Movember Man-isms Part 1: Physical Health

I’m a creative and intellectual guy first and foremost. I’d much rather be writing songs, playing piano, reading, watching great movies, and learning new things than going for a jog or doing a workout. I feel like this is hard wired in me, so I have to hack my way to engaging in physical activity. Bit by bit, I’m appreciating more and more that it’s as essential to my being as music and other activities. Well, not as essential as music, but hey, I’m learning, and that’s the important thing.

Who’s got my back?

I remember way back in high school, a bunch of us, and by us, I mean my math and science geek friends, mostly non-athlete types, thought it would be an easy credit to continue taking gym class after Grade 9. We had no sense that exercise was good for us; we simply wanted an easy class next to advanced math. I distinctly remember being taught a section on “Wellness.” We thought it was utterly hilarious that there was academia behind making sensible decisions about being active and eating well. After all, we were teenagers, and therefore invincible. Nothing could possible hurt us. We biked to school, we spent lots of time outdoors, and ate mostly home cooking. What was the problem? Certainly my enthusiasms at the time were mostly intellectual and creative; the physical would take care of itself.

I started having back problems in my mid-20s. Spending countless hours in an office, at a computer, no doubt played a critical role. Many visits to the chiropractor later, the pain always returned. I took up yoga and pilates (the “For Dummies” series on DVD were my instructors), which did help, but only when I was working out consistently.

Only this year, I happened to meet a personal trainer, and thought it was time to try something different. Keagan Campbell tailored a program to my specific needs. My only goal was for my back to stop hurting; I had no interest in developing a six-pack or increasing bulk.

I think the big change in my attitude was to accept that I can’t do this myself. For something like physical fitness, I have no expertise. DIY is great for many things, but this isn’t one of them. I need someone to tell me what to do, and that’s perfectly fine.

I’ve learned a lot from Keagan, feel stronger, and visit the chiropractor much less. Both my chiropractor and my wife have told me my posture is better and I look stronger. Keagan’s approach is also learning-based, so I can eventually become self-sufficient.

At the same time, I know that if I push myself too hard, I hurt myself and lose my motivation to continue. The whole “no pain, no gain” mantra just doesn’t apply to me. I had to ensure Keagan developed a program that pushes me, but not too much. Slow and steady wins the race, indeed.

When I do the workouts myself, I usually take in a podcast so I feel like I’m feeding myself intellectually too, and it feels less boring. When Keagan is working with me, we spend rest times talking about Star Wars, so that’s cool too.

Doctor says…

We hear time and time again that men don’t go to their doctor for routine check-ups. I guess the stereotypical reasoning is that we can muscle through anything just fine on our own, and it makes us look weak if we admit something might be wrong. This is clearly a case of guys just making up stuff to try and look better. The fact is, we all age and stuff that’s sometimes out of our control can go wrong.

Besides, for most things, we seek professional help. Auto mechanics, lawyers, contractors, programmers, the list goes on. With all these things, the assets we’re trying to take care of are more expendable and temporary than our own bodies: our cars, our separation agreements, our basement renovations, our digital gadgets. It’s cliché to say it, but also true: you’ve only got one body. And for you smart asses who claim you can get replacements for missing body parts ala Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, most stuff that goes wrong is way more subtle than having your appendages severed, and the replacement is never as good as the original.

I once went in for a physical and both my blood sugar and LDL (bad cholesterol) were a bit off normal. My doctor suggested I made a few minor dietary changes and check back in 6 months. I reduced my red meat and sugar intake (not dramatically), and in 6 months I was back in normal ranges. Is this story more or less embarrassing than having to take pills for the rest of my life because I never had it checked until it was too late?

I am what I eat

I’ve always had a sweet tooth. My mom (and many others) always fed us Indian sweets growing up. I didn’t find out until quite recently that diabetes is rampant in the South Asian community. Couldn’t possibly be all the roti and sweets, could it? I also found out that heart disease is equally bad, and in my genes too. My father had a (mild) heart attack several years ago and his father died quite young from a heart attack.

I’m pretty lucky that I can eat just about anything and not gain too much weight, but even this is not as true as it used to be. Just like my fitness health, I need to take small steps towards improving my eating habits.

