Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fitness and What We Do

At my gym in Vladikavkaz

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently and die gallantly.  Specialization is for insects.  Robert Heinlein*

I wasn’t much of an athlete in school.  My older brother was a gifted track athlete and still holds the triple jump record at our high school in North Dakota.  My younger brother was Mr. Everything at his high school in Oklahoma.  Basketball, football, track, Shawn was a standout in everything he did and he was worker; here was a kid who would not date during football season and put himself through hellish self-concocted training regimes during his summers. 

As for me, I played a little football in high school, but was not particularly good at it or even all that interested in it.  It just seemed like the thing to do; I would much rather have spent those painful (and embarrassing) high school football practice sessions reading comic books and eating Skittles.  I did start lifting weights with my friend Dan in high school though.  We had no idea what we were doing.  But, I loved the weight room immediately: the clang of metal, the solemn ritual of chalking your hands before your lift, the discipline of it all.  Dan and I lifted weights in a traditional bodybuilder fashion minus the legs.  We never would have come out and said it, but we were mostly concerned about aesthetics.  “Getting big arms” was motivation enough for me when I was sixteen and I honestly didn’t care if I could do a single pull-up or push-up as long as I looked good. 

I didn’t become concerned about athletic performance until I joined the Marine Corps, where I learned the difference between bravado and toughness, between poise and posturing.  When I got to my first platoon at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina I started lifting weights with my friend Ross.  Ray Ross was (and is) a bear of a man.  We did a traditional bodybuilder-training split (again, minus the legs) and, yes, aesthetics remained near the forefront of our minds.  Still, every workout was like throwing down in a bar fight; we would stack weights beyond what was reasonable or even realistic, challenge each other with words that were only permissible between best friends and I loved every minute of it.  But, while grueling, our workout sessions seemed oddly out of whack with the functional physical conditioning one needed to be a good Marine – being able to curl 70lb dumb bells was not really going to help you in a fistfight or in a foot race or to hoist a wounded comrade onto your shoulders and hump a couple kilometers.

I left the Marine Corps and started graduate school at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in 2002 with aspirations of pursing a career in something foreign affairs related.  Consequently, I’ve often daydreamed about OU’s (underrated) International and Area Studies program getting half as much recognition as the school’s football program.  My brother was a junior in this storied football program, when I moved in with him in Norman, Oklahoma that fall.  During the off-seasons we worked out together.  The format did not follow a traditional body builder split and legs were not just a part of our routine, they starred in it.  Aesthetics still lurked near the top of my list of motivations, but mostly I loved hanging out with my brother and, in some small way, feeling like I was helping him train.  Shawn is the ideal workout partner, at once all business and funny.  He is also one of the all around toughest men I know and looks more comfortable under a squat bar than anyone I know. 

Shawn and I graduated at the same time – I moved to Kiev for a fellowship and then to D.C. for work and Shawn went on to become a Strength and Conditioning coach, first at OU, then at Stanford and finally at the University of Arizona, where he’s working now. 

By the time I moved to New York to join the United Nations I was a married Dad. I still worked out, out of habit, but it was uninspired.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was still in the gym, “getting big arms” just was not in any way important to me anymore.  I was having a blast with my job, traveling all over the world and doing something I thought was important and useful.  But, while Rumbek, South Sudan and N’djamena, Chad are both fascinating places, neither is known for the sophistication of its workout facilities.  I stayed in decent shape, but it was a struggle.  And it wasn’t fun.    

To celebrate her 30th birthday my friend Angie invited a group of her friends to run a half-marathon with her.  Just for fun.  That’s the type of person Angie is.  Her husband (my Marine Corps buddy Ray) and I decided to get piss-drunk the night before the run.  We laughed and reminisced about times we got hammered the night before taxing Marine Corps P.T. sessions at Camp Lejeune.  Telling stories about throwing up on your running shoes is great fun, but setting yourself up to relive those inglorious moments is something else entirely.   What can I say?  Peer pressure can be a bitch. 

