Author Archives: James

Who’s a hero?

All together now: I’M A HERO!!!!!!!

This is one of many inside references to Camp Nerd Fitness I could make in this post. It started out as what we would yell during Amy Clover’s Strong Inside Out bootcamp sessions when a particular move was kicking our ass and we needed a war cry to keep us moving, and quickly became one of the watchwords of the whole weekend.

So what the hell is Camp Nerd Fitness? Let’s break it down.

Camp: Exactly what it sounds like. This long weekend took place at a legit summer camp facility, complete with bunk-filled cabins, a lake, a dining hall, lots of trails through the woods, a high ropes course, sports fields, and a giant inflated “Blob” from which campers could be catapulted into the water by their friends. And this camp was in the literal middle of nowhere, so it was as peaceful and quiet and away-from-it-all as you could want a summer camp to be. Every day was packed full of workshops, classes, and sessions we chose to participate in (and lamented conflicts between), with breaks for meals, walks, meditation, games, and conversation with our fellow campers. Every night had a themed dance party and a bonfire. And everyone there came from many different places, met as strangers, and left four days later as family.

Nerd: This wasn’t just any camp. This was camp for nerds, geeks, dweebs, dorks, and other people who just can’t contain their love for things like video games, fantasy books, board games, travel and adventure, even reality TV shows. And the nerditude was not subtle. I’m sure the different areas of this camp had normal names, but this weekend we learned longsword moves and played Ultimate Frisbee on Hyrule Field, practiced parkour in the Panem Training Grounds, talked about meal planning and self-esteem in Hogwarts, held the opening and closing ceremonies in The Coliseum, lit our bonfire atop the Beacon of Gondor, meditated at the Deku Tree, and used the entire camp space for a giant game of Humans vs. Zombies. When we weren’t sessioning or partying, there was a whole room full of board and card and video games for us to play. (Multiple epic games of Cards Against Humanity took place there, among many other games!) The nightly dance parties had a superhero and a Rubik’s cube theme, respectively. We weren’t just nerds in the same space, we were nerds being nerdy together on purpose, and damn proud to be there.

Fitness: Here was where we niched down even further. Steve Kamb is pretty famous for turning fitness into a real-life leveling up quest, and he and his team have inspired hundreds (probably thousands) of people to embrace their nerditude in ways that gets them healthier, stronger, fitter, and happier. To this end, all of the sessions and activities at CNF were geared toward all different kinds of fitness. Some of these were flat-out workouts, like the bootcamps I mentioned above. Some were training sessions for basic and advanced workout practices, from yoga to powerlifting to bodyweight work. Some were more specific (and nerdy) skill sessions, including knife and longsword fighting, kung fu, parkour, tricking (flips and air kicks), and grip strength. In between these active activities, we could learn about Paleo cooking and meal planning, how exercise helps fight depression, how to develop strong positive body image, and how some of the Nerd Fitness luminaries got in shape themselves. All the food served was Paleo, we all drank a ton of water, and I think pretty much all of us got pretty sore. (And we did all this as a vacation!)

So wait, was this just fat camp for geeks?

Um, no. Not even close. See, I haven’t gotten to the best part yet.

The best part is that this wasn’t a camp someone threw together to shame us all into slimming down, or challenge us to get off our lazy asses and start subsisting on broccoli between weightlifting sessions. This was a community gathering, the Nerd Fitness online forums writ into real life, founded on the principle that people make the healthiest and happiest choices for themselves when they are completely and totally supported. All body types, all skill sets, and all fitness levels were represented at this camp, as they are in the NF online community, and every single one was welcomed without question or condition. Some of us had done Ironman triathlons, some of us could barely run around the dining hall. It didn’t matter. The question of “who’s a hero?” was not a question of ability, but a question of heart, grit, passion, and self-acceptance.

