Wednesday, 4 October 2017

First thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery

Last time a Star Trek series
debuted, I could never have
imagined that I'd delay
watching the next one until I
got home from ballet class...

TL;DR version: There's this new Star Trek series that's just started on Netflix, called Star Trek: Discovery, and I like the first two episodes more than anything else that's been on TV for the last 23 years. 

I've been a huge Star Trek fan practically my whole life. Its original 1960s incarnation and The Next Generation from the 80s are my favourite TV shows by a long margin. I think this love comes from a unique combination of factors that resonate strongly with me:
  • wonder at the exploration of "strange, new worlds... new life and new civilizations"
  • the optimism of the future depicted; its vision that "the human adventure is just beginning" and that the best is yet to come for our species
  • it's a modern-day fable; that from the very outset, the show was intended to (and regularly did) explore social issues, and questions about the nature of being human

When I have failed to enjoy various incarnations of the show since The Next Generation ended in 1994, I think it's because they have failed to deliver on one or more of those fronts. Without them, all that was left was fairly standard action/adventure shows and movies set in space. And to me, it seems a shame to have lost something unique.

Such is my love of the show that even having been burned time and time again by new additions to the franchise, I was still very excited last week to see the debut its newest incarnation, Discovery.

But reviews aren't worth much without understanding what the reviewer values (and doesn't), so a little bit more about that first.

I don't care that the look of the show has changed.
What the future looked
like in 1964: "The Cage"
Discovery is set about ten years prior to the original 60s series that featured the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. This places it roughly concurrent with the pilot episode of the original series, "The Cage", which was set under a former captain of the USS Enterprise, Christopher Pike. TV production values have come a long way in the 53 years since "The Cage" was filmed. I have no expectation that the sets, props, or costumes of the new show would align with that was presented way back then.

This also extends to what's bound to be the most contentious change in the show's visuals: the makeup design of the Klingons. This is the third major revision of "what Klingons look like" in the history of the show, and an article on the Ex Astris Scientia website ("The Evolution of Klingon Foreheads") descibes all the minor revisions in minute detail too. In short, there's been such little consistency over the last 50 years that I'm not about to get upset about another change now.

I don't care about story arcs
Similarly, TV storytelling has changed substantially over the last few decades. Whereas series were once more like anthologies of short, stand-alone stories that rarely referred to anything that had gone before, now series are constructed more like novels. I'm happy with either, although I've been more frequently disappointed by attempts at long-form TV storytelling than I've been impressed by it.

I'm not here for the characters
When it comes to sci-fi and other speculative fiction genres, I'm watching for the setting and the ideas; if I wanted interesting, well-rounded characters, I'd be watching a European art film instead. I set the bar really low here: I just don't want to be actively annoyed by the characters.

So, all that said...

What I loved about Discovery (mild spoilers)

Ideas: clash of cultures
The first episode quickly establishes that this is an ideas show. The political tensions of the original show were driven by confrontation of space superpowers — Cold-War concerns. The tension in Discovery is driven by xenophobia and religious fundamentalism — twenty-first century concerns. There's a post-colonial narrative as well, provided by the Klingons' desire to "remain Klingon" in the face of what they see as the cultural imperialism of the Federation.

Ideas: nature vs nurture
The central character of Michael Burnham is a human who was raised by Vulcans and is portrayed as behaving more in line with her nurture than her human genetics. This is not a new theme to Star Trek, but in an era where "identity politics" are contested, is more relevant than ever.

Ideas: pre-emptive strike
The dramatic climax of the opening two-parter revolves around a question of whether it is acceptable to undertake a pre-emptive strike against a known belligerent who has not yet made a hostile move in this encounter. How far should the benefit of the doubt be extended? This story seems ripe for discussion and debate for a long time, just like other notable examples from Star Trek's past. My wife and I still debate 1968's "A Private Little War" every time we see it.

Respect for the past
I do like the small nods to what has gone before, in visuals, sound, and dialogue. For example:
  • the sidearms that the Starfleet officers carry are styled after the hand phasers of the original series, but feature muzzles/emitters that are clearly based on the earlier "hand lasers" in "The Cage"
  • the inclusion of a ship's dedication plaque next to the elevator ("turbolift") doors on the bridge of the USS Shenzhou, just like on the bridges of Federation starships all the way back to the original series (and, as an aside, naming a starship USS Shenzhou, after Communist China's first human spaceflight vehicle)
  • one of the sensor noises on the bridge, taken directly from the original 60s series
  • use of the bosun's whistle, again, a nautical "Hornblower in space" touch that goes all the way back to the original series
  • many aspects of Klingon ritual that draw on what was established during The Next Generation (death rites), but also in the novels and (pen-and-paper) role-playing games of the 1980s (the "Black Fleet") and perhaps even a nod to a single, throw-away line in one of the 80s Star Trek movies (a Klingon "mummification glyph")
  • This characterisation of Michael Burnham echoes that of Captain Pike's un-named first officer, "Number One" in "The Cage", also Vulcan-like in her demeanor 
  • an albino Klingon, as established in Deep Space Nine
  • "phase cannons" as starship armament, as established in Enterprise
  • and probably a lot of other things I missed on my first viewing!
In short, there are a lot of easter eggs here, while none of them seemed intrusive.

I'm really excited by what Discovery promises so far! I'm hoping it continues as a science-fictional fable for our age, inviting us to think about ethics and the human condition in a setting that is both new and also respectful of its past. That's a hard balance to strike, but the introductory two-parter has me feeling very optimistic.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Why starving myself was a stupid idea

5-year-old me
I was obese by the time I was about 5 years old and stayed that way for the better part of 40 years. Eventually, I made huge lifestyle changes that transformed the way my body looks and works, a transformation that has lasted two years now. However, this certainly wasn't the first time I tried to become less fat.

Like many other people unhappy with their body size or shape, I experienced multiple attempts and failures over many years. In this post, I want to share what didn't work for me, because, in hindsight, it should have been obvious, and for whatever reason, it wasn't.