The race organizers had a shuttle bus pick up participants from their hotels in the morning and take them to the race start point.  My most vivid memory of that day was sitting in the back of the shuttle bus, miserably hung over, dreading the run and silently cursing the excited chatter of the other participants. 

“These people are all happy and hydrated.”  I sulked. 

Ang just shook her head.  We were a pair of jackasses unworthy of excoriation, but fully deserving the pain of the upcoming run.  Ray, who was undoubtedly hurting as badly as I was, didn’t suggest skipping the half-marathon and neither did I.  What can I say?  Peer pressure can be a bitch.   

After the LONGEST 13 MILES OF MY ENTIRE LIFE we went for pizza and I mentioned to Angie my general humdrumness in the gym for the last couple of years.  Now, Ang is a professional trainer (who, by the way, keeps a great blog and people pay her good money for her guidance on diet and fitness.  So, in retrospect, it actually wasn’t that cool of me to hit her up for free advice over pizza and beer. Sorry, Ang – if it makes you feel any better, I’ve heard that people frequently do this to doctors as well. In any case, in less than a week Angie sent me a structured training program that contained elements of gymnastics, Parkour, sprinting and Olympic lifting.  Suddenly, my workouts were challenging again.  Demonstrating a stunning ability to read my mind, Ang wrote next to some of the workouts the following instructions, “this is not a typo – do  XX sets with XX kgs.”  She also took the liberty of naming some of the workouts.  One of my personal favorites was one she dubbed “Breaking Dewaine,” (it did).  For the first time in years I was really looking forward to my morning workouts.     

Around this same time my friend Kirk drank the Crossfit Kool-Aid.  I once read a book review that said, “The type of book that you press on complete strangers.  Deserves to sell more copies than the Bible.”  This was the type of simple and utter praise Kirk had for Crossfit.  How can you ignore a guy who’s starting his sentences with phrases like, “in terms of sheer awesomeness Crossfit is _______”?  Okay, Kirk, you’ve got my attention, pass the Kool-Aid.   

The principles of Crossfit were so simple that I found them astounding.  How did I spend fifteen-some-odd years messing around in the gym without ever clearly articulating why I was there?  What I was after was functional fitness: combine your average sprinter, average weightlifter (and here I’m talking about Olympic lifts), average endurance athlete and average gymnast and you get an exceptional all around athlete.  Someone with mastery of these general physical skills:
1.    Respiratory Endurance
2.    Stamina
3.    Strength
4.    Flexibility
5.    Power
6.    Speed
7.    Coordination
8.    Agility
9.    Balance
10.    Accuracy

A host of Crossfit trainers (most notably pioneer Greg Glassman) have pointed out that if you ask most people who they think is the fittest person in the world they will almost always name a tri-athlete, cyclist or marathoner.  Now don’t get me wrong, these are all admirable pursuits, but they call for “hyper-specialization.”  If we agree that achieving competence in the ten general physical skills above is our goal, then the logical next question is what does the tria-athlete, cyclist and marathoner sacrifice to achieve such an exceptional level of respiratory endurance?  Certainly strength and power, but probably also coordination, agility, balance and accuracy as well.

If you work out there is always this kind of unspoken assumption of narcissism.  However, I can honestly say that today I do not worry about aesthetics in the least.  All I think about is performance: how fast can I run this 5k?  Can I finish this round of pull ups?  Can I jump that high? Crossfit makes you compete against the clock, the weights, your buddies and yourself.  It compels you to learn new physical skills and please trust me when I tell you that your first proper handstand pushup is a sweet, sweet moment.  I focused on performance and forgot about aesthetics.  And guess what?  Suddenly working out was fun again.

Some of my friends commented on the cultishness and haughtiness of the Crossfit community.  They’re right.  Last year a couple of security officers from the American Embassy came down to the Caucasus with a USAID team.  On the way to some project site in southern Chechnya I discovered that one of the security officers was a Level I Crossfit coach.  From then on the conversation was all “Fran” times and snatch pointers.  No one else in the car had any idea what the hell we were talking about. 

“You want to do what to Fran – in her what?” 

(In case you don’t know what Fran is, here’s a clip of a guy killing it.  Can't beat the title of this, by the way: “Navy Diver does Fran (Crossfit Workout not porn)”). 