I went to Camp Nerd Fitness unsure of how well I would do or fit in. I was definitely a nerd, but fitness hasn’t been a big thing for me in a long time, and I was never a camp kid. I fully anticipated spending the entire long weekend gasping for breath and massaging a raging stitch in my side. I wasn’t sure how I would deal with the people who could run circles around me (literally or figuratively). I knew I would be outside of my comfort zone, playing at my edge, sitting in the middle seat, or whatever language you want to use. But I knew I was going to do it anyway.

Was it perfect? Hell, no. There were a hundred tweaks that could have been made to make the experience better. That’s what happens whenever any event gets put on the first time, and it was still pretty damn great given that.

Was it difficult? Bet your asbestos it was. I struggled with all kinds of things, from doing the whole bootcamp to reforging my rusty martial arts skills to sleeping badly on camp bunks. That’s what happens when you commit to pushing yourself for a weekend on purpose.

But was it worth it? Absolutely. The people I met this weekend are, in every sense of the phrase, my people. We’re on a collective hero’s journey, and even when we go it alone, we’re doing it together. And that’s pretty awesome.

So who’s a hero? I’m a hero. If you’re interested in this particular brand of heroism, feel free to join me at Camp Nerd Fitness next year. I’ll see you at the swordfighting class, the Blob, and/or the Cards Against Humanity table.

The only two rules you need

I’m at Camp Nerd Fitness right now! So as John Green occasionally says, I’m writing this from the past. While I’m away, I’d like to share a short story with you of something cool that happened to me recently.

I was having a Facebook chat conversation with a good friend who lives halfway around the world the other week, when I had one of those moments where I inadvertently said something absolutely perfect. My friend was saying how she really wants to write book reviews, but is concerned that lots of other people are writing them as well, and that her reviews might not be as good as theirs. This was my response:

There are two rules to doing anything you want to do, in this case writing book reviews.
 
1. Fuck what everyone else is doing. Do your thing, your way, for your enjoyment. Full stop.
2. When in doubt, refer to Rule 1.
 
If you’d like a bit more to go on than that, try this: imperfect action done today will beat perfect action done next week/month/year nine times out of eight. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, it only matters that you do it. Doing it means you can make it better as you keep doing it. Thinking about doing it will never improve anything, and trying to make it perfect before you do it will only ensure you never actually do it. So just start doing it. Love that you love to do it. Love that it’s not perfect yet. Love that it’s your thing, your way, with all the good and bad things that means. Love that you get to keep working on it. Love yourself for getting off your cute but sedentary ass and actually DOING something. And when you see other people doing the same thing better than you, love yourself for working to follow in their footsteps, and love them for leaving the footsteps for you.
 
That is all.
I could write a long and involved conclusion for that, but I don’t want to.
See you in the future, when I get back.

Why I’m not a professional singer

We’re gonna take it back…way back.

Most of you know I’m a writer and an editor. Some of you know that I used to work in arts management. But I bet most of you don’t know that before I did either of those, my fondest ambition was to be in musical theatre. I’d grown up listening to musicals, and fell in love with them. When I got into 5th grade, I had the option to sing in chorus, and joined immediately. The more I sang, the more I loved singing. It came easily to me, and I was pretty good at it. I sang solos fairly regularly, and I really liked the recognition and applause I got for doing it.

So I decided I wanted to be a singer. I pursued chorus and musicals in high school and college, signed up for a vocal performance degree, and took beginning acting and dance classes. I kept up this pursuit for several years, until my junior year in college when I took my first advanced acting class.

I hated it.

Everything I had to do felt wrong. The class was very heavy in improvisation, which scared me literally stiff–there were a couple classes I felt physically paralyzed. Learning the characters of my monologues and scenes involved digging into emotions I had worked very hard (or was currently working very hard) to forget and escape. And I’d started to see how my classmates loved the very work I struggled with, that they couldn’t wait to work on it after class while I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and read a book. I began to find my supposedly-daily singing practice taking on the same dread and difficulty as well (and it had never been my favorite thing to do to begin with). But I had spent so many years telling myself that this was the career path I wanted, and I was so afraid of removing this driving force from a life that seemed to have no other direction, that I refused to quit.

