For the past year, I’ve been focused on losing weight and building strength. With the help of my compatriots at Crossfit Excellence, I’ve managed to lose forty pounds and do something I’d never thought possible — come to love lifting weights.
I’m still not very strong, especially compared with the bigger guys in the gym. But I’m getting better every day, setting personal records (also known as “PRs”) and developing new skills.
For the past few months, our trainer (Cody) has been leading us through a program designed to improve our abilities at a handful of specific lifts: squats, presses, and deadlifts. As a culmination of these efforts, our gym recently held a special Saturday weightlifting event. It was a blast!
Our goal for this event was to score as high as possible at the “Crossfit Total”. We were given three (and only three) chances to lift as much as possible at each of three lifts:
Back squat — A standard squat with the bar racked on your back. Thighs must come to parallel (or lower) in order for a lift to count.
Shoulder press — Rack the bar on your front shoulders. Press it overhead until your arms are locked. No bouncing or bending of the knees is allowed.
Deadlift — Lift the bar from the ground until you’re standing tall, with arms and legs locked out.
It was awesome to watch my friends set new PRs:
Miguel gets fierce!
Paul stays focused!
Carla is strong!
Erica kicks ass!
I set PRs of my own. Going into the day, my one-rep max was 175# for back squat, 100# for shoulder press, and 275# for deadlift. (That’s a total of 550#, though I hadn’t achieved those all on the same day.) My results for this Crossfit Total challenge:
I managed 215# for the back squat. On my third attempt, I went for 235#. The weight was fine — and I know I can do it again in the future — but my squat was too deep, and I came forward on my toes as I stood, which caused me to lose my balance and dump the weight to the rack.
I couldn’t get above 105# for the shoulder press. This bummed me out, but I know this is my weakest lift. I’m not sure how to improve here.
I improved to 295# on the deadlift. My third attempt was at 305#, and I came close, but ultimately just couldn’t get the weight all the way up. (As you can see from the video below.)
My final score for the day was 615#, which boosted me from the “untrained” category to “novice”. I’m good with that. I’ll work over the next year to move up from novice to the next level.
Crossfit Total at Crossfit Excellence
I can’t believe I love lifting weights, but I do. I just love exercise!
Ah, yes. My h-u-g-e list of h-u-g-e goals. I remember that. My last progress update to this list of goals was on 10 July 2009, 839 days into the project. At that time, I’d completed 37 of my 101 goals, including all of my financial goals. (Unsurprisingly, when you build your life around something, you tend to do well at it.)
In the four years since I drafted the list:
I met 46 of my 101 goals.
I’ve come close to meeting four others.
Sixteen of the goals are no longer important to me. (People change, and so do their priorities.)
Thus, 35 of my goals were left unfinished.
I suppose if I were to grade myself by school standards, I’d get an F. But you know what? I don’t feel like a failure for what I’ve accomplished. Far from it! When I look at what I’ve done in the past four years, I’m actually a little amazed. I’ve come a long way. There’s still a lot for me to do, but I’m proud of what I’ve done — especially in the past two years.
Ad Astra Per Aspera
But there are more things I’d like to do. Because I’m getting old, the idea of accomplishing 101 things in 100 days just isn’t that appealing. In fact, as regular readers know, I’ve moved from trying to tackle large lists of goals to focusing on just a handful of unrelated goals at any one time. I find I’m more successful this way. If I tackle one fitness goal, one financial goal, one household goal, and so on, then I don’t get overwhelmed. Still, because I’m always introspective this time of year, I decided to draw up another large list of goals.
As a compromise between ambition and moderation — and to celebrate my 42nd birthday — here’s a list of 42 goals I’d like to accomplish in the next 42 months. (Deadline: 25 September 2014.)
I want to be a runner, but reality keeps getting in the way.
In 2008, I tried to go from couch potato to marathon runner, but I got injured along the way. In 2009, the same thing happened. I didn’t train for the marathon during 2010, but instead chose to focus on weight loss and general fitness. I lost forty pounds and built strength through Crossfit.
I didn’t run at all last year — I rode my bike instead — until the final day of our stay in Venice. That morning, I got up early so that I could run through cobblestone streets (and over the canals) in the dark. It was awesome — the best run of my life.
When we returned from Europe, I started running regularly. At first, I kept things easy. I just ran a few miles a few times a week. But you know how I am. I couldn’t keep things quiet. I had to ramp up the volume.
So, I started running intervals. And then I started doing hill runs. I boosted my weekly volume. I tried to be cautious about my running, but in retrospect, I again tried too much too quickly. November and December were great — but then I started to have a nagging problem with my left heel. My Achilles tendon was inflamed. It was painful.