In many ways my gym in Vladikavkaz has been an ideal place to Crossfit.  The number of guys whose workouts seem to focus chiefly on concentration dumbbell curls, is greatly surpassed by the number of former athletes – gymnasts, boxers and a lot of wrestlers.  For athletes Crossfit workouts make sense.  I talk to these guys and the conversation is about rest time, diet, how to do a one-legged squat (still haven’t got that bad boy mastered yet).  Isn’t it cool that physical training makes a Black American and North Osseitan have more in common with each other than they do with their respective couch-potato countrymen?  I just had to stop typing for a minute to crush a manly tear into my cheek with the back of my fist and hum, “we are the world.”  Okay, I made that last part up, but you get the idea: athleticism crosses many of the boundaries that we humans set between ourselves.  That is a good thing.       

When my colleagues in the UN ask me how does fitness relate to our role as field security personnel, I ask, “How does it not?  When the roadside IED detonates next to our convoy in Ingusheita (or Somalia or Afghanistan) I know I can toss the heaviest man on my shoulders and run 100 meters.  I know I can do this.  Do you?  After I’ve sprinted to safety and my lungs are burning, I know that a bit of suffering after physical exertion is normal.  Are you mind and body trained to know that?”   

MMA trainer Greg Jackson put it best:

“Mental toughness is learned.  It’s not a skill that everyone has, or is born with.  There are people born tougher than others mentally, or figure things out earlier in life.  But if you have motivation you can acquire mental toughness, it’s just about what your body gets used to putting up with.” 

It gets better. 

“You do it to acquire mental stamina as well as physical toughness.  You do brutal workouts to get used to suffering so that suffering doesn’t become a huge defining deal.”** 

Is there any human endeavor in which one would not benefit from better mental stamina?  The UN’s Department of Safety and Security is full of consummate, hard nosed professionals doing thankless, yet vital work in some of the most God forsaken places on the planet; it is embarrassing that the Department does not, at the very least, require field security personnel to take a physical fitness test as an entry requirement.  Pretending that physical toughness doesn’t count lessens the esteem with which our profession is viewed within the UN as a whole.  Ours is the only department that serves the Agencies, Funds and Programs of the UN itself – how the managers in those Agencies, Funds and Programs view our department matters.  

But, I’m leaving something out.  Yes, the tangible benefits of working out are abundant, but there is also something cathartic and cleansing about physical exertion.  My friend Zu once told me,  “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”  I think I rolled my eyes at the time, but when I think about it I do get spiritual in the gym.  Everything comes into better focus after a hard workout.  Your senses are amplified and you feel oddly thankful for minuscule things: the air you’re drawing into your lungs, the floor you’re lying on.  In the aftermath of the pain details are sharper, music is crisper and every single one of your problems matter less.  I’ll take that over big arms any day of the week.   

*If you’ve ever seen the movie “Starship Troopers” then you’re probably wondering why I would quote Heinlein.   When that ridiculous movie was released Mr. Heinlein was probably doing pissed off back-flips in his grave.  “Starship Troopers” is an interesting, very readable, sci-fi page-turner:

“War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose.  The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force.  The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him… but to make him do what you want him to do.  Not killing… but controlled and purposeful violence.”

There’s a reason Starship Troopers is on the U.S. Marine Corps Commandant’s reading list for Privates and Lance Corporals. 

**From Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Moor of the Caucasus

View of the Terek River from my office in Vladikavkaz

The security official (who is no longer in this position) hands my boss some pictures and comments, “those are all the ones we got.”  My boss examines the pictures and expressionlessly passes them to me.  They’re shots of militants killed during a recent, large-scale raid in Ingushetia.  Under each picture is a name and date of birth.  Several have stunningly gruesome gunshot wounds that obscure their features.  One is a woman, supposedly the common law wife of the warlord Doku Umarov.  The youngest is a boy who, according to the date below his picture, had just turned twenty a few weeks ago.  I hastily hand the pictures back to the official.  He holds my gaze for a moment and I fear that my distaste may have registered visibly on my face. I feel compelled to say something.  