Until one day past the halfway point of the term I found myself in tears in the middle of class, with the statement springing unbidden to my lips “I don’t know if this is really what I want to do!” Everything came out in a (literal) flood. As I spoke to my classmates and teachers through this crying jag I realized just how dishonest I had been with myself for so long. It wasn’t the craft of acting and the practice of singing I loved, it was the recognition I got for doing those things in front of people who saw me as a relative expert. Under that desire for attention (which was largely in place to counter a lot of social issues I’d struggled with for several years), I had no enthusiasm or love for the work of actually becoming an actor or singer.

I finished out the acting class (got the lowest grade of my entire college career), and ultimately my music major (I did a paper instead of a recital for my capstone), but for a while I really felt like a fraud. For something like six years I’d told myself and everyone who would listen that this was what I wanted to do. I’d said it loud and proud, and probably annoyed a lot of people with it. And now here I was, rudderless for the first time since sophomore year in high school. I felt like an absolute fake, an absolute failure, and worst of all, absolutely lost. I considered stopping performing entirely, though I still had no idea what I would do instead. I wasn’t the most depressed I’ve ever been, but I was pretty damn down.

Three things saved me: words, swimming, and West Side Story.

Words. As I considered what I could potentially do instead of vocal or theatrical performance, I remembered the distinction I’d made earlier between what my acting classmates loved and what I loved. They loved acting; I loved reading. This ultimately led me to change my potential second major from theatre to English, and spend the remaining terms of that year taking a lot more literature classes. Even though this change ultimately led me to spend a fifth year in college, it was clearly the right choice, and gave me a new direction to point myself in.

Swimming. I was on my college’s swim team, and as this acting class was winding down, swim season was starting to heat up. Between increasingly intense practices, a training trip to Florida over winter break, and the breakneck schedule of weekly meets after winter term started, I was too busy, too exhausted, and too focused on my work in the pool to give too much attention or thought to how depressed I was over what happened in the acting class. That season I recorded my best times of my collegiate career.

West Side Story. After some serious misgivings, I ended up auditioning for my college’s spring musical even though I wasn’t feeling particularly excited for it. And right off the bat I had to deal with some serious mental pushback when three people were called back for the two lead male roles of Tony and Riff, and I was the third one. I was relegated to being a bit part Jet with only one solo line in the whole show. I almost quit. But something made me decide to stay on…and it was the best decision I could have possible made. For the first time in who knew how long, I was in a show with absolutely no pressure. I didn’t have to stand out or impress anyone or be under any kind of scrutiny. All I had to do was sing and dance and do stage combat.

And I loved it.

Somewhere along the line in the rehearsal process, I realized that it wasn’t solo singing that I loved. It was THIS. Being part of an ensemble. Singing WITH people. I hated practicing by myself, but I loved rehearsing with everyone else. And just like that, a huge weight fell away. I found I could love performing again, even knowing I would never pursue it professionally. (I also met three incredible friends in the WSS ensemble, and the Jets stole the show so much with “Gee, Officer Krupke” that we were asked to resurrect it for a talent show the following year.) This experience ultimately led me to starting a men’s a cappella group at my school the following year, singing with prestigious choruses in three states after graduating, and nurturing the deep love of choral music I thought I’d lost after the acting class debacle to this day.

It also helped lead me to arts management…but “why I’m not an arts manager” is a story for another day.

 

The magic words

Today I’m going to talk about magic words.

“Hang on a minute,” I hear you cry. “Ein minuten, bitte! You just said not even a month ago that there are no magic bullets, and now you’re saying there are magic words?! What gives?”

Here’s what gives. There may not be any actual magic words…but words themselves are magic.

Have you ever been talking with a friend and, without meaning to, said something that so perfectly encapsulated your thoughts that the conversation just paused for a moment to let it sink in? Have you ever looked back a few pages (or a few years) in your journal and found a phrase that was so beautiful that it inspired a whole new journal entry all on its own? Have you ever read a book that seemed like it was written specifically for you, or even to you like a novel-length letter? Have you ever heard or told the perfect joke for the moment you’re in? Have you ever heard exactly what you needed to hear from another person, in exactly the moment you needed to hear it?

