Leading with Empathy

About a year ago I noticed that my best friend was replying to my texts messages a bit differently. It was subtle, but powerful. She was leading with empathy.

My BFF Jonobie and I text each other all kinds of things all the time. Something that made us think of the other person, a funny pic that we can’t stop laughing about, venting about a crappy day, sharing some exciting news, etc. In the latter two, the thing she and I need most often is someone to hear, acknowledge, and echo what we’re feeling. Not to attempt to solve the problem, or to offer advice, but to empathize with us.

In general I think we’ve always done a decent job of empathizing with one another, but it was often implicit rather than explicit. About a year ago I noticed that many times her response was more direct. For instance:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: That sounds both exciting and stressful!

Or also:

Me: Chest X-Rays are back and I do not have pneumonia! Woohoo!

Her: Yayyay!!! I’m super glad that you don’t have pneumonia!!!

In both cases she leads the response with empathy by expressing that she understand how I feel and shares with me in that feeling. Contrast that with other perfectly reasonable responses:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Them: Boo work!

And:

Me: Chest X-Rays are back and I do not have pneumonia! Woohoo!

Them: <thumbsup>

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these, but they are missing that level of empathy that conveys the sender is there, present, and sharing in your feelings with you — all things that the first set (the ones she actually sent) provided.

At some point I noticed what she was doing, how awesome it was, and worked to integrate that into my texts with other people too. I want to be present for my friends, to convey to them that they are important to me, that I am here to hold space for them.

But what if you don’t know how the other person is feeling after receiving a wall of text? How are we to lead with empathy? She’s modeled that for me too by simply asking, eg:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: Oh my! How are you feeling about that?

or even:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: Woah! That sounds as if it could be either exciting or frustrating!

Me: Actually, I’m excited but stressed out.

For me, texting with empathy was a gateway to me being more empathetic in my in-person interactions too. A few weeks ago Daniel commented that I’ve been more empathetic towards him in our conversations and he’s really appreciated it.

And hearing that I’m better connecting with the person that I love makes me incredibly happy.

A Grand Time

On Tuesday night we saw Steve Grand perform at ACT II down here in Puerto Vallarta. And I can’t tell you how moving it was to hear a man sing about love for another man on stage.

Steve Grand is probably best known for his 2013 breakout country music video All-American Boy about one guy’s unrequited love for another man. As someone who grew up listening to country music, I remember being in awe that we finally, finally, had a country love song by a gay man. Then, admittedly, I lost track of Steve and what he was up to until this week.

On Saturday evening we bought tickets for his Tuesday show, where he performs covers as well as his own work, almost on a lark. Of the four of us going to the show, two of us remembered his music video and the other two were game to be dragged along. It’s very common in PV for performers to walk around the beaches handing out cards marketing their shows, and Steve was no exception. Except Steve one-upped all the rest of them by walking around in a bright blue speedo and a blockbuster smile. And to say that he is incredibly handsome would be like saying that the ocean is merely damp. We were all excited to see him perform after that!

The show was good — really good. He’s an excellent performer and has a great stage presence. What surprised me the most was that, oddly, I knew several of his own songs without knowing they were his! It didn’t take me long to figure out that his song Stay was on Sean’s 2013 mix CD and his song Walking was on Sean’s 2017 mix CD (and somehow I knew his song We Are The Night too, although I haven’t figured out how). These CDs live in my ancient car that only has a CD player and the CDs get a lot of air time so I’ve listened to them, and these two songs, many many times. Enough that I could have sung along.

I never knew they were about another guy and knowing that changed everything about them.

I’ve been raised in such a heteronormative culture that when I hear a guy singing about someone else I assume it’s about a girl. Because it’s almost always true. And to have that preconception totally dismantled about songs that I love by this handsome guy on stage who wrote them was mind-blowing.

Stay with me, we don’t never have to leave
You my southern king, we live it for the daydreams
So don’t get mad—what’s past is in the past
And we can make this last
if you just give me that chance
So when my old man’s out of town but a couple days
I think that you should…

Stay with me
all summer
Stay with me
under the covers
Stay with me
Be my lover

He’s singing about another guy, folks!

We talk about the importance of representation all the time, and I guess I never thought about how that might apply to me in music. I’m ecstatic to have relearned the lesson in such a fantastic way.

