Thursday, August 06, 2009

Paying Attention

I used to be a runner. Not a jogger, which connotes a slow and easy speed. That word has been around for a long time, but hadn't really come into general use at the time I hit the road. This was back in the day when Runner's World's shoe issue was two pages, and the first pair of shoes I had were racing flats, because that was all I could find locally, and I didn't know it mattered.

I started out with a couple miles a day, moved up to six, ten miles on the weekends, working on the idea that I was going to go to Boston and run the marathon. Back when there were only a couple of places you could do that in the U.S.

Eventually found some decent training shoes -- New Balance -- learned how to tolerate Gatorade, got my resting pulse to fifty, and achieved my leanest, lowest weight since age fifteen. I was mondo aerobically fit, and training in Louisiana in the summer, which often meant the temperature at midnight was still eighty and the humidity approaching 100%. Sweat doesn't evaporate in such conditions, it runs down your body and legs and soaks your socks.

I never made it to Boston. One night, a drunk careened out of the Federation of Eagles Christmas party, a few blocks down the street from where I lived, and to avoid being run over, I hopped off the road -- into a conveniently-placed hole in somebody's front yard, wherein I tore up my right ankle. Spent six weeks in a walking cast, and before I could get back into trim, we moved from Louisiana to Oregon, whereupon I discovered that running and ice storms don't go together ...

This was in the day when such things as portable music weren't part of the program. Kind of hard to do seven-minute-miles with a boombox on your shoulder. CD players and iPods were in the distant future, decades down the line.

All of this is to bring us to this report. A woman, jogging in a park in Philadelphia, was killed by a branch that fell out of a tree. Died instantly, the local police said. Thirty-foot-long branch dropping fifty feet.

You have to figure that this poor woman's number was up. Half a second either way, the branch misses her, and she was in exactly the wrong place at precisely the wrong time.

The local police theorize that the branch would have made some noise when it broke, and that the unidentified woman didn't hear it because she was wearing an iPod.

You see people walking or jogging with their iPods frequently these days. You pass somebody going the other way, they have a blank look, or they are singing along. They are exercising, but they really aren't in touch with it, and certainly not the world around themselves.

Guys in the gym, pumping iron, you can hear the music from across the room. People on stationary bikes or treadmills, reading magazines or watching TV, and unfocused on what they are doing for their bodies.

Me, I think you need to get into it, and music can be a part of that. I've tried listening to tunes in the background when I've lifted weights, and it can give you a rhythm that sets a pace. Like marching in time with the band or counting cadence, there can be a flow that helps move things along.

I find, however, I get a better workout if I'm concentrating on each rep of each set, on each move of every form. I do my martial arts exercises out back, no music. (Sometimes in the garage when the class works out, there is music playing, but I tune it out. I used to try to write with a CD going in the b.g., too, but if I'm paying attention to the task at hand, the music fades. I notice when it clicks off, but mostly don't fasten any attention to it.)

Yes, there are arts for which music is considered a part of the formal process -- capoeira, for instance. Some of the Indonesian stuff features gamelan. You can work up a good sweat dancing any kind of dance, and music goes with dance. But bouncing in the aerobics room is not the same as doing it effectively deaf whilst crossing a four-lane street during rush hour. You have to wonder how many people are hit, or almost hit, by cars because they didn't hear them coming.

For a serious martial artist -- and we'll have to have that discussion, I suppose, about what constitutes "serious" -- not paying attention to one's surroundings is kind of like having a couple beers too many in public. You can do it, and you can get away with it, but these aren't good ideas generally.

Paying attention:

It's illegal to use a hands-on cell phone while you are driving in Washington state, and is about to become so in Oregon, and as somebody who has been tailgated by teenage girls talking or texting on such things, I am happy to see this. People bitch about the state playing nanny, but if laws are to protect people from each other, I would be happy to see Brittney back there at seventy-five on the interstate watching the road and not letting me do her driving for her, thank you very much.