Twain never said this.
The memes are lying to you.
There's a famous quip routinely misattributed to Mark Twain that's usually rendered something like "It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times."1 Regardless of the source of the remark, it was similarly easy for me to lose body fat on the many occasions I set out to.

I've felt self-conscious and strongly negative about my body since I first started getting teased at school about its shape and size, somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8 years old. But it wasn't until I was a teenager that I felt motivated and empowered enough to do anything about that.

It seems to me that most people instinctively understand the two sides of the energy equation: that losing or gaining fat depends on the balance between energy consumed and energy spent. And consequently, most people who want to reduce their amount of body fat know that they can achieve this goal by reducing the amount and types of food they eat and/or increasing their level of physical activity.2 This principle is sometimes called "CICO", for "calories in versus calories out". While it's essentially true, stripping all the physical, psychological, and emotional elements of body recomposition down to this one simple, cold equation leads some people (like me) to a naïve, "brute force" approach.3

And so, when I was 17 years old, I started starving myself for the first time.

And I found out that I was good at it!

That is, I discovered that I could easily suppress and ignore hunger pains. I started by skipping meals. Then I sometimes skipped whole days. The furthest I went was when I was 25 years old and I went a whole week without eating anything at all.

Most times, I would also boost my output by going for long walks. I chose walking because it was the only form of physical activity I was familiar with that I didn't hate (How I learned to hate physical activity is a story in itself for another time). On some of these fat-loss attempts, I would make time for a two-hour walk each day, which I would do regardless of weather: hot or cold, rain or shine. The longest walk I did was one of around ten hours, coming home with my feet shredded and bleeding, all so I could be happier with my body.

Each time I embarked on a starvation diet, I would pursue it for a few weeks, lose something in the vicinity of 5-10kg (10-20lb) and then lose the willpower to refuse food any further, or have my attention diverted to other interests. When that happened, I would resume eating exactly as I did before, and resume the sedentary lifestyle that I had before.

Worse: while I was in my most severely restrictive phases, like the week in which I didn't eat at all, I would be pretty preoccupied with food, dreaming of all the things of which I was depriving myself. I would start to hoard food, buying the treats I wasn't allowing myself to eat and hiding them in my bedroom. At the time, I would feel good and powerful—that I had a big stash of all this junk food and my willpower was so strong that I could resist eating it. That is, until the willpower eventually collapsed, as it always did, and I would gorge myself on everything that I had been denying myself up to then.

And then, with my normal patterns of eating and inactivity re-established, I would soon regain the fat I had starved off, and the whole cycle would begin again. I would go many months, and sometimes even a year or two, without restricting, and I would always end up at a point heavier than I had the last time I restricted. Over the course of doing this for twenty-plus years, I gradually gained about 40kg (90lb).

In essence, severe restriction as a strategy for fat loss was really a strategy for fat gain.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew that starvation wasn't sustainable as a strategy, and that when I had lost all the fat I wanted to, I would have to come up with a plan to keep it off. But it never got that far, because my will to starve always failed long before I reached my goal.

What went wrong?

With the benefit of hindsight, here's my take on why restriction failed so badly for me time and time again:

1. Reliance on willpower and attentiveness

In my experience, willpower is a finite commodity: mine eventually runs out. Restriction and denial is a constant push uphill; and when the ability to keep pushing faded away, my life always resumed its original path.

The same goes for attentiveness: I can only concentrate on so many things at one time, have so many projects "on the go". So when other things in life crowded out the constant attentiveness needed to suppress the desire for food, restriction would fall by the wayside.

In 2005, I lost about 20kg.
I then gained over 30kg
during the next few years.
The same applied on the exercise side. Prior to the last two years, my most successful fat loss campaign was a little over ten years ago when I lost about 20kg (44lbs) through heavy restriction and daily (as in, seven-day-a-week) gym sessions.

But I didn't enjoy the gym. I forced myself to go. And then, when I had a break from it, I just never went back. I took time away from there to prepare for, and then to run in, the Bridge to Brisbane event that year. But when the run was over, I never returned to the gym. Or did any more running. The change was superficial and driven by willpower alone.

I even kept my Fitness First membership going for about a year because I always intended to force myself back; I just never did.

2. Expecting to be able to go back to the old way of eating and (in)activity

Einstein never said this.
The memes are lying
to you again!
Keeping with the misattribution theme from earlier, it's often erroneously claimed that Einstein said "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"4 Again, regardless of its origin, the observation holds true here. 

I always expected that after I had slimmed down to a size and shape I found acceptable, I would just go back to eating the food I enjoyed up to that time; maybe less of it, or eating it less frequently, but without any substantial changes to what I was eating.

Here's the most ridiculous expression of that belief: during that attempt where I lost the 20kg, as I reached each 5kg milestone, I would celebrate by choosing some incredibly calorie-rich junk food to indulge in. Yes, really: "I've just starved off another few kilos — I will therefore eat this whole box of donuts!"

If that's not crazy, I don't know what is.

Now, in the scheme of things, that one indulgence every few weeks was not, in itself, going to undo the effects of all the restriction and exercise. But, it does show that my efforts were doomed to eventual failure, because as long as I expected to and wanted to keep eating that way, that's what I would revert to as soon as willpower or attentiveness failed.

And, of course, that's exactly what happened. Every time.

This misalignment of desires and goals is what makes me so wary of the principle of "cheat days" that some people use during body recomposition. For me, needing to schedule a day to eat whatever I want would be a symptom and a warning bell that my lifestyle was pretty out-of-whack; that my values and my eating had become separated, just like eating the donuts to celebrate losing fat.

Again, the same principle applies on the energy output side of the equation: I never expected that the long walks or the daily gym sessions would be something I kept up after I reached my goal shape and size. And that, somehow, magically, the inactivity would not lead me straight back to the body shape I had been working to change.

3. Going it alone

Related to the expectation of going back to eating an old way, the fear of not being able to eat that way was one of the main reasons I was so determined to strive for my goal through starving myself instead of seeking professional help.

Specifically, I expected (without any evidence, of course) that a doctor or dietitian would condemn me to a plan of eating things I didn't like — things that were less appealing than not eating at all. So I deliberately avoided the very help and support that I know now would have made things easier, healthier, and a lot more likely to succeed. 