I’m certain that my newly-purchased Steve Grand albums will get a lot of air time when I get back from vacation next week. If you identify as a gay man and have the opportunity to hear him in person, I highly recommend it!

We did good & fought bad

As promised in December 2017, last year Daniel and I upped our game to not just do good by donating to charities, but also to fight bad by giving money to local and national political campaigns.

Doing Good

This year we donated over $10k to the same organizations we supported in 2016 and 2017. We think these organizations, both local and national, are doing great work for youth, LGBTQ folks, women, POC, and the environment. Particularly in the case of the ACLU and Lambda Legal, we are proud to be a part of efforts to fight the GOP abomination, I mean administration.

Fighting Bad

In addition to donating to charitable organizations, we got political this year. We promised ourselves that we would do so only if we could continue supporting the charities we cared about first and I’m happy to say we were able to do that.

In total we gave over $9k to Democratic candidates running in the midterms. Not all of the candidates won, but it was worth every penny. I view it like an investment – some pay off in the short term (winning in the midterms) and some pay of in the long term (like Beto riling up Democratic voters for other races in Texas despite him not winning his race). And you can bet that we are in this for the long term.

Fighting Together

I’m more proud of how we were able to raise an additional $6k by engaging other people to donate. Together, we helped take back the House from the Republicans.

In 2020 we will be taking the gloves off again. We’ll continue to encourage voter registration & voter turn-out and put our money where our mouth is to fight for our country.

An inconsistent, persistent journey

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

Last month I turned 40, which means I’ve been on my fitness journey for almost 18 years. The thing that’s most amazing to me is that the past 5 years have been the best part. To phrase it differently, I’ve been happier with my fitness and my fitness progress in my late 30s than I have at any other point in my life.

The journey to my current body hasn’t always been a consistent one. There are some good long stretches when I’m on my workout game, doing all the right things, and feeling great. There are many short stretches, measured in days or weeks, when I can’t muster up the energy to get to the gym or are too stressed out to make it happen. There are even some longer stretches when I was suffering from depression or injury and workouts simply never happened. But I’m doggedly persistent and such a creature of habit that I’ve gotten myself back to the gym and on my routine after those times.

Every person’s fitness journey is different and we all get on and off that path at different times in our lives. Regardless of where you are on your own journey, remember that it is a journey, not a destination, and our bodies are a perpetual work-in-progress at every stage of our lives.

Food and supplements

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

Having the best, most fastidious workouts won’t help if you aren’t putting the right things in your body to power those workouts. I would love to sit here and tell you that I meal-plan and meal-prep every week, never eat out, and have figured out the master formula for my food consumption. I would also be lying through my carb-filled teeth.

Workout drinks and protein shakes

IMG_20180308_065530

I get up around 5a every morning and my day starts with a pre-workout shake. Specifically a scoop of Cellucor C4 original pre-workout powder (pink lemonade flavor) in water. I’ll admit that one of the best things about this for me is the caffeine — I’ve become rather dependent on it for waking me up in the morning after taking it regularly for quite a while. It often plays a little gymnastics on my empty stomach so I always need to wait a bit before leaving the house for the gym just in case it’s One Of Those mornings when a close proximity to the bathroom is advised.

I don’t eat anything before a workout beyond the shake. I’ve tried numerous times over the years to eat something prior and every time I get nauseous in the middle of my workout. A couple of times I’ve actually puked. An exception is that I’ve had good luck eating a Lara Bar fifteen minutes before a cardio run.

After my workout I drink a protein shake. For the past few years that’s been a Vega Sport Protein powder (chocolate flavor). When I first started taking supplemental protein it was whey based. When I finally admitted how lactose intolerant I’d become back in 2007 I changed over to soy- and egg-based protein powders. The egg-based protein didn’t last long for me because they all tasted vile. Sometime around 2013 I switched to a pea-protein which has been a really good choice.

I have another protein shake at 3p in the afternoon. This helps tide me over between my 11a lunch and my ~6:30p dinner. Sometimes I also have another one before bed if dinner was light on protein.

The only additional supplement that I take is vitamin D. That’s because I live in the northern latitudes and winter sucks without it.