Talking on a cell phone is, they say, equivalent to having three alcoholic drinks. Texting on one is worse. And I don't think having a BlueTooth earpiece or a speaker is demonstrably safer. Your phone rings while you are driving? Tell them to hold on and pull over to take the call.

Back to iPods:

Having your hearing blocked, shutting off the second most important sensory input for most people behind sight, the consequences might be, as in the case of the Philadelphia jogger, fatal. I wasn't there, so I can't say for sure, but maybe if she'd heard the branch cracking, she could have gotten out of the way.

Seems as if she would have had a better chance, at least.


Anonymous said...

Steve, I couldn't help but laugh at the first five paragraphs, as I wasn't sure where you were going with your story. I thought the theme was going to be: Hey guys, I'm old!

Music is a powerful tool, in my opinion. It can amp you up and help you push through tough spots in a workout. But perhaps even more importantly is how music keeps you occupied so you're not giving credence to the strain on your body and the uncomfortable feelings.

I'm sure you're familiar with horseback stance. Have you ever tried holding it for a while by yourself -- as in without a teacher screaming at you to keep it up? I know when music or the TV is on, I can do a lot better than when I find myself counting away the seconds. Nothing kills momentum -- of holding a technique, or jogging that last 3 minutes, or holding your breath -- like counting it out.

Speaking of TV, I like to have it on when I work out at home. I'll put on some pro-wrestling or UFC, and seeing some jacked-up dudes exchanging haymakers makes it easier for me to go through my efforts to become a jacked-up dude myself. That way, too, I'm left to make up my own rhythm.

Cell phones while driving are illegal in California, but I still see plenty of people using them anyway. Like Californians need more reasons to suck at driving. One of the craziest things I've seen is a dude biking down the street while texting!

Steve Perry said...

JL --

A few quick points: First, I'm not arguing that music isn't great -- I spend an hour or two every day practicing my guitar and love it. But if you are going to focus on something, sometimes it is better to avoid splitting your attention.

Viz; Having a tree limb fall and kill you because you couldn't hear it.

Second, distracting yourself from discomfort or pain using whatever means -- music, TV, drugs -- is a valid way of dealing with those; however, if the goal is to learn discipline and focus, you cheat yourself by so doing.

Yeah, back in the day, we'd hold horse stances for half an hour, and I know guys who did it longer. And it was hard and uncomfortable, which was part of the point.

Even now, we'll stand in the sand pit for a few minutes to strengthen our legs, and I certainly know the difference between root-canal time and having a beer with a good friend time.

I don't think the idea is to make doing the djurus easier, but to do them properly, and that requires focus. Not just going through the motions x-number of times, but with intent.

Better to do them once right than ten times wrong. Better to hold the stance for two minutes while in the moment than twenty minutes listening to Van Halen to kill the pain (If that doesn't cause *more* pain.)

You wring the most of an activity by being there. If you are only concerned with finishing and being done, then you are missing the point of whatever it is.

I used to do that. Be somewhere, doing something I didn't want to do, so I'd fast-forward, and think, Okay, in another couple hours, I'll be home, and this will be behind me. I'd focus on that, and whatever was going on in the moment, that future-tense would help me skate past it.

But you miss a lot of stuff if you do it that way, and some of it isn't necessarily bad.

Living in the future that way, not so good for me.

Anonymous said...

I see a definite difference between exercises and martial arts. The former is just for strengthening/conditioning -- a means to the end of getting stronger/faster/healthier. The latter has more mental applications on top of it.

While you obviously need to be able to run properly or lift a weight the right way, technique is a bigger priority in martial arts. You don't want your muscles to remember the wrong form. Thus, I advocate "distractions" while engaging in one much more than the other.

You make a really good point though, Steve: manning up through difficult tasks, regardless of what they are. That takes a totally different type of strength -- to say, "This sucks, but I'm doing it, and I'm going to keep doing it." Escapism can be viewed as a form of weakness in that respect, or at least counterproductive.