4. Separating the fat-loss stage from the maintenance stage

Two years ago, this strategy eventually did work for me, but only because I was lucky to be well-supported through the transition. I now think that this separation into an incredibly difficult and unlikely-to-succeed "phase 1" and a completely undefined and not-thought-out "phase 2" was a major reason why dozens of previous attempts over more than half my life had failed.

Spelled out that way, it's obvious what a stupid idea this was, and one eventual success, that relied on luck, after multiple failures doesn't make it a great strategy.

Put another way: if I had ever worked out what "phase 2" looked like, there would have been no need for a "phase 1" — I should just have started "phase 2" straight away.

But to be kind to myself, when I started the journey that eventually transformed me, I literally could not have imagined that I would be leading and loving the life that I have now. Indeed, if I could have seen this future, the me of two years ago would have not wanted it.


I now think I was completely wrong on each one of these counts. That:
  • Successful transformation comes from embracing things I love, not through denial and restriction; through letting a healthy lifestyle crowd out an unhealthy one.
  • Tastes and appetite, for food and for movement, are more malleable than I ever believed. 
  • A good nutrition professional will work with you to help you enjoy food. If they're not doing that, you need to change nutrition professionals. In Australia, look for someone registered as an APD (Accredited Practising Dietitian): they're the experts at this.
  • Diets with short-term goals will produce short-term results and are probably counterproductive in the long run. Transformational change comes from transforming a whole lifestyle.
In future posts, I want to expand on each of these ideas, and also to share in more detail what did eventually work for me.

1 There's no evidence for Twain ever saying this. The earliest variant of the gag that Quote Investigator has turned up is in the 1907 novel Duke of Devil-May-Care by Harris Dickson and refers to poker-playing, not smoking (see here for their detailed and well-sourced research).

2 Most people. I do occasionally hear people claiming that no matter how little they eat, they can't lose body fat. Or that restriction doesn't work for them because they have slow metabolisms. Or that restriction doesn't work at all because of the body's "starvation mode". My layperson's understanding of such claims is:
  • We're not plants and we can't photosynthesise; the body must be getting its energy from somewhere. If it's not from fat stores, it has to be coming from food and drink. 
  • It's undeniable that some people lose (and gain) body fat easier than others, but my understanding is that metabolisms that are so slow to make fat loss significantly harder (as in "not work"-level of harder) than for the general population are very rare. It's also easy and pretty cheap to get your metabolic rate (RMR) measured if you really think this is you. 
  • "Starvation mode" is definitely real and was investigated extensively by the US military in the wake of World War II. My understanding is that it doesn't have much of an effect until the body is down to its last few percent of body fat. Most people attempting to lose body fat are nowhere near that point.
  • The horrible truth of the effects of famine on humans and other animals. Enough said. 

3 It's even the basis for a whole fat-loss regime I found very attractive at one point: The Hacker's Diet by John Walker, who co-wrote the famous computer drafting software, AutoCAD.

4 As with the purported Twain quote, there's no evidence for Einstein ever saying this. Quote Investigator has found an expression of the same concept in The Psychology of Personal Constructs, a 1955 psychology textbook, and a close match for the wording of this supposed quote in a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet. Their research is here.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Converting a freewheel to a freehub

I've written in another post about how much I love my Reid Vintage Ladies 7-Speed Classic bike. But that doesn't mean that I'm blind to its vices. In the time since I wrote that piece, another, more serious problem than the flimsy chainguard emerged: the flimsy and fragile wheels. Rear wheels only last me about 6 months or 2,000km (1,250 miles) This post is about how I fixed that problem.

If you just want the take-aways, skip down to the bottom.


My first problem with a Reid wheel occurred when the bike was about four months old. One moment, I was riding along just fine, and the next, the bike came to an abrupt, screeching halt. Dismounting, the cause was obvious: the back wheel was badly bent, preventing it from rotating. I've since learned that the colloquial description for this kind of wheel failure is a "taco", for obvious reasons!

The failure occurred while I was riding along a path shared by cyclists and pedestrians, and I had just maneuvered to avoid a group of people standing still and talking in the middle of it. I thought, at the time, the wheel failed because the spokes had clipped one of the many obstructions jutting into the path.1 In hindsight, I'm not so sure. Either way, the next day, I bought a new wheel from Reid (only available in a set of front and rear, back then, $40) and kept riding. Easy fix.

Reid's target market
for these bikes:
rider weighs less than 80kg.
Everything was fine again for several months, until one day while wheeling my bike to park it after dismounting, I noticed it wasn't rolling smoothly. Specifically, I felt a periodic resistance and heard a dragging noise coming from the rear wheel. Closer inspection showed that once every rotation, part of the wheel rim was dragging on one of the rear brake pads. I assumed that the wheel wasn't sitting square in its dropouts and tried correcting this. I improved the situation, but didn't completely fix it, and on even closer inspection, I discovered that the underlying cause was a broken spoke. At the time, I blamed myself. I was running Tannus solid tyres (more on them another time), and I knew that these handle shocks from the road quite differently from pneumatic tyres. I also suspected that at a bit over 80kg/176lbs, I'm heavier than the riders for whom these bikes are designed. So I forked over another $40 for another wheelset, and switched back to using pneumatic tyres.

So, when several months later, I experienced the same periodic dragging and saw another broken spoke, I was less inclined to blame myself. Rather than go through the waste and inconvenience of replacing wheels a couple of times a year, I was prepared to spend more to get a better-quality wheel. (I summarily dismissed learning to replace spokes as a process more fiddly than I was prepared to undertake, and my growing concerns about the quality of the wheel made me think I'd be doing this often).

As I searched for a compatible replacement, I learned about wheels, their sizes, and about the difference between freewheels (as fitted to this bike) and freehubs (fitted to most other bikes for the last few decades). Sheldon Brown's article "Freewheel or Cassette?" was a great summary for me.