Meals

For breakfast every morning I have homemade breakfast burritos. This is the only decent meal prep that I consistently do. On Sundays I make 5 egg and spinach burritos and warm them up in the microwave before work. This tides me over until my mid-morning snack. Before I became lactose intolerant I would have a cup of greek yogurt to get my day started. That was also a very quick, low-effort dose of protein in the mornings.

I work at a cushy desk job and have a fair amount of control over when I eat lunch. That’s good because around 11a I’m starving. Some of that is for being up at 5a and working out in the morning. Some of that is my body being in the habit of eating lunch at 11a start back when I worked for IBM and wanting to get a jump-start on the lunch rush.

I pack lunch into work almost every day. Usually it consists of a substantial turkey sandwich on multi-grain bread, an apple, and peanut butter to dip the apple into. Sometimes it’s leftovers from what we had the night before (pasta with red sauce, lentil salad, etc) or some mix of that and a sandwich. I try to avoid eating out because it’s expensive.

We usually have dinner around 6:30p. Daniel does almost all the cooking in our house so we eat whatever he puts together. Daniel is a vegetarian and we are both lactose intolerant, so we eat very very little cheese and have a largely meat-free household. Dinners vary but could be anything from Italian Field Roast Sausage and spinach in red sauce over whole-wheat pasta, black beans and greens from the garden over quinoa, homemade pesto (with basil from the garden!) and tofu over pasta, or something from Isa Chandra’s Isa Does It vegan cookbook. I eat whatever Daniel makes because who in their right mind would turn down having tasty food made for them every single night?

Snacks

I pretty much eat constantly. I am not hypoglycemic (verified by my doctor) but I become a hangry bitch if I go too long without food. This is so notable that Daniel carries around granola bars in his pockets to poke me with if I seem irritable.

Accordingly, I snack throughout the day. Over the years what this looks like has varied but in the recent past it’s been granola bars of some sort, such as Kind Bars or Larabars. I go through at least 2 of these a day, generally around 10a and 1p. We’re always on the lookout at our local grocery store of when these are on sale for $1/bar and buy 5 dozen bars at a time.

At night before bed I’m often needing something. Often this is a bowl of Kashi cereal with unsweetened almond milk. Sometime’s it’s a spoonful of peanut butter or another protein shake.

Food in review

A typical food day, not including water, looks like this:

  • 5a – Cellucor C4 original pre-workout shake
  • 7p – Vega Sports Protein shake
  • 8p – egg and spinach burrito
  • 10p – Larabar
  • 11p – turkey sandwich on multigrain bread with an apple and peanut butter
  • 1p – Larabar
  • 3p – Vega Sports Protein shake
  • 6p – dinner
  • 10p – Kashi cereal with unsweetened almond milk

Vice calories

I think most people would be surprised at how many hollow calories they end up consuming with what they drink. I never drink alcohol or coffee which probably saves me several hundred calories a week (and probably thousands of dollars a year). Not because I think these things are in any way bad or immoral, but because I’ve never acquired a taste for them.

I’m originally from the south, so I do have a sweet tooth and love coke (soda or pop for some of you). When I first started at IBM in 2000 where there was free soda in the fridge I had way too many sodas a day. Hundreds of calories of high-fructose corn syrup. I now shudder at the thought. Eventually I pared down to one soda a day. In the past few years I’ve whittled that down to one soda a week.

These days I have a water bottle on my desk that I refill several times a day from the tap. This keeps me well hydrated (sometimes too much) but it means I leave my desk and walk around a bit too. Best of all, it’s both free and free of calories.

I think it’s unreasonable to ask most people to stop drinking alcohol or totally give up their lattes. I do think it’s important that we realize how many calories we’re consuming in what we drink and think about how that either furthers our fitness goals or hinders them.

Food prep is my weakness

Meals and meal prep is, hands down, the weakest part of my fitness routine. Overall I eat pretty healthy, but I could and should be much better about food planning. I believe this is the thing that is preventing me from continuing to achieve my current fitness goals.

Scrawny to Brawny

For the longest time I could never seem to get above 150lbs no matter what I tried with workout or diet. One day in my late 20s I came across the book Scrawny to Brawny and realized just how many calories I needed to eat based on my (high) metabolism and let me tell you it was eye-opening. I followed that food diet for several months and was able to put on several pounds of muscle before I hit the next plateau.