As a wrestler, I got used to pain in a way. I would get hurt in a match, but know that I needed to carry on. At times, I would use it to my advantage to bring more realism to the match; it's a lot easier to sell pain that's real. I guess I could go to that place more often during workouts, too.

Scott said...

I'm certainly with you that walking around in Condition White is a good way to get hurt or worse.

I'm not sure I agree that music necessarily hurts workouts. Mostly I lift - mostly I squat, bench and deadlift heavy singles - and I don't listen to music then. But rolling seems to benefit from loud aggressive music; hitting the heavy bag, too.

Kristine Rusch said...

The only thing that gets me to run is my iPod. However, I run alone on our property in a set track, so I don't have to hear. I never use the iPod on the road. I might die if a tree branch falls on me, but I'll take that risk. However, I wouldn't run at all without the music, so I love the iPod. (I'd never ever ever run with the iPod on away from the property & on the street.)

Rob said...

I listen to my iPod at the gym for one reason and one reason only: the music the gym plays sucks!

Sometimes, it is the devil you know...

Dan Gambiera said...

When I run it's not to learn discipline and focuse. It's to get my heart rate up above a certain number for the better part of an hour. It's generally boring and often unpleasant. Distractions are welcome.

Now, running into telephone poles or traffic is bad. So is getting hit on the with a branch. "Widowmakers" have been killing people for a long time from lumberjacks who knew enough to keep an eye and ear out to engineers out for a non-iPodded walk.

Think of it as an economics problem. If you go out running while you're listening to music there's an increased chance that you will run into or over or be attacked by something and die. If a memory stick full of tunes is the difference between getting and not getting regular exercise your health and lifetime will be reduced by some amount the actuaries have calculated down to the half hour.

Put 'em on the scales. See which one has more weight.

Steve said...

I watch DVDs on my cross trainer (AKA Aerobic Machine of Death) but I don't have to monitor an active, changing environment for my own safety. I wouldn't walk with earphones on, much less run. Too paranoid. On the lighter side, some teenage girls were skipping school in Tampa, FL and the driver was texting. She rear ended a Tampa Police Officer. Kismet.

J.D. Ray said...

Read this, and all the comments, then went off to read the Digg newsfeed, where this was the first thing I spotted:

You can see why I felt the urge to post it back here... :)

Stan said...

I start by confessing that I'm not exercising enough, not in the gym, on the street, or even at home.

But, (in the faint hope that I will someday soon resume that path) I remember that being mentally absent / distracted even from the weight training, jogging (never was a runner, Steve) or stretching, really caused me to miss a very important part of the training. Distracted, I would miss the messages from body about posture, weak spots, balance and breathing. I do remember that my "more attentive" training sessions seemed to yield better results.

The main thing I'd use my iPod for, was a "cheat" to get the adrenaline and endorphins flowing before my body had "earned" them!

Thanks for the thoughts, folki!

Dan Moran said...

Better to do them once right than ten times wrong. Better to hold the stance for two minutes while in the moment than twenty minutes listening to Van Halen to kill the pain (If that doesn't cause *more* pain.)

Just for me, right? I appreciate it. Reading you is like looking for easter eggs. :-)

Steve Perry said...

Why ... are you a Van Halen fan, Dan? I'd never have thought that low of you ...

Steve Perry said...

If you are doing an exercise you hate, because you think you should, I would be surprised if you kept at it long-term. And if you do, why would you?

If you can't get into the exercise to the point that it occupies you, you aren't getting the most out of it, and you should find one that pleases you.

When I ran, that's what I did, and I paid attention. If I'd been paying a little less attention, might have been more than my ankle the drunk from the F.O.E. waxed.

I confess that when I swam laps, usually a mile or so a day, I got to the point where I could do flip turns automatically, and I would sometimes come up with plot lines or characters or stories as I churned along. But I enjoyed swimming, and I wasn't going to get run over by a truck or et by a shark in the Olympic-sized Beaverton pool during lap swim, where I had a lane to myself most days ...