After running a fast mile on January 1st (6:24), I hung up the running shoes for a couple of months. I decided to rest, to see if the injury would go away. (I’m still not sure what cause the injury. Was it the hill runs? Was it the five-finger shoes? Was it just over-training? It could have been all three!)
The injury didn’t really go away, though. The entire time we were in Africa, my heel bugged me. We had a free day in Cape Town, during which I had really hoped to hike to the top of Table Mountain, but I had to give up the dream. I woke that morning to a tight ankle. My Achilles was sore, and I was hobbling around. No Table Mountain for me.
When we returned, though, things improved. In fact, they improved so much that I decided to take part in Portland’s Shamrock Run. Instead of a longer distance, though, I opted to do a 5k (which is just over three miles).
On a cool (but not cold) Sunday morning, I got out of bed early and headed downtown. So did thousands of other Portlanders. My goal was to meet the team from Crossfit Excellence so that we could warm up together.
Fortunately, our team was wearing distinctive shirts. They were green — not such a good thing, it turns out, since everyone else was wearing green — and emblazoned with a lame double-entendre: Caution! Contents are HOT!
Our team. Or most of it. Eddie and I never could find them.
Right away, I found Eddie, one of my compatriots from the 6:30am class. But, try as we might, we couldn’t find anyone else from our group. No matter. Eddie and I joined the throng for our run through the streets of Portland.
The first mile was frustrating. Because thousands of us were starting at once, there was no room to run. We basically had to plod along next to each other, waiting for the crowd to thin. Eddie and I tried running on the sidewalks and in the other lanes of traffic, but that presented hazards of its own.
The crowd thinned by about a mile into the race, but I was still dodging people even at the end of the run. Also at about a mile in, the course began to climb a gradual hill. We turned from Burnside onto Broadway and followed it up toward the south end of the city. Though the climb wasn’t steep, it was constant and taxing, especially while trying to weave in and out of traffic.
Rant: In theory, we were supposed to line up at the start based on how fast we thought we were going to complete the run. Obviously, people didn’t do that. I was passing walkers and joggers of all sorts. They sometimes got cranky at me for trying to cut through a crowd of them. Give me a break! If they had started with the slow people, they would have made life easier for everyone. This frustrated me.
In the end, I completed my first-ever official 5k race in 24:07. That’s not a stellar time, but it’s not bad either. In fact, I’m very happy with 24:07. For where I am at my age, it’s perfect. I finished 24th (out of 437) for men aged 40-44. I was 305th place out of more than 6400 runners overall.
I’m confident that I could do this run in 23 minutes or less given no obstructions. In fact, that very afternoon, I signed up for another 5k: the Race for the Roses on April 3rd.
Update: I didn’t do the Race for the Roses. For two weeks, my shins have been giving me all kinds of woe. I suspect it’s from doing too much jump rope at the gym. In any event, I took the first four days of April off from exercise completely — and that includes my scheduled 5k. I’m sad now, but recognize this is best for the long term…
After the race, Eddie and I made our way to the beer garden, where we tried to find anyone else in our group. We had no luck.
As we were standing there, drinking our beer (Eddie was actually the only one drinking beer — I gave him mine and drank a diet soda instead), I noticed three attractive women standing nearby. They were giggling and pointing at us. I wondered if I had snot on my chin or something.
But then one of the women walked over to us and smiled. “I have a question for you,” she said. She leaned toward us and said, “How hot are they?”
At first, I didn’t know what she meant, but then I remembered our shirts: Caution! Contents are HOT! Eddie took a sip of his beer. I think he was trying not to laugh. Me? I was shivering, so I said the first thing that came to mind: “They’re pretty cold right now.”
And as I said it, I realized I’d done the wrong thing. I’ve been married for twenty years now, and I’ve forgotten how these things work. When I was younger, I knew how to flirt, and I enjoyed it. But I’m woefully out of practice. So, I completely missed the cues here, and said, “They’re pretty cold right now.”
The woman’s face fell. Her smile vanished. I think she knew she was attractive, and wasn’t used to talking to men who didn’t play along. She furrowed her brow. “Never mind,” she said, and slipped back to her friends. She whispered something to them. They looked back at me and Eddie and they laughed.
When I got home, I told this story to Kris. She loves it. Nothing makes a woman feel more secure than a husband who is too clueless to flirt.
After 36 hours of travel (followed by twelve hours of sleep), Kris and I are back from vacation. For the past three weeks, we’ve been exploring southern Africa. With a tour group, we visited South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. We had a great time, and we learned a lot. It was well worth the expense. In fact, I loved what I saw so much, that I’m eager to return. (On my next trip, I’ll probably aim for Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.)