In my late 20s, I developed a sensitivity to dairy. It took many rushed visits to the bathroom to figure this out, and in the end, all it took was my doctor saying, “Why don’t you try eliminating dairy for a week and see how you feel?” I think this was one of my first signs that my adult body was aging and changing. I’ve since learned which dairy products work for me, and which don’t.

When my blood sugar and LDL were tagged during a routine blood test, my doctor suggested dietary changes. I took small steps towards better eating; I cut sugary breakfast cereals out and reduced the sugar I take in my tea. When I order a chai latte at Starbucks (not very often) I order it “half sweet” which actually tastes better; more like chai, less like candy. As a couple, we’ve also drastically reduced our consumption of bread and heavy pasta, opting for thinner bread and gluten-free pasta instead. I still indulge the occasional sweet treat, but on average I’ve certainly reduced my consumption of high glycemic foods.

Very recently, I had an unusual day where I had a Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwich (on an English muffin) for breakfast and white pasta for lunch. I felt so lethargic and tired in the afternoon I almost took a nap at work. It’s amazing how different it feels when you fall back into a previous “normal.”

As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 2: Mental Health

Mental health and taking care of your emotions is so essential to everyone. It’s a great feeling to learn about yourself to the point of knowing the things that work for you and give you joy. I’m still on my journey, and have a long way to go, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far.

Second time’s the charm

I find myself saying this truism from time to time: “The second time you try something, it usually works out better.” For myself, this includes marriage.

My first wife was a test case in emotional baggage. Her past was ripe with abuse, family tragedies, and emotional self destruction. My own past couldn’t be more different: loving, stable family life, opportunity, and valuable education. Things started falling apart seven years after we got married (no kids). She started expressing unhappiness, and how I couldn’t fill her emotional needs; incidentally, a revelation that came to her after seeing a therapist herself.

We tried couples therapy for a very short time. Afterwards, I began seeking professional help for myself. I recall my first session, complaining about my wife’s neediness and anger. My therapist turned the tables on me, getting me to see my own responsibility in the relationship. This was my first lesson in cognitive behavioural therapy: introspection, and understanding what I actually had the power to do. This was not easy; it took many sessions, most of which I felt angry at my counselor for not giving me easy answers. I didn’t want to look at my own faults; it was better to put the blame elsewhere. Of course, the truth was that I was equally responsible for the downfall of my first marriage.

I grew up being on the receiving end of care, and while I wasn’t spoiled to the point of always getting my way, I was always supported by family and friends. Hers’ was a life of disappointment after disappointment, always being let down, desperate for someone to take care of her. I too, was eager to be her provider. But I wasn’t up to the task; I didn’t have the skills or the practice to be anyone’s savior. The kicker was that while I so busy trying to be her everything, I didn’t realize that the whole ordeal was making me miserable too. The fellow she cheated on me with made it clear that I wasn’t the guy for her. He’s extroverted (I’m introverted), an enthusiastic smoker and drinker (I’m neither), and party guy (which I am not). I remember talking to my brother about this; he told me flat out, “Sometimes we’re just not able to be what the other person needs.” By 2010, we were divorced.

I think it’s this fear of failure that demotivates many men from seeking emotional support and help. I’m stereotypical in this regard; I wasn’t taught how to deal with my feelings at a young age. For me, I take an intellectual approach to emotional intelligence; tracing the root causes and reasons why I feel the way I do. Where do my insecurities come from? What did being teased and bullied as a child actually do to me? Understanding is the first step toward getting past blaming myself, and getting on to making things better.

Side story

As a bit of an aside, I have a story I love to tell my friends and anyone who’s willing to listen. As I was going through my divorce, someone told me that when any significant relationship breaks down, one person ends up on the high end, and one ends up on the low. I’m convinced I’m on the high.

Sometime after I moved out, I got a message from my soon-t0-be-ex-wife that she had a box of my stuff, and our camping tent, which we agreed I could have. I asked her to please drop it off at my office, as I didn’t want to reveal my home address (petty maybe, but still my prerogative). When she finally got around to dropping my stuff off, I asked her to leave it at the reception desk, since I didn’t care much to see her either. She told me I had to come downstairs to the car, because she has the six-month old in the back.”