My take-away from all this was that there was no simple, drop-in solution for my problem. That is, I couldn't find a decent-quality 700c-sized wheel designed for either a freewheel or for a 7-speed cassette. Road bike wheels were the right size but designed for 10- or 11-speed cassettes; and mountain bike wheels were different sizes and designed for 8- or 9-speed cassettes. And while I noted some decent-quality mountain bikes fitted with freewheels, the wheels didn't seem to be easily available separately.

Since I rely on my bike for daily transport, expediency prevailed, and I elected just to buy yet another set of wheels (which this time had nearly doubled in price to $70 per set!)

A few months later, a spoke failed again. And, co-incidentally, Reid had withdrawn its physical presence from my city (Brisbane) only a few days earlier, taking with them the expedient solution of just buying more wheels.

Clearly, it was time for a change, even if it proved difficult.

Making the switch

To keep the same size wheel, I figured I'd need to make the switch to a freehub and cassette. After a bit of research, I knew that I would need:
  • a new wheel (duh)
  • a cassette that would work with the shifter and derailleur on the bike, since I didn't want to replace them as well. To be safe, I would aim for as close a match to the freewheel as possible
  • a quick-release skewer to mount the wheel to the frame
  • tools: the tool for tightening and loosening the lock ring on the cassette, and a chain whip in case I needed to get the cassette back off again (which I assumed I would, given my lack of experience and the experimental nature of what I was doing.) I bought Park Tools' FR-5G for the lock ring and their SR-11 chain whip. 
The significant unknown was exactly what would be required to make the cassette work with a hub that was probably designed for one of a different size. I gathered that a spacer would be needed, but I wasn't sure of what size, or whether there was anything else needed too.
I also didn't want to spend too much on the wheel, because I have a grand vision (outlined here) of someday building my "dream" commuting bike around one of the Reid frames I have, so this wheel would be an interim solution only. The cheapest new roadbike wheels sell for nearly as much as the entire bike cost me! A second-hand roadbike wheel on Gumtree seemed to fit the bill: the Shimano WH-R550 had garnered enough favourable reviews in its day (introduced in 2004) and was a reasonably  good-quality wheel from a respected manufacturer. Adjusting for inflation, a set of these when new sold for over $300, so $20 for a second-hand example looked like a good deal.

Shimano still produces 7-speed cassettes, and one of them in the HG200 series has the same range of cogs (14–28) as the Shimano MF-TZ21 freewheel supplied by Reid. This made me confident that the existing derailleur would work. I was less confident about the shifter, because although I could find specs (again, on Sheldon Brown's site) for the cog thickness and spacing of the HG200 cassette, I couldn't find the equivalent numbers for the MF-TZ21 freewheel. I decided to just hope for the best and went ahead and ordered one.

Note the 0.5-mm gap between
the top spacer and lockring
Bringing the wheel and cassette together showed me the missing piece of the equation. With the lockring and smallest cog in place, there was a lot of play for the cassette to slide up and down the hub splines, so the hub had indeed been designed for a cassette wider than mine. Research turned up conflicting information about what cassettes could be used with the WH-R550 wheel, and I also wondered whether there had been different variants of this wheel produced over its lifetime. In the end, I decided to just measure the gap. Lacking a Vernier caliper or any other precision measuring tool, I did the best I could with a ruler and determined that I'd need a 3mm spacer. A quick search of eBay immediately confirmed that such items exist, and I ordered one. On arrival, I found it to be pretty close, but not quite wide enough. Googling to see if anyone made a 3.5mm spacer, I discovered Problem Solvers  — a bike parts company specialising in producing all kinds of adapters so that you can (as they put it) "transform your bike for purposes never conceived by the manufacturer". This is very much My Kind Of Thing. And yes, they make a 3.5mm cassette spacer!2

I ordered one, but in the meantime, figured that the 0.5-mm difference was going to be within the tolerances of the drivetrain components anyway and proceeded to mount the wheel on the bike. A test-ride established that the shifting was terrible — so terrible that I ended up having to extract the chain from where it had wedged between the largest cog and the wheel spokes. Twice.

And that's when I learned about adjusting the rear derailleur, using the excellent video and step-by-step written instructions from Art's Cyclery: "How to Adjust Shimano Rear Derailleurs". With this help, a complete novice like me not only corrected the chain-eating problem described above, but had this bike shifting smoother and quieter than I remember it ever shifting in its life. And all in under 10 minutes!

And that's all there is to it! I'm still waiting on that 3.5-mm cassette spacer to arrive, but in the meantime, the bike is perfectly rideable. In fact, it's much faster and easier to ride, if a little bumpier, than ever before. I'm hoping not to replace this wheel again on this bike, but I'm very grateful for what I've learned along the way.

Project cost

Wheel: $20
Cassette: $23
Skewer: $20
Spacers: $25 ($18 for the right one, including international postage, plus $7 for the almost-right one)
Tools:  $65 ($27 for the lock-ring tool, plus $38 for the chain whip)

Total: $153


If I could distill the lessons and give them to my past self, they would be:
  • You're swapping contemporary components with similar characteristics from the same manufacturer. Don't overly stress about compatibility with the derailleur and shifter. Assume they're going to work until they don't.
  • Fitting a 7-speed cassette onto a hub designed for a larger cassette just requires a spacer. Put the parts together and then measure for the spacer you'll need rather than trying to figure it out from published specs. 
  • Don't be afraid of adjusting the rear derailleur. No matter how complex the mechanism appears, there's a logical sequence to adjusting it, and it's easy to do. 
In short: solve one problem at a time, and approach the project as experimental and requiring some trial-and-error.

1 A staircase! The City Reach Boardwalk is a truly, truly stupid and dangerous design, and I can only assume that whoever thought it was suitable as a shared path to accommodate bicycles (and to use it to link other significant, high-traffic shared paths) was not deeply familiar with the concept of "bicycle". There should be a website for "world's stupidest bicycle infrastructure" and this should get a look-in.