Because it’s now ingrained in my being, I spent the entire trip looking at things through the lens of personal finance. This wasn’t tough. We saw a lot of wealth and poverty.
From the Rich to the Poor
On our first day in South Africa, as the tour bus set out from our hotel in Johannesburg to nearby Pretoria, our tour guide interrupted his narrative to say something strange.
“Before we go too far,” Brian said, “I want to thank you: Thank you for coming to Africa. Tourism is the biggest transfer of money from the rich to the poor in the world. For every seven people who come to South Africa, roughly one job is created. So, thank you.”
I thought this was odd at the time, so I pulled out my notebook and jotted down the quote verbatim. (When I travel, I always carry a small notebook to capture quotes and impressions.) During the course of our three weeks in southern Africa, I kept coming back to this notion, to the idea that tourism isn’t exploitive (as I’ve always believed), but actually beneficial to countries and communities.
Brian wasn’t the only one to mention this. Several of our local guides brought up the subject too. On our tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for nearly eighteen years, our guide echoed Brian’s statement. “For every six tour buses to visit Robben Island,” he told us, “one job is created. Thank you for visiting.” And on the final afternoon of our trip, we took a tour through the “informal settlement” in Langa Township. (“Informal settlement” is a polite term for a squatter camp or shantytown.) Our local guide — who lives in Langa Township — expressed heartfelt thanks.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is gorgeous.
Despite assurances from Brian and the local guides, I felt guilty a lot of the time. I felt ashamed that I have so much and the people I met had so little. Yes, they were happy and friendly and giving, but consider this calculus:
We spent three nights in the Victoria Falls Hotel, where the average room costs $618 per night. I’m not sure what our actual cost was — it was probably much less — because we booked the entire trip as a package through a tour company. If we’d paid full price, though, we might have expected to pay $1854 for our time in Victoria Falls.
According to our local guide, minimum wage in Victoria Falls is currently $250 a month. And right now, nobody can afford to pay that, so workers are only being given a living allowance — enough to buy bare necessities.
So, three nights in this posh hotel cost the same as seven months of local wages. Worse, most Zimbabweans don’t even have a job. Unemployment in the country runs at nearly 80%. 80%!! One in five people has a regular job. Perhaps you can see why, despite our guides’ gratitude, I often felt ashamed to be there.
The Open Market
On Valentine’s Day, my favorite day of the trip, our group experienced three cultural outings.
In the morning, we visited the Victoria Falls open market, where local residents sell hand-made jewelry, rugs, statues, and knick-knacks. Before we entered the market, Brian gave us a piece of advice: “Think of this as a cultural experience, not a shopping opportunity,” he said. “And don’t just give these folks money. They don’t want your handouts. They want to earn a living.”
I heeded Brian’s advice, and did my best to learn more about the vendors I spoke with. At one stall, Joshua taught me about haggling. He explained how the process works, and where you might use it. (You don’t haggle at the grocery store, but you can at the fresh food market.)
I asked how much a carved hippo cost. “Thirty-five dollars,” Joshua said. He quickly added, “But that’s just my starting price. Now you make an offer.” I eventually bought the hippo for $12. I felt guilty for not paying $35.
A fellow called Moreblessing (no joke) talked to me about how his family produced and sold the items he had on display. (His brother had a stall right next to him.)
In Zimbabwe, names are the same as ours — Francis, Richard, Jacqueline, etc. — except when they’re not. Some people have African names, as you might expect, and others have names derived from English nouns and adjectives: Reason, Accurate, Blessed, Moreblessing, and Garlic (also no joke). We didn’t meet anyone named Precious, though.
Several of the fellows (I only spoke with men) told me that they needed to sell something because this was the only way they could get money to put food on the table. I asked Brian if this were true. “It is,” he said. “Some of these guys may only make one or two sales per week.”
I bought too many carved hippos, and I wish I could have bought more. No, I don’t need a dozen carved hippos — it’s just Stuff — but I wanted to help these people. (Some members of our group traded their clothes and shoes instead of using money. Brian says that in many ways, this is more useful to the vendors.)
The Primary School
During the afternoon of our cultural day, we visited the Chinotimba Primary School, where about 25 children sang and danced for us. When they finished, we had a chance to chat with them. (English is the primary language in the countries we visited, another remnant of the colonial past.) One boy was fascinated by my camera, so I let him borrow it; he ran around the room, snapping photos of all his friends.