I relented and went downstairs to get my box and camping tent, and sure enough, there was an occupied baby seat in the back of the car. When I got back to my desk, I had to do the math. We had been separated for about 18 months. Seems that for all the talk about having kids later, she didn’t waste any time once I was out of the picture. And if the guy she cheated on me with was the father, that’s a big minus, as he was already married with two teenage boys. The patterns of self-destruction she seemed to be so good at were reaching new heights.

Moving on

By this time, I had a better understanding of myself and was acutely aware of how much happier I was to be able to let go of years worth of resentment. By this time, I had vowed to invest more time and energy in myself. I think the idea of being selfish is largely misunderstood. There are two kinds of selfish: the first is deciding to invest in your own happiness, which results in better relationships with others. The other kind of selfish is being greedy and manipulating so that you can only be happy if others around you suffer. Here’s a list of really simple things that I neglected during nine years of marriage, and I knew would make me happier. I followed through with them all:

  1. Live within a 30-minute bike ride to work
  2. Get back into songwriting and music
  3. Be debt-free
  4. Meet new people
  5. Get back into playing tennis

Like any good songwriter, I got a few songs out of my divorce. One hasn’t been fully recorded, although writing this article has certainly got that fire stoked. The other is a song called Brand New Door, and it’s about moving on. My friend Sunny helped me with the vocal track.

I also met my future wife, and suffice to say, I knew from the get go she was a far better fit for me. I vowed to never let resentment build up again, and we’re actually pretty good at talking out our differences. We were married in 2014, which is also the year things started to unravel for me in an unexpected and unceremonious way.

The downward spiral

In late 2013, my fiancé and I were living comfortably together in a rented house in the west end of Toronto. We got a great deal on the place, playing landlord to the upstairs apartment. In less than a year, the owner told us he needed the house back. We were homeless, and ended up moving in with my parents, north of the city. (Incidentally, our first morning at my parents was also my 40th birthday.) My 30-minute bike ride to work was now a 90-minute commute through regional transit, subway and streetcar. This didn’t irk me too much, as I got a lot reading done, and I knew it was only temporary.

In early 2014, we were set to purchase a townhome close to our west-end rental. Everything seemed to be place until, on the day of our home inspection, I lost my job. I had never been fired before. It was sudden, unexpected, and emotionally brutal. I wrote a song about it.

I had no idea why I was let go. The organization I worked for had just undergone an operational and human resource audit. I can only surmise that the consultants told management they were paying me too much for my job. My position morphed into a slightly different one, as I saw on the organization’s website, presumably for a lower salary. There’s nothing quite like quantifying your worth in dollars to take a kick at your self-esteem. Looking for new work proved to be daunting task, as I found myself in a job market where I seemed to have no place.

Eventually, I leveraged a connection I had to land a stable, well-paying permanent position. Of course, there’s a downside. While I have a full-time job, four days a week I spend working by myself at home and one day I week I commute to another city to meet with my co-workers. While working from home is ideal at times (e.g. snowstorm), there are feelings of isolation and loneliness I can’t seem to escape. I know my productivity suffers by not being around the people I’m working with. I’ve tried to find other ways to be productive, by working on personal and freelance projects during lunch breaks and during times I would otherwise be commuting in the city to get to and from an office. As much as I am an introvert, and value time by myself, it’s still a struggle spending many hours on my own.

Finding a balance

So I’ve lost only two items on my “happy” list. I can’t bike to work anymore, and I stopped playing tennis a while back due a knee injury (from playing tennis). That’s not bad. I’ve recently started playing a greater role in my physical health.

I’ve since taken on many music projects, including co-hosting a weekly radio show and podcast, and being in an indie folk-rock band. I’m also meeting great new people through and other venues. I wrote about this a while ago.

I’m happily married. And my mom loves my wife. And my mother-in-law loves me. What more does a guy need?

At times, the future feels very uncertain, particularly with work. I think finding a balance is important, and it varies from person to person. For myself, my hobbies are actually really important to me, and I take them seriously. For everyone, I believe it takes a lot of introspection, and knowing yourself well enough to know what works for you and what doesn’t. We tend to spend a lot of time doing things we know aren’t the best for us, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective, and find ways to ensure you’re content with whatever situation you’re in. I’m trying and I hope you are too.