As of this writing I’m sitting in at 160lbs and the heaviest I’ve ever been is 168lbs. It still takes a lot for me to put on weight. I’d love to see what 180lbs of muscle mass looks like on my frame, but that’s going to require some major changes in both my diet and my workouts.

Next post: An inconsistent, persistent journey

My workout routine

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

I’ve always thought that muscular guys must have a very strict, well designed, and methodical workout routine. And for all I know many of them do. I, however, don’t and have found success in less structured workouts.

I workout one hour a day, 6 days a week. Two upper-body days, two lower-body days, and two cardio days. My schedule looks like:

  • Monday – upper body
  • Tuesday – lower body / core
  • Wednesday – cardio (running)
  • Thursday – upper body
  • Friday – lower body / core
  • Saturday or Sunday – cardio (running)

Upper body

On upper-body days I generally decide what I’m doing when I get to the gym and see what equipment is available and how my shoulder is feeling. I tore something in my right shoulder a few years ago and had a PRP procedure to fix it. It’s been much better but I always adjust my workouts based on how it’s feeling in the moment.

My upper-body days usually involve dumbbells, the pull-up bar, and a cable machine. I like to do superset of opposing muscle groups. So if I do a seated shoulder press I will superset that with a wide pull-up. I aim for enough weight that I can do 4 sets of 12 reps each. A decade ago that looked more like 4 sets of 6 reps each using heavier weights. But as I said prior, my workouts have evolved and morphed over time.

Some common superset exercises that I do on upper-body days.

Other non-superset exercises that get thrown in the mix:

I don’t do all of these every upper-body day, but they are all part of my standard repertoire that I pull from based on equipment availability and how my shoulders are feeling.

Lower body and core

IMG_20180720_065841

When I first started out I only did upper-body workouts. That’s a common newbie mistake as it turns out. Eventually I decided that I needed to incorporate lower-body and core workouts into my routine. At one point about 7 years ago I was really good about doing really solid leg and ab workouts – weighted traveling lunges, squats, you name it.

Then I hurt my back on a squat machine and lower-body days went to hell. For years after that my lower-body and core days turned into core-only days. It’s only been in the last 6 months that I’ve started, again, incorporating focused leg exercises into my routine.

Here are some of my current leg/core exercises:

Again, I don’t do all of these every lower-body / core workout, but some mix of them based on how I’m feeling and what equipment and machines are available.

Functional Fitness

Over the past three months I’ve recently shifted to doing more functional-focused exercises. Before this I was exercising not to improve a given activity, but to build muscle and improve how I looked. Now I’m starting to focus on exercises that help other athletic activities that I do, in this case partner acrobatics.

Basing in partner acrobatics requires really good grip strength so I’ve started focusing on exercises to strengthen my grip, like hammer curlsbarbell suitcase iso-hold, and loaded hang iso-hold. Overhead moves like elevators focus on shoulder strength and stabilization, so I introduced the push press into my upper-body days. And many of the moves, like pitching, really engage your quads and gluts so squats have gotten a renewed focus.

Cardio

IMG_20180815_063931

When I started out, cardio at the gym was mostly elliptical or the rowing machine. In 2004 my friends convinced me to do the Austin Distance Challenge (ADC) with them. The ADC is a collection of progressively longer races leading up to a marathon at the end. I’d never run before so this was a whole new experience for me. I did complete the ADC that year, including the Motorola Marathon in Austin! Since then my cardio has all focused around running.

On Wednesdays at the gym I do a quick 30-minute run and on the weekends I go out running for an hour or more with friends.

For a while I was doing a fair amount of half-marathon distance running. That much cardio isn’t necessarily great for building muscle so I’ve eased back on that and doing more high-intensity, shorter-distance runs.

Areas for improvement

As attention-detailed as I am, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I don’t keep track of how much weight I’ve lifted and what exercise I do when. I go to the gym and I lift weights that I remember being as heavy or heavier than what I lifted before. I lift to exhaustion and then focus on a different muscle group.

I am certain that I could get a better, more focused workout if I kept better tabs on my exercise progress and weights. But I’ll be honest: I’m lazy. I hate carrying around a phone or paper to track my progress throughout the gym. Not having a phone also means that I don’t get distracted and stay focused on working out, not texting or checking Facebook.