2 Note that they describe their 4.5-mm spacer as "for 7-speed cassettes on 8/9-speed freehub bodies", and there's no way the gap I need to fill is 1.5mm, although the Shimano spec sheet for the WH-R550 (or, at least, one variant of it) specifically states it is for use with a 8/9-speed cassette.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Love on You

Day 7 of Alexi Panos' “7 Days of Soul” challenge was to do a guided meditation to reconnect us with an innocent, childhood version of ourselves, and then to write a letter from our higher self to that vulnerable earlier stage. I’d recently done an exercise similar to this meditation and found it incredibly powerful.

As a child, I had an incredibly loving and supportive home life; so encountering mean and cruel children at school (and adults who failed to protect me from them) was a shock from which I think I’ve never really recovered. If I could reconnect with that child, I would want to pass on the message that it’s all OK and that none of the cruelty of the schoolyard matters and that meanness essentially comes from how people see themselves, not how they see you. I’m happy to share the full version; here’s what I wrote:

Dear Rüdiger -- we lost touch somewhere along the way, didn’t we? I saw the walls go up -- the defences you put in place to protect that huge heart and big feelings. I’m not blaming you or judging you -- I know your fears and why it seemed necessary.

But it’s OK -- it’s safe now. Those people are long gone and -- I’m sorry to say -- you’ve been maintaining those battlements for nothing. More than that -- I’ve learned that people’s cruelty comes from how they see themselves -- it’s not nothing to do with you at all. You are not defective, or lesser, or worthless, or unlovable just because somebody believed those things about themselves and then tricked you into believing those things were about you instead.

If you trust me enough to lower those defences, I can help you see that too.

Your heart is big and you have so much love to put into the world. It’s so big that it sometimes blinds or overwhelms people! That’s a rare gift and you diminish the world by hiding it behind walls and barriers.

Fear is all the separates us -- it is all that stands between you and your best destiny. It makes your world smaller and darker and colder and leads you to seek and accept less for yourself, and also shuts down a source of light and life for those around you.

Peek out through the cracks. Where are the people who projected their own unhappiness and inadequacy onto you? Nowhere to be found. What’s more -- even hampered by the all the heavy armour that you still carry with you, you have climbed above all of them. What more you could you achieve, what more could you give, if you gave up the things that are now just holding you down?

The siege is over, and you not only held out, but you prospered. Now, please, step out with me into the light, and let your own light shine. It’s OK -- I promise you it’s OK out here. You are safe. You are loved. You are accepted. You are more than enough. The world needs to feel your love. Please trust me. Please become me.



Friday, 19 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Secret Service Agent

Day 6 of Alexi Panos' “7 Days of Soul” challenge was to do something kind for someone in secret. Most of the suggestions involved leaving a note or gift for a stranger somewhere. I went with one of the suggestions to leave a positive note on someone’s car.

And… to be honest… this choice was not a great fit for me. Although my intention was to brighten someone’s day, I couldn’t stop thinking about how it might backfire. Might it seem creepy to the anonymous recipient? Might they be someone who has dealt with or is dealing with a stalking situation and so this is even traumatising? The best I could do was to console myself with this was “probably fine” and that if the recipient didn’t like it, the worst *likely* outcome would be thinking “OK, that’s weird” and binning the note.

The only thing that helped a little was someone else’s “7 Days of Soul” post. They said they had faced similar doubts but chose to stop “focusing on what other people might think of me and focused on my intention to offer love and value into the world.”

So, my intention was good and kind, and I just have to hope and trust that I did more help than harm in the world.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Soul Sabbatical

Day 5 of Alexi Panos' "7 Days of Soul" challenge seemed pretty unappealing to me: we were asked to go sit with nature for at least 20 minutes.

Now, I have to say… I’m thoroughly urbanised and just not a nature person. I never feel the need to get out of built environments, I usually feel that beautiful scenery is kind of wasted on me, and there are few things I can think of that I’d like to do less than walking in wilderness. So, even thinking of where I would go or what I would do for today’s stretch was… a stretch!

I reflected that there are two things in nature  that do resonate with me: the sky (particularly the night sky) and large bodies of moving water: rivers, seas, and oceans. My home city is built on a river (the Brisbane River), and for practically my entire life I’ve never lived more than 2km (just over a mile) away from that river. On just about every day of my working life, I have commuted alongside it for most of my journey. So, I decided I would go and just watch the river from one of its many bridges. 

I sat for about 30 minutes, watching the ripples in its brown, estuarine surface, as the wavelets travelled and collided with each other, and observing how the wakes from passing watercraft would propagate and then rebound off the banks or various structures. And the longer I watched, the deeper I relaxed. There was something mesmerising in this activity. After about ten minutes, I completely lost consciousness of time. By the time the half-hour was up, I felt a deep peace and an unexpected clarity, similar to what I’ve experienced inside float tanks.

What’s more, that sense of calm and clarity is something I associate with the better, future self that I’ve been led to imagine in life-coaching sessions. For the third time this week, I’ve gained an insight into how to embody that self.

So, watching the water is something I’m going to do more of.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Shake that Ass

For day 4 of Alexi Panos' 7 days of soul challenge, we were asked to go dancing... 

...and OK, I’m sure this wasn’t what she had in mind! But my ballet class is always one of the highpoints of my week, and my barre class was the highpoint of my day today. Few things give me so much energy or love for life, and that’s what I wanted to highlight here.

But it wasn’t long ago that my relationship with dance was fear and loathing! You can read the story of that transformation elsewhere on this blog.

I was sad today when I heard someone much younger than me wistfully say that they were “too old” to take up ballet. I was quick to point out that if I could start, so could they. Not that I make any claims to being any good at it… yet. But I’m a beginner, and beginners need to give themselves permission to suck!

The worst thing in class is to see another newbie unwilling to try a combination because (I assume) they’re afraid that they’ll suck. Last week, I attempted an assemblé for the first time, and I feel sure it was not only completely unrecognisable as an assemblé, but as anything balletic at all! This week, my assemblé was horrible, but I think that my intention was probably clear. And next time I try, I will be better.

So, keeping the gratitude going this week, thank you to all the people who have brought the joy and magic of dance into my life recently. I owe you so much.

Monday, 15 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Gratitude Gush

For day 3 of Alexi Panos' "7 Days of Soul" challenge, we were reminded to express gratitude to somebody in our lives. I chose a few people to write “thank you” cards to. 