“Good job.” 

It’s a remarkably silly comment, but apparently it’s sufficient – the conversation returns to the overall situation in Ingushetia.  We did not ask to see these pictures; this guy wanted to show them to us.  Why?  To see which side the tree hugging UN people are on?  Something in my gut identifies with the insurgents.  Describing the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Dick Gregory once said, “I committed to nonviolence, but I’m sort of embarrassed by it.”  I would be lying to myself if I pretended not to understand the romantic allure of “going to the forest” (the local euphemism used to describe joining the militants).  But, when I look at the faces of the Ministry of the Interior (MVD) troops assigned to protect our UN convoys, I see reflections of the faces of Marines I served with a decade ago – young, sometimes stupid, but also sometimes idealistic and, very often, brave.  And these young men are the targets.     

Presently, I am one of the two remaining UN expatriate staff assigned to the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz.  I have been here for two years.  Vladikavkaz is a pretty sleepy town, isolated enough that the residents are sincerely fascinated to speak to foreigners. Imagine a Russian showing up in Bottineau, North Dakota with textbook English and you get an idea of what I mean. “Vladikavkaz” translates to something like “power over the Caucasus,” the last Russian friendly outpost before venturing into (as one MVD troop told me once) “Hajji country.”  

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russians started referring to the newly independent states on its periphery as the “near abroad.”  Almost like going abroad, but not really.  Similarly, many Russians refer to the North Caucasus as the “inner abroad.”  Almost like being in Russia, but not really.  To be more specific, the predominately Orthodox Christian Republics of North Ossetia and Stavropol feel like part of the Russian Federation, the Muslim majority republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan very distinctly do not.  When I’m in Kiev or Moscow on my bimonthly “rest & recuperation (R&R)” breaks many Russians and Ukrainians ask questions about the North Caucasus as if it were a wild and foreign land.  First, there’s the ubiquitous “Oh!” followed by,

“What are the people like there?”

At this point I always describe my landlady, Auntie Nina (which is actually what she asked me to call her (it sounds a lot less retarded in Russian, well maybe not a lot less, but less).  I have tea with Auntie Nina about once a month.  It is very difficult to say no to an 80 year-old lady, especially when she makes it so clear that the 15 minutes I spend at her house politely refusing pies (3 pies – never more, never less, a very rigid tradition in North Ossetia) is clearly the highpoint of her day.  As far as I can tell, Auntie Nina spends the remainder of her time shuffling around the apartment block in her bathrobe and slippers and offering advice to the other residents in (loud) Ossetian.  Auntie Nina’s husband Boris is almost deaf.  It’s oddly refreshing to have to repeat myself to a Russian speaker because of problems associated with volume and not pronunciation or word-choice.   I am a huge hit with the kids in my apartment block.  I come home, bummed out after a long, muddy day looking at UNHCR shelter projects in Chechnya and immediately have my mood lifted by dishing out high-fives to a pack of grinning eight year-olds.

Aside from the separation from my family the thing that bugs me the most about working in this region is the absolute and utter lack of concern about it from, well, just about everybody.  I know that whenever I start talking about anything North Caucasus related I have about two minutes before people’s eyes start to wander.  That is, unless I’m talking about Chechnya, the one republic everyone is at least superficially familiar with because of the two recent and hard fought full-scale wars. 

A recap of Chechnya’s recent unhappy history starts in 1994 when the republic declared independence from the Russian Federation.  A prolonged period of heavy fighting ensued until a cease-fire was negotiated in August 1996.  The most recent period of full scale war in the republic commenced in December 1999, when federal forces re-entered Chechnya in response to a series of bombings of Moscow apartment buildings that were attributed to Chechen terrorists.  It is commonly believed (and not just by Chechens) that the Russian Federal Security Service actually carried out these bombings.  Either way, the Russian public rallied behind its freshly minted President, Mr. Vladmir Vladimirovich Putin, and the second Chechen war cemented the former KGB agent’s rise to power.  While major military operations were discontinued in February 2000, low scale guerilla-warