editorial stated, in part, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this.”

It is notable that politicians as diverse as Reagan, Gerald Ford, and (at the end of the campaign) then-president Jimmy Carter all opposed the bill.

While polls initially had showed support for the initiative leading by a large margin, it was defeated by a landslide following opposition by the LGBT community and prominent conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike.

If you have some spare time, consider checking out the article for yourself.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2011 Goal Evaluation - Part 1

Alright. It's the second week of the new year. Time to face the music and evaluate my 2011 performance against the goals I set last year. But before looking at the fun, hobby-oriented goals I blogged about last year, I wanted to start with evaluating a much more significant 2011 goal.

Last year I read some training material on goal-setting. One of the big picture tools the material recommend was the so-called "miracle question":
If a miracle happened tonight and all your problems were changed, what would be the first thing you noticed tomorrow morning?
I love this question. Although there are a multitude of little things that I would like to acheive or change about my life, this question is a helpful tool for distilling things down to what is most significant.

In answer to the miracle question, last year I wrote down
I would wake up in bed next to C.
You see, for the first three years of our marriage, C and I saw each other only on weekends. We lived apart during the five nights of the work week as C finished up grad school and as I started my first professional job 100 miles away. Our weekly separation was a source of immense heartache for us. Answering the miracle question helped pinpoint that our separation was the number one thing in my life I wanted to change.

So for 2011 I wrote down the following SMART goal, my highest-priority goal for the year:
By the end of 2011, I want to be living under the same roof as C by finding gainful employment within driving distance of C's job.
Before evaluating any of the comparatively petty goals I blogged about a year ago, I wanted to report that we achieved this goal in 2011 :-) Through providence, luck, and a lot of job applications on his and my part, we now have jobs within 12 miles of each other.

Now I wake up cuddled next to C. Everyday. Our miracle has happened.

Thank you, God.

I love you, C.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Joe's Iowa GOP Predictions

Thank goodness Iowa finally goes to caucus tomorrow. My predictions of how the votes will shake out:
  1. Romney
  2. Santorum
  3. Paul
Thrilled to see Newt Gingrich's star has fallen; more thrilled to see Bachmann dragging the bottom of the barrel; unhappy to see Santorum surging *ahem* rising in the polls, but not at all worried about him--it is highly unlikely he'll finish in the top four in New Hampshire.

C and I are trying to figure out if Bachmann will withdraw from the race immediately or wait until she receives 0% of the vote in New Hampshire next week...

Hat tip: Real Clear Politics