Sincerely expressing love and gratitude isn’t an obstacle for me: I pretty much wear my heart on my sleeve. If anything, I’ve sometimes erred on the side of too much expression, and I’ve had to learn (the hard way, of course) to be more sensitive to other people’s different emotional landscapes.

Although it wasn’t a hurdle, today was a good reminder to express gratitude more often. I would like to make more of a habit of this.

As I write this, I also wonder if I set the bar too low, and perhaps should have thought harder to find people in my world I have more trouble expressing gratitude to or for. I will think further on this.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Makeover Mojo

For day 2 of Alexi Panos' 7 Days of Soul challenge, we had to change something about the way we present physically, externally in the world.

Again, I thought about the future, better self I'd been led to imagine during life coaching -- and what that self would wear, even around the house (it’s a Sunday after all).

I don’t even own clothes entirely like what I pictured, but I dressed as close as I could, which was dressier than what I would normally have done. And I pampered myself by breaking out a more “special occasions” shampoo and shower gel.

It felt good to wear “nicer” clothes, and ones more aligned to my future vision. And I got compliments from my family :)

It reminded me of my last big wardrobe makeover: when I needed new clothes after losing a lot of weight (63kg, 139lb). That time, the transformation focused on my work and university attire, but I never carried it through into my home life. Today taught me that I could benefit from going further with that transformation.

So, the lessons of the last two days: eat and dress like that imagined better self, to facilitate becoming that self. This reminds me a bit of method acting!!!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

7 Days of Soul: Stop the Suck

This is day 1 of a 7 day challenge being led by Alexi Panos -- each day we’ll do a “stretch” -- an exercise in living more soulfully and joyfully.

So, today, we’ve been asked to identify at least one “soul suck” that we’re going to eliminate for the next 7 days -- something that takes us away from our higher selves. I’m going to try for three: two that I know how to eliminate, and just need practice, and one that I’m not sure how to do. Please help me with all three -- hold me accountable on the first two, and I’d love to hear ideas on how to accomplish the third. OK -- here goes!

Soul Suck 1 -- processed food

Less of the top;
more of the bottom

I’ve been on quite a journey with food over the last couple of years, from a place of fear and really destructive eating patterns (restriction and binging) to a place of eating purposefully, mindfully, and joyfully (most of the time anyway!) I have the expert guidance of my dietitian to be thankful for transforming my thinking about food and taking my fear away. I’ve come to really enjoy fresh food, and eating things as close to their natural state as possible, and actually eat very little processed food any more. These days, the processed food that I still consume is usually in the form of protein bars, and the occasional dessert treat.    So, why target processed food this week?     

  • While I no longer think of any food as “good” or “bad”, I know that when I respond to my body’s hunger signals by eating something processed and out of a packet, I’m losing an opportunity to eat something that I know I would enjoy more. So, first, there’s an opportunity cost every time I choose processed over raw or fresh.

  • Second, I have had a couple of really powerful experiences where a life coach has led workshop participants to imagine a future version of ourselves -- one we would like to be -- and to think about how that self lives. When I imagine what that self eats, I see them eating fresh, whole foods, not stuff out of a packet. So ditching the processed food will bring me closer to them and how they live.
  • Third, I have been inspired by a different life coach who teaches the importance of eating purposefully and in alignment with your values. Eating a protein bar serves no purpose that a handful of raw nuts won’t. And a piece of fruit surely fulfils the purpose of “a refreshing treat” just as much as an ice-cream does… and in each case, one is more in line with my current values than the other.
So… no processed food this week! Please remind me if you see me slip!

Soul Suck #2 -- negative talk (without action)

So much for what’s going into my mouth… what about comes out of my mouth?

I don’t think of myself as an overly negative person, but I do know that I could do better. This week, I want to stop saying negative things: about people, about businesses, about politics UNLESS it’s in the context of contributing to a solution, or raising awareness with a view to taking some kind of actual action on an issue.

This one was inspired by one of Alexi’s prompts: that for some people, the “soul suck” they might need to remove for a week might be a person or a particular relationship.

I’m lucky in that I don’t think I have people like that in my life. But it made me turn the challenge around and think: “what role do *I* play in spreading negativity in the world?”

I want to do better. Again, if you hear me doing this, please remind me that I said I wouldn’t!

Soul Suck #3 -- Being critical of my body

This is the one that scares me. I know how to do the other two, but this is the real “stretch” and to be honest, I don’t know what to do here.
I’ve lived most of my life hating the way my body looks. And all the big changes I’ve made to it over the last two years haven’t cured that.

Yes, I’m definitely happier with my appearance than I was, but I discovered that somewhere along the way, my hate became disconnected from objective reality. And, I’ve found new things to be critical of.

So, escaping from a place where I just thought I was too fat, I’m now found a whole heap of new things to be critical of. It’s like the overall amount of criticism hasn’t gone down at all, but becoming leaner has just displaced most of that criticism to other parts of my body (while still thinking that I’m too fat). These are things that had never bothered me before, and consciously, I know that some of them are just completely objectively untrue. There are some fun cognitive distortions at work.

At the very least, I commit to challenging these thoughts this week, and borrowing another technique learned from life coaching: each time one of them surfaces, I will ask myself “Is that true?” and “how do I know?” That should be a starting point at least.

But if you can think of any other way to block or derail these ideas, please help me with suggestions. Has anything worked for you?

Monday, 17 April 2017

First steps into dance

I was a chubby child. And somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8, the schoolyard taught me to see my body as disgusting and shameful. It was one of the most powerful, most enduring, most life-changing lessons I was to learn from school. I still experience its influence every single day.

One of the ways in which this knowledge manifested itself was in a particular horror at dance. Having internalised that my body was disgusting, the last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to it by moving it around, maybe causing it to wobble or jiggle. And, already bearing the brunt of ridicule and teasing for even existing in this body, I never wanted to do anything in public view where I might appear clumsy or inept, or in any way invite even more mistreatment and contempt.