As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 3: Social Health

Sometimes I have an easier time around women than men. I’d rather talk music, philosophy and health than sports, cars, or tools. Of course, these are just stereotypical interests of the genders, based on conventional views of gender identity. I like to think I’m neither stereotypical nor conventional in my thinking. I’ve been told, only by women, that I think like a woman. I presume this means that I’m not very confrontational or competitive, I’m gentle, and I’m sensitive. I can go with that.

The no boys club

I was at a BBQ party a few years ago, where I literally knew nobody there except for my now-wife, then-girlfriend. I found myself in the backyard, sitting in a circle of friendly strangers, a mix of men and women. One by one, the men left the chat and eventually I was the only guy left. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but I do remember that a bunch of guys came back, and the women all left. The guys carried on about home renovations, as I recall, to which I had nothing to say. This is not to say stuff like this happens all the time, but in this instance it was spelled out pretty clear to me.

I recently got a Fitbit, naturally after my wife got one. I don’t use it to anywhere near its full capabilities, but it does help me keep on track with moving and getting my steps in. For Movember this year, I set a goal to walk 201 km in the month – there’s only a couple days left, and it looks like I got close, but not quite. The social part of Fitbit is your list of Fitbit Friends – people you know who also have Fitbits, and you can compare your progress against them and either get encouraged or discouraged.  Most of my Fitbit friends are women, and all of my active Fitbit friends are women. Does this mean that Fitbit is a girl thing and therefore I shouldn’t use one? No, of course not. I tried it, I like it, it works for me, and I rarely go a day without it now. That tells me it’s good for me, and that’s all that really matters.

I don’t want to suggest that I only hang out with women. Some of my best friends are men. Every week, I co-host a radio show with two other guys. I’m in a band with three other guys. The key here lies in the content; even with the guys, we’re generally not about sports, cars, or beer.

“Sister in my soul”

There’s a song by the Canadian band Rush called Animate, from their 1993 album Counterparts. The song talks about the presence of the female psyche in the male mind, based on the theories of renowned psychologist Carl Jung. If the verses and chorus didn’t spell it out clearly, the bridge of the song states it plainly:

My counterpart – my foolish heart
A man must learn to rule his tender part
A warming trend – a gentle friend
A man must build a fortress to defend

It’s the moment you believe that gender itself is largely a social and cultural construct that you give yourself permission to break the rules. We’re not wired to like sports, cars, and GI Joe; it’s society and upbringing that makes it feel that way. As with all my “man-isms” I think it’s better to discover your own path and decide for yourself what gives you joy.

Even in areas of stereotypical “man-ness” I tend to go soft. I used to play tennis, and I found the guys I played with hit really hard. It got to the point where I hurt my knee trying to return a particularly forceful stroke. For a short while, I was meeting a female co-worker after work for some casual tennis; in this context, I was the one hitting hard, but it turned out we were a good match for each other. Sure, it wasn’t as brutal as playing with the guys, but I got a good workout, had fun, and there was a greatly diminished chance of injury. I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone; I only wanted to play tennis casually for both fitness and fun.

I’ve been a drummer longer than anything else I do musically. It’s where I’m most comfortable, and what I do best. I’m totally a rock n’ roll guy, but my drumming is not aggressive or too heavy. I prefer to use nuance, creativity, and attention to detail rather than pound my way to oblivion. I carved out this space naturally, and it feels right. In fact, there’s no voice inside me telling me I need to hit harder because I’m a guy.

Thinking like me

Our culture prefers to put things into small boxes, and gender is no exception. To me, there’s no such thing as “thinking like a guy” or “thinking like a girl”; there’s only thinking and acting like me. Sometimes this is hard for us to accept. We’ve all been brought up to believe the stereotypes, both boys and girls.

For guys, we never learned to talk about our emotions. We’d rather bury them, especially if they’re negative. It takes not only unlearning but practice to move beyond this. I’ve still got much to learn, but I’m lucky that I have a loving wife who I can trust with my deepest, hardest emotions and support me when I’m feeling down. Moving forward, I hope that I can open up this kind of dialogue with my male friends as well. I did reach out to a few friends when I was going through a particularly rough time several years ago (divorce) and it was encouraging. It’s amazing what happens when people, whatever their gender, become more open and trusting with their feelings.