Before we left the school, we had a chance to donate school supplies. Kris had brought some pens, pencils, small notebooks, and inflatable globes. I was unprepared. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the visit. I pulled aside Francis, our local guide (who had attended this school when he was a boy and now has a daughter who’s a student here), and showed him the books I was carrying in my bag. “Could the school use these at all?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“Even these?” I asked, holding up four digest-sized comic books I’d brought to read on the plane.
Francis laughed. “Yes,” he said. “They’ll love them. The kids know who Superman is.” So, there’s a grade school in Zimbabwe that has some comic books from my collection now. The school principal, who collected the money and supplies our group donated, seemed touched and grateful.
Photo taken by a boy at Chinotimba Primary School.
Back on the bus, many tour members talked about how sad it was that these kids had so little. Brian tried to squash this sentiment.
“Look at the children,” he said. “Are these kids unhappy? I’ll wager that you’ll see the children are happy. They’re happier than any of the children in South Africa. Why? Because everyone is equal. They all have the same Stuff. It’s not one kid has an iPod and another one doesn’t. They’ve got nothing, and we know that. But they’ve all got nothing. They’re all the same.”
Brian wasn’t arguing that it’s good for these people to live in poverty. He was trying to make it clear that it’s possible to be happy even without a lot of Stuff, and that if you give something to one person and not another, you sow the seeds of envy.
Note: Parents pay $25 per term to send a child to the Chinotimba Primary School. There are more expensive schools available, but only government officials can afford them. So, if you want your kids to be educated — and most Zimbabweans do — you spend $75 a year (or $100 — I’m not sure how many terms there are) to send each of them to school. Now, go back and re-read the calculus of our hotel again. For the cost of two nights in that place, I could probably fund a child’s entire grade-school education.
Dinner at Home
In the evening, we made a quick trip to a nearby food market, where we spent a few minutes wandering the stalls, looking at the items for sale. (I found two women who were selling used boxes! Because my family owns a small box factory here in Portland, I asked to snap their photo.)
After this brief detour, we split into small groups. Each group went to the home of a local resident, where we were served a typical Zimbabwean meal. (Actually, it was a little atypical: We were given the equivalent of both lunch and dinner. Plus, our meal contained more meat than the families usually eat.)
Kris and I dined with Blessed and her family, which owns two homes on adjoining properties. “We are a family of sixteen,” Blessed told us, “and we are still expanding.” She says that “uncles, aunties, misses, cousins” live in these two houses.
Blessed served us hominy in peanut butter, pumpkin leaves in peanut sauce, and sadza with chicken stew. Sadza is a cornmeal pap; it’s Zimbabwe’s staple food. In fact, Blessed’s family eats so much sadza that they buy a 50kg (~110 pound) bag of cornmeal every month. (I think the “mielie pap” we saw in Botswana and South Africa is the same as sadza, but I can’t swear to it.) Fish is expensive, so it isn’t eaten often, and meat seems to be used as a flavoring agent, not a main ingredient.
As we ate, we talked with Blessed and her two helpers, which included a friend and a cousin. Blessed told us that her family is actually fairly well off compared to many in the area. Doreen, who is eighteen, is nearly finished with high school. She just got her exam results. Because she did well, she’ll soon be going to university, and then (she hopes) to medical school. So, in contrast to a lot of what we’d seen on this cultural day, this family seemed to be on a path toward relative prosperity.
This six-minute video mostly features footage from our cultural day.
The Bride Price
On the bus ride from Botswana to Zimbabwe, Francis, our local guide, talked about marriage customs in his tribe. Just two generations ago, it was common for men to have several wives. This still happens, but less often, especially in the city. Still, some of the old ways continue. When a man is ready for marriage, for example, he pays a bride price to the father of the woman he intends to marry. This is paid in cattle. (Francis actually called this a dowry, but that’s technically not correct.)
When Francis was married, he paid nine cows plus $700 for his wife. Our bus driver Ernest paid seven cows for his wife.
If a young man can’t pay the bride price, he pays in installments. If the man is unable to pay the full bride price by the time his own daughters get married, he has to use half of their bride wealth to repay the outstanding debt. And if the debt doesn’t get repaid in his lifetime, the responsibility falls to the man’s oldest son. In this way, it’s possible for complex chains of bride debt to exist.
Francis feels lucky — he has three daughters, which means he will eventually be a wealthy man. (In theory.) One day, he’ll have a lot of cattle.
“What do you do with the cattle?” one member of our group asked. “Are they for meat? Do you use them for milk?”
“In our African culture,” Francis said, “your cows are your bank. You can’t eat your bank. You have to save them.”