So, apart from whatever enforced dancing lessons at school I could not escape by feigning illness, I avoided dance floors from then on at almost all costs. Maybe the highest of those costs were refusing point-blank to join in the dancing at my brother's wedding, and, a few years later, being relieved that my fiancée agreed to not having any dancing at our wedding at all.  

And yet...

Part of me loved dance. While I hated those dancing lessons at school, I loved the actual dancing (it would have been great if I were invisible, or alone). Over the years, I made a couple of furtive excursions into dance, when it felt very safe to do so. For example, a short stint of latin dance classes, accompanied by a nun I knew; or a casual, one-off Lindy hop class at a jazz festival with a group of other absolute beginners.

And I loved to watch dance: I remember first going to the ballet with my parents when I was about 10 or 11 years old,1 beginning a life-long adoration of this art form. Years later, I came to love watching flamenco performance as well. But for me, dance was something for other people to do.

Fast-forward to the present.

Step 1: Zumba

Over the last two years, I've been on a journey to re-make my body. Part of that has been exploring different forms of exercise. For me, the support and encouragement of friends has been a vital ingredient in this venture. So when one of them put out an invitation to join them for some free fitness classes being offered in our city (the Medibank Feel Good program), I was eager to go along. And when I looked up one of the classes, Zumba, and discovered that it wasn't that thing inside the big inflatable balls2 but was exercise inspired by latin dance, I was filled with a mixture of simultaneous trepidation and curiosity.

So, on 2 April 2015, a rainy Thursday afternoon, I made my way to South Bank. Looking around, I was relieved to see that I didn't know anybody other than my friend. I was still very worried about looking ridiculous.

The class wasn't easy for me. I felt like I was doing the right move only about 25% of the time and felt my balance and co-ordination taxed to their absolute limits. By the end of the 45 minutes, I was not only physically exhausted, but my brain had turned to mush from trying to control my limbs into making unfamiliar movements, while simultaneously translating the instructor's visual cues into actions. I felt sore and overwhelmed, but I had also had so much fun! Unlike running and cycling, which took time for me to fall in love with, Zumba hooked me right from the start. And as for my fears? I discovered that I was focusing so hard on the movements and following the instructor that I became completely unaware of anyone around me. I learned that I didn't have to worry about what anybody else thought: I wasn't going to perceive it anyway.

The Feel Good program runs twice a year, in ten-week blocks during autumn and spring. By the end of the autumn 2015 block, I became a Zumba regular and already started seeking other places to get my Zumba fix while Feel Good wasn't running. I was delighted to find out that Brisbane City Council was offering free Zumba classes on Saturday mornings as part of its Active Parks program.3 And when that block of classes finished, I found a regular Saturday morning class close to home and became a regular there.

By now, my confidence had grown enormously, and I felt like at last, I was dancing the right steps in most of the routines at least most of the time. A huge moment of validation arrived on 16 January 2016. Our instructor had a practice of inviting classmembers onto stage with them for some tracks, to dance in front of the whole class. On this day, I was invited up for the first time! In a little under a year, I had gone from someone who wouldn't dare to be seen dancing to being not just comfortable, but excited to be getting up on stage. I scored a commemorative wristband too.

But soon, some changes in my weekly schedule made it difficult to get to a Saturday morning Zumba class, and I was left searching for alternatives.

Although I hadn't known it at the time, connections that I'd made through the free, public programs I'd attended would pave the way forward. At Active Parks, I'd met an instructor whose style and energy I really enjoyed. When, later in the year, they also taught classes in the Feel Good program, I was excited to learn that they worked at Pure, a gym near my workplace that provides the instructors for the program. So when I was offered a great deal on a membership package there, I readily signed up!

Step 2: Barre

Zumba alone would have made my Pure membership worthwhile to me, but this gym also offers the most amazing variety of other classes: everything from traditional aerobics-style workouts to more kinds of yoga than I knew existed, to pilates classes on mats and on machines, to hula-hooping and mini-trampolining... and barre.

The start of my journey to become fit and healthy was purely being unhappy with the way I looked. I restricted food dramatically (even stupidly) and exercised intensely to shed a large amount of bodyweight: eventually, 63 kg (139 lb) of it.  As my weight decreased, I started having to engage with a new question: I knew what kind of body I didn't want; but what kind of body did I want? To be honest, I still don't really know the answer to that (and the question has become less important to me anyway). But when a friend suggested that maybe I could now start building muscle, I freaked out a little bit. As much as I knew I didn't want to live in a fat body any more, I also knew that I didn't like the look of a bulky, muscular physique. And by now, running and cycling had already made my thighs larger and more muscular than I was happy to see. I was actively avoiding any strength training out of fear of what it might do to my body. When I told my friend that, their advice was to look at athletes' bodies across different sports, see which physiques appealed to me most, and this might give me a clue about what kind of training might take me in the direction I wanted. My psychologist endorsed this approach too, and made me aware of photographer Howard Schatz's iconic and amazing work Athlete. (If you're not familiar with it, I highly encourage you to take a look!)

A fresh, full body workout using the ballet bar to burn fat, tone muscle and create long, lean physiques. Using a series of small, isometric movements to target the butt, thighs, abs and arms, this class is the fastest and most effective way to create your perfect ballerina body - and all in 30 minutes!
Beautiful. Graceful. Transforming. Pure Barre. Fusing classical ballet & innovative conditioning to offer a powerful, tightening, and toning workout.
As I perused these images, I could quickly see that none of them appealed to me as much as the understated leanness of a dancer's body: strength without bulk. But I had no real idea of where to even begin to translate that insight into any kind of training, and the idea just sat at the back of my mind. By the time I joined Pure several months later, I had never even heard of barre classes as a form of exercise outside of ballet training (and I couldn't imagine I'd be ever be doing that — isn't that something you have to start when you're about 3 years old? Don't you have to be ultra-flexible and have perfect balance and co-ordination?) So, when the timetable app and a poster on the gym wall offered this class and described it as "Beautiful. Graceful. Transforming." and as creating "long, lean physiques", I knew I had to give barre a try!

Before I even went to my first class, I was lucky to have a practical demonstration that strength does not equal bulk. A free personal training session was included in my Pure membership, and as luck would have it, the trainer to whom I was assigned was the architect of Pure's barre program, and a former professional ballerina. Much physically smaller than me, lean and slender, I was amazed to see her lift weights apparently effortlessly and with complete control that had me struggling and wobbling all over the place. It was a powerful visual reassurance not to fear becoming strong.

On 25 August 2016, I stood at the barre for the first time. I was nervous, but also wildly excited. When a couple of other participants also raised their hands at the instructor's question "Is this anyone's first barre class?" I felt myself relax a tiny bit. Over the next half-hour, I had the surreal experience of terms I'd known for years, and movements I could recognise by sight — plié and grand plié, relevé, arabesque, the positions of the arms and feet — suddenly coming to life. It felt like I had gained an extra sense. It's like reading a verbal description of a picture and then seeing it for yourself. And even more to my astonishment, although I was shaky and weak and my range of movement small, I could make some of these moves! Crude and imperfect, sure, but what I saw in the mirror was at least recognisable to me. Now, as we're often reminded, a barre class is not a dance class. But it does contain some of the same building blocks, and it was a thrill beyond words to experience that. It would set the scene for the next step.

And beyond all the positive ballet associations, nothing had ever made my body feel so good as barre does.  More than that — since radically changing the shape of my body, my whole sense of the space around my body feels weird and distorted. My body moves in unexpected ways. It fits through spaces it seems like it shouldn't. My limbs bend in ways that feel unnatural. Sometimes this just feels odd; other times it's even disconcerting. Nothing I have tried has better connected me to this new body, the way it moves, and the way it occupies the space around it than barre has. It's also done wonders for my posture!

So my appetite for barre quickly increased. One class a week was not enough, and soon I was doing two, then three. Taking more classes let me experience a range of different approaches to barre, reflecting different instructors' personal styles and backgrounds. Some classes had a stronger pilates flavour; others were more yoga-like; others more like an aerobics workout. I liked all of them, and enjoyed the variety of this barre-smörgåsbord. But the classes I found I liked best were the ones that had the strongest ballet elements. In these classes, it felt like my vocabulary of movement (and terminology) would grow just that little bit more every week: tendu, fondu, attitude, retiré... Discovering how much I enjoyed this style of class left me wanting still more.

But to skip ahead slightly, on 4 March 2017, I took part in a charity fundraiser ("Pure Palooza") which saw me do a barre class (amongst other classes) out in public — on the main stage of the Queen Street Mall, the heart of Brisbane's CBD. In other words, totally exposed and in public! Not only was I quite OK with this, but I really enjoyed the experience. Less dance-related, but more tellingly, I was also OK now with the other classes in public that formed part of the event, even things like hula-hooping and mini-trampolining that I had only done once or twice and was by no means competent at. My need to feel like I really knew what I was doing before letting other people see me do it was gone (at least in this context). The journey I'm describing in this post gave me that.

Step 3: Ballet

The appetite that barre classes had kindled in me led me to question my assumptions about ballet. Might it actually be possible to learn to dance as an adult? Google immediately confirmed that it was; and that there were a number of options for adult beginners in ballet right here in Brisbane, including classes offered through the community engagement and education arm of our state ballet company, Queensland Ballet. Their "Ballet Basics" level is a structured course designed specifically for people like me: adults who had never danced before. I couldn't wait to sign up!

On 12 January 2017, I attended the first of two "taster" classes I had enrolled for; opportunities for prospective students to see if they liked what the course had to offer. I did. Very much. The four months of barre had definitely helped prepare me by making some of the positions and movements familiar. But even from the very first taster class, I was learning new things, and loving the experience. And maybe the best thing that Zumba and barre had given me was the freedom to be wrong; in other words, to be a learner. I was OK with not being perfect straight away, even when other people could see me!

The course itself began two weeks later and over the next two months, we would vastly expand on our collection of steps. It was everything I had hoped for and more. By the end of Ballet Basics, we were stringing some of what we had learned together; week 5 was the first class in which I felt we had started to dance, even if it was a sequence of only about six steps. I realised that, in addition to the foundations of dance itself, I also enjoyed soaking up the little bits of the ritual and etiquette of this beautiful art that we were exposed to. In short, the more I experienced, the more I loved it.  

"Graduation" and the end of the course felt like another real validation, and I'm very eager to progress on to the next level: Beginner Ballet!

The best thing about being an absolute beginner is the joyful anticipation of the long journey ahead.

Final thoughts

I wrote this post to commemorate three recent milestones:
  • the second anniversary of "taking the plunge" at my first Zumba class
  • my 50th barre class
  • completing the Ballet Basics course

Two years ago, all of this would have been unimaginable: not only that I would be able to take up ballet, but even that I would want to learn to dance rather than just watch from the sidelines. My life has become unrecognisable, and I am deeply grateful to my friends and teachers for their inspiration and encouragement. And of course, to my darling wife Laura who supports all my dreams and passions. I loved dancing with you last year at your birthday, the first time outside a class context, and only the second time ever. And we have a big anniversary coming up...

You never know who's life you may change. Invite someone to class.
Collected from Facebook. Forgive the
grammar; the message itself
could not be more true.
My journey into dance has also been a journey out of self-consciousness and into self-confidence; and yet, if there's one message I wish I could send back in time to myself it's that dance is for everybody.

At Zumba, at barre, and at ballet, I have met fellow students with a wide range of ages, body shapes, and abilities, brought together by a love of just how well music and movement go together. If you're reading this, and you've always wanted to dance but you're worried about any of those things, I wish I could share that same message with you.

1 I'm disappointed that I haven't been able to pin-point the production, despite generous assistance from Queensland Ballet trying to match my childhood recollections with their historical records. It seems that my earliest ballet memories are a mish-mash of a number of different performances. 
2 That's Zorb, for the record.
3 New Farm Park; for any of my parkrun friends reading this, it was the proximity of this Zumba class that brought me to New Farm to try parkrun, even though Stone's Corner and South Bank parkruns are actually closer to me!

Note: this post updated 25 April 2017 for improved historical accuracy.