That’s part of what I mean by words being magic. Words can transform an ordinary moment into an extraordinary one. The difference between a good story and an amazing one can be the words used to tell it. Mark Twain, likely the preeminent wordsmith in US history, once said “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” That quote summarizes one of the major duties and highest joys of my work as an editor: helping people find their right(est) words.

But words have magic in other ways, too.

When you read the title of this post, I’m guessing a few words popped immediately into your head. Maybe words like “please” and “thank you” (we all learned those magic words in kindergarten, right?), but also words like “Alacazam!” “Hocus pocus!” “Wingardium Leviosa!” or “Klaatu barada nikto!” And of course, the magic word most commonly called the magic word: “Abracadabra!”

Now follow me here. When editing an article for writer Roman Korver recently, I ran across this fact: the ancient Aramaic phrase evra kedavra translates to “with my language, I create.” J.K. Rowling has confirmed that the killing curse avada kedavra is also Aramaic, meaning “let the thing be destroyed.” It is in fact avada kedavra that is the true root word of Abracadabra, the “magic word,” though the original use of that Aramaic phrase was in destroying disease, not people.

Evra kedavra: with my words, I create. Avada kedavra: with my words, I destroy. Abracadabra: the “magic word.”

Words have power.

With our words, we create and destroy our realities.

Think about it.

When was the last time you made a mistake and reflexively said “idiot!” to yourself?

When was the last time you looked at your bank account and said “I’m never going to have enough money?”

When was the last time you looked at your business, your relationship, your side hustle, your life, and said “I’m not good enough?”

When you say those things, what do you see in your life? And when you make a conscious effort to change those negative and self-critical words to more positive and accepting ones, what changes in your life do you see?

Evra kedavra. Avada kedavra. Abracadabra.

The most powerful life coaches and gurus I know have this idea on lockdown. They police their own words and the words of their clients, sometimes pretty harshly, in an effort to create better lives through better words. Some of these people are very woo-woo, some are very pragmatic, but they all know this power of words. And you know who else knows it?

Happy people.

There are studies showing this is true (Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, talks about several of them), but just in my own experience, I know that when things are going well, I am happiest when I say things like “I’m really proud of myself for getting here” and “This is the way my life naturally works” rather than “This can’t last” and “Damn, I hope I don’t screw this up like I did last time.”

Similarly, when things aren’t going well, I find it easier to persevere and remain positive when saying things like “I’ve got this, I don’t know how yet but I’ll figure it out” and “I got through the last struggle okay, I’ll make it through this one too” instead of “I don’t think I can do this anymore” and “I can’t believe I fucked things up again.”

And the more I use the first kinds of words instead of the second ones, the more I choose evra kedavra over avada kedavra, the more easily I get through the tough times and enjoy the good ones. The happier I make my words, the happier I get to be.

I’m not talking about being a Pollyanna or closing my eyes to reality. When times are tight or I make a mistake, I know I have to step up and take responsibility for myself. But as I do so, I have the ability to use magic words to create my reality, and I get to do it in real time, every moment.

And so do you.

Evra kedavra and avada kedavra are a true dichotomy. They’re Harry and Voldemort, Gandalf and Sauron, good music and Justin Bieber. In the end, neither can live while the other survives.

The choices are yours, and yours alone.

What will your magic words be?

The spirit is willing, but…

You all know how that finishes, right? The spirit is willing…but the flesh is weak.

That statement has been particularly true for me in the past couple of weeks.

For one thing, I had my first (perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless unwelcome) Crossfit failure. I was visiting the second box I went to in Gainesville, FL, Crossfit GHFC.

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After a pretty comprehensive warmup, we started the day’s WOD set with Fran, one of the more well-known CF lady-named workouts (21-15-9 reps of thrusters, which are like a front squat and an overhead press in one move, and pullups). I was feeling pretty good. The techniques were coming back to me, the scaled weight was heavy but not too heavy, I was moving smoothly. And then without any warning, I couldn’t do any more. My body was literally like “okay, you’re done.” I had to stop in the middle of the set, and while I was able to do the second half of the WOD, Grace (30 clean and jerks, which I’d also done at Crossfit Empirical), I did it at a ridiculously low weight.