“What about people who live in the city?” another member of our group asked. “Where do they keep their cattle?”
Brian, the tour manager, explained that in places where it’s impossible to keep actual cattle (such as Johannesburg), the bride price has become abstracted. Some pay it in gold coins called Kruggerands. Others buy “bonds” (Brian’s word, not mine) that represent the cows. Brian says he’s been in homes where the certificates representing the cows are framed and displayed on the wall, like a stock certificate.
An informal settlement (or “shantytown”) in Soweto, Johannesburg.
On our final afternoon, we went on a three-hour tour of the local townships. To quote Wikipedia:
During the Apartheid era, blacks were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. Separate townships were established for each of the three designated non-white race groups (blacks, coloreds, and Indians)…
Townships sometimes have large informal settlements nearby. Despite their origins in apartheid South Africa, today the terms township, location, and informal settlements are not used pejoratively.
Townships are permanent communities. As part of a township, there might be one or more “informal settlements”. You may know of informal settlements by less flattering terms, such as squatter camps or shantytowns.
We spent most of our time in Langa Township, where a young woman nicknamed Sugar (who lives in Langa) described how people work and live. As in any community, there are different levels of wealth in Langa. Some folks have relatively nice homes, with yards and garages and fences; we were told these belong to people who have university degrees: teachers, nurses, doctors and lawyers. These homes would seem small in the U.S., but are positively luxurious compared to the shacks in the informal settlements just a few hundred meters down the road.
Sugar led us on a short walking tour of some of the government-built housing in Langa. We were able to see two homes. I didn’t see much of the second because I stopped to talk with a girl in the first house (I couldn’t understand her African name, I’m afraid). I started by asking her about her life, but she was actually more curious about me. Where did I come from? Did I like Africa? And so on.
I wanted to know more about this girl; she wanted to know more about me.
I learned so much from this three-hour tour that I can’t possibly share it all here. Besides, you’re probably bored after reading this far. Instead, I’ve compiled this 9-minute video that features Sugar and Sophia (our guides) talking about the daily lives of township residents, especially from a financial perspective. I’ve done my best to annotate things to head off confusion.
This video is the cornerstone of this entire post.
I wish more of our trip could have been focused on meeting the people. While others appreciated the birds and the animals and the spectacular scenery, I got so much out of our brief interactions with actual South Africans and Zimbabweans.
Note: I found two great write-ups of Langa Township tours. One wonders if these tours treat the poor like zoo animals, but notes township residents don’t seem to mind. (This is what our guides told us, too — the residents like us to see how they live.) The other is from an up-close-and-personal walking tour, the kind I wish I’d taken.
Guilt is Not Productive
Because this trip was arranged through a tour company, there were a couple of obligatory shopping stops: one at a jewelry company and one at an ostrich farm. Kris and I bought nothing at either place (except pellets to feed the ostriches). Neither of us is interested in jewelry or ostrich leather goods.
Ostriches are dangerous — unless you ply them with food pellets.
Others might have liked to buy something, but didn’t feel good doing so. “I’d feel guilty spending $320 on an ostrich-skin purse,” one woman said at dinner one night. “Especially after the poverty we witnessed in Zimbabwe. I’d rather give $300 to a family in Zimbabwe and then buy a $20 purse at Goodwill.”
As I’ve mentioned already, at times I felt guilty too. It’s hard not to feel guilty when you’re staying at a hotel where the average room runs $618 a night — and meanwhile, half a mile from this posh palace, men and women are scratching to make ends meet.
What is my moral obligation to these people? Do I have one? Should I feel guilty for spending money on tourism? Or, as our guides suggested, should I be comforted by the fact that I’m participating in a transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor? What productive ways can I help aside from just throwing money at the problem?
I don’t have answers to these questions.
Tip: How rich are you compared to the rest of the world? Check out the Global Rich List. You’re probably richer than you think.
Ultimately, however, I’ve realized that guilt is not productive. Guilt doesn’t accomplish anything. I can’t change who I am or the circumstances I’ve been born into. I’ve made the most of what I have: I’ve been lucky, and I’ve worked hard to build upon that luck. I can’t change this, and I can’t regret it.
Instead, I feel like it’s my responsibility to do something with this hand that I’ve been dealt. Do what? I don’t know — and I’m not sure I need to know right now. As I travel, I’m becoming more aware of the world around me, and I feel like maybe there’s something I can contribute to make it a better place. I’m not sure what that something is, but I’m willing to be patient until I discover it.
Reminder: As usual, I’ll be posting my travel diary at my personal site. The first couple of installments are already up.