As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental healthphysical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 4: Sexual Health

I was brought up to believe that any discussion about sex was so taboo, that this belief was never even expressed; it was just strongly implied. So this topic, even to this day, is a tough one for me to talk about. Sometimes the ceilings that are built for us as children are hard to break past. This ceiling is not even glass; for a long time, I couldn’t even see what was beyond.

OK, enough with the architectural metaphors; let’s get to some childhood events that helped shape who I am today.

My Sex Education

When I was in Grade 7, I was entering a class with my buddies and to this day, I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but we were carrying on the way that 12-year-old boys do. I made some kind of a gesture in a random direction; I believe I was imitating the “Walk like an Egyptian” dance from the Bangles song of the same name. Turns out I unknowingly gestured towards one of the prettiest girls in our class, whom I had never even spoken a word to. For the weeks and months following, I was relentlessly teased by my friends and others about how we had a secret relationship. The lesson learned here was to forever be cautious and never express myself without careful consideration, especially in a physical way like a silly 80s dance.

My dad was a big fan of the 1983 movie Trading Places, starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, for its hilarious rags-to-riches-turned-upside-down story. We always watched the edited version on cable TV. One day, probably when I was about 12 or 13, he rented the videotape for us to watch together as a family. Naturally he didn’t know about the part when a topless Jamie Lee Curtis joins Dan Aykroyd in bed, because it got edited out for TV. My dad grabbed the remote control, stopped the tape and fast forwarded it for several seconds, mumbling something about my mom’s eyes hurting so we needed to take a break. Now, I was at an age that I knew this was utter silliness; surely they knew I had seen far worse in movies already. But I was also at a young enough age to not call him out on it, since talking about sex was totally taboo. And what did I learn from this experience? It only reinforced the taboo belief in my mind that anything sexual in nature was to be kept secret and not talked about with anyone.

In early high school, a friend of mine invited me over after school, like we had hung out many times before. But on this day, he had two girls over at the same time, who I didn’t know. He raided his dad’s secret stash of porn videos and we watched one together. I felt incredibly awkward the entire time, and excused myself afterwards. Even into my teens, sex was still taboo and I had no idea how to behave in this kind of situation.

Simply talking to girls was frowned upon when I was growing up. In high school, I had many friends who happened to be girls, but no girlfriends. The American comedian Hasan Minhaj summed it up perfectly in his excellent stand-up routine Homecoming King: (I’m paraphrasing) “When you’re a kid, it’s like, ‘No talking to girls!’ And then when you’re 30, it’s like, ‘Why can’t you talk to girls?’”

Many years later, I ended up marrying the first girl I really had a relationship with, which as it turned out, was a mistake. In hindsight, I realize that most things don’t work out the first time I try them; why would an intimate relationship be any different? I talked about this on my Movember Man-isms Part 2: Mental Health article. I stumbled through our first sexual encounters, and managed to learn through trial and error (not terribly uncommon, I realize). Today, I’m happy to say I’m in loving, healthy relationship with my second wife.

Fantasies and consent

Maybe it’s my lack of experience, but I feel like even my fantasies are on the cautious, careful side. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into the details. For those readers who are hoping I would, I’m glad I don’t know yours either! But this point has been solidified in my mind recently, with the recent #MeToo movement: fantasies are supposed to be fun and pleasurable; for me, there’s no fun without enthusiastic consent.

Another childhood incident resurfaced in my mind after #MeToo began making headlines. Around Grade 7, I was in the public library with a few of my friends, and somehow the discussion got around to sex, and they were teasing me that I had no experience. Today, I wonder if they actually had much at age 12. One of my friends told me, “You wouldn’t even know what to do if Madonna walked in here right now completely naked.” It’s true, I didn’t know what to say to that as the boys continued to laugh at me. I do remember thinking I would probably cover her up with my coat, because why would she be strolling in here naked? But I didn’t say that; I was embarrassed enough without making it worse.

There’s a special kind of rapture when there’s enthusiastic consent. So yeah, even in my fantasies, there might be hesitation and verbal or non-verbal foreplay, but always a strong willingness to get it on.

As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental healthphysical health, social health, and sexual health.