I also suck at flexibility exercises, which are going to be critical to keep making progress in partner acrobatics. I hate stretching but I need to start solidly incorporating that into my workout.

Next post: Food and supplements

Machines, dumbbells, and barbells oh my!

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

When I started working out at a gym in 2000 I knew literally nothing about lifting weights. I remember spending most mornings at the gym on the elliptical or treadmills because at least I knew how those worked. The gym’s cardio equipment was in the same large open area as the free weights and the machines so while on the treadmill I could see other people using the machines. Eventually I got up the courage to go check out some of the machines and even later the free weights.

Weight machines

Turns out that starting strength training using the machines was a pretty decent idea for me. In general machines have diagrams that outline what muscles they exercise and how to make the movements. Most of them are isolation exercises – they focus on a specific set of muscles by restricting the range of motion. It doesn’t mean you can’t hurt yourself on a machine (the worst I’ve ever hurt myself at the gym was over a decade later using a squat machine) but there are fewer things that can go wrong compared to using free weights.

At that time in my life I was obsessed with improving my chest. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on the bench press and butterfly press machines. Eventually I probably tried every machine in the gym that exercised the upper-body. That was long enough ago that I don’t remember my actual exercise routine, but I distinctly remember starting with machines because I felt they were easier.

At some point I also incorporated cable machines into my workouts. These seemed like a nice middle-ground between machines and free weights because they had a greater range of motion than machines but less than free weights.

Free weights

20170612_064639
Dumbbell incline butterfly press – June 2017

Eventually I eased my way into free weights thanks to diagrams in Men’s Fitness. I was a regular subscriber to Men’s Fitness (for the articles, not the super hot men, I swear) desperately searching for the secret to putting some muscle mass on my skinny frame. I found it useful to watch people (usually men) do some exercise with free weights and then find that exercise in a magazine to explain it. That way I had a real-life example of someone doing the exercise and a reference for what muscles it was exercising.

Early on when using free weights I tried using the barbell bench for bench presses. Without a spotter. After almost hurting myself and yet being embarrassed to ask anyone to spot me I’ve very seldom used the barbell bench since. Almost all of my upper-body workouts involve some combination of dumbbells and cable machines, not barbells. I’ve slowly started to introduce barbells on the squat rack into my lower-body workouts, but that’s the extent of it.

Gym etiquette

Moving from machines to free weights is more than just knowing what exercises to do, it also involves learning some unwritten gym etiquette and picking up on social clues. With machines, if no one is on it you can go use it until you are done. The machine is in one place and doesn’t move, so you don’t have to worry about being in someone else’s way.

With free weights you are now mobile. You could pick up a pair of dumbbells from the rack and use them right there to do dumbbell curls. And you would be an asshole because you are now likely blocking access to the other dumbbells on the rack. Instead, you want to move out of people’s way and use an available bench or other floor space.

It’s also more common for people using free weights to do supersets. That’s where you do two different exercises back to back, usually on opposing muscle groups. This often involves needing two different sets of free weights or possibly two different pieces of equipment. But the hitch is that you don’t have the gym to yourself, you have to share it with other people. So hogging 4 different pairs of dumbbells so you can do 4 supersets just makes you rude, not efficient.

No one tells you this stuff like this, it’s something you either pick up from watching others or you are That Person that everyone hates and secretly wishes would stop showing up.

Personal trainers

Most of what I’ve learned about working out I learned from watching other people at the gym or reading about it. However, I’ve had two personal trainers over the years that were really useful. The first personal trainer I ever used was my brother Kelly. He has a kinesiology degree and was doing personal training full-time and he helped me get more comfortable with various free weights.

Last year after reaching a plateau and getting bored with my workouts I began using a personal training at my gym. I spent three months with Steve as he showed me some different exercises that freshened up my workout and focused on weak points of my routine.

Getting started with a buddy

Looking back now I recall how scary it was for me getting started at the gym. Something that I think would have made it easier for me was to go with a knowledgeable friend at the beginning. I’m not someone who enjoys working out with other people — the gym time is some rare alone time in my day — but having someone who could introduce me to various exercises and proper form when using free weights would have given me a leg up on my journey.

Next post: My workout routine