On the plus side, Crossfit GHFC was still really cool. The coach John was really supportive, the people there had a ton of enthusiasm, and oh yeah, did I mention the entire box was outside? It looked like this:

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To the right, just outside this picture, is a whole row of barbell racks for Olympic lifts, and there were some REALLY good lifters training on their own during the WOD I did. Watching them was pretty inspiring, or would have been if I’d had any energy left.

Next up in the flesh-over-spirit list: while I was in Gainesville, I stayed with a friend and her family, and one morning I helped her dad load up a bunch of branches and tree detritus to take to the dump. I was wearing sneakers, but I didn’t realize I should have been wearing higher socks and/or long pants. Before I knew it, my ankles and shins were covered with biting ants! I had to run my still-shod feet under running water to get them off, and by the time I’d done that they had taken some nice chomps out of my lower legs. Even with calamine lotion, those bites itched for days. Oops.

Ever since I visited my friend Ally in Orlando, who is an avid runner, I thought I’d try doing some running myself. I started out running for 30 seconds and walking for 4:30, repeated six times, three days a week. Then I moved up to a 1min/4min. A couple weeks past that, I tried 1:30/3:30, and around the same time the Crossfit boxes I went to started having me run as part of the warm-up, the WOD, or both. And then there were shin splints. (If you’ve never had shin splints, count yourself fortunate. They basically feel like your shins take the full weight of every running step you take, and they hurt more the longer you try to run.) I guess that’s what I get for trying to run while overweight. Spirit, flesh, etc.

Oh, and then there’s that during my two weeks in Gainesville I ate at McDonalds something like ten times, on top of a couple trips to Subway and several to Starbucks. In my defense, those places had wi-fi and the place I was staying had none, but even so. Excessive flesh over spirit (to say nothing of flesh over bank account).

But I’m going to end on a positive note. While I was in Greenville, SC, visiting my friend Tara (whom I know from Ice & Fire Con), I visited another Crossfit box, this one with the awesome name of Swamp Rabbit CrossFit.

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Apparently it’s named for the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a long walking and biking trail that goes through Greenville along the Reedy River, and which the box is built right next to. My pics of the inside didn’t turn out well enough to share here, but it’s one of the most spacious and best-appointed boxes I’ve ever been to. Something like 16,000 square feet, six showers, three separate WOD areas (one outside), a stretching and technique area, and enough equipment to accommodate a class of 25…well, it’s Crossfit, so I can’t say “without breaking a sweat,” but you get the picture. ;) The staff were really welcoming, even gave me a full tour before the class, and the WOD session started out with a QOD (question of the day) where everyone said their name and, that day, who their favorite teacher was in school. Kind of fun.

At Swamp Rabbit, not only did the warmup include a run, the WOD itself did as well. Seven two-minute rounds of 200m sprint, 7 deadlifts, and as many double-unders (jump rope with two passes in a jump) as possible, with one minute rest in between rounds. Now, I’ve got strong legs and my deadlift technique is solid, even after 18 months away. And while DUs are not as easy as they were, I can do a few of them still. It was the damn run that got to me. By the third round my shins hurt so much I could barely get through the run and deadlifts in two minutes, let alone do any DUs. I was exhausted. And the worst part was, the spirit was absolutely willing. I WANTED to keep going. I knew my technique was there. I just couldn’t take the pain of moving anymore.

But I wasn’t going to fall out of the WOD again. Not twice in a row. So I asked the coach if I could row the sprint instead of running it, to take the impact off my legs. He said sure, if I did 250m instead of 200. I said okay. And I did the last four rounds on the erg rather than the trail. It still hurt. It was still exhausting. And I still didn’t get many DUs in. But I didn’t let the complaints of my flesh drag my spirit down. And that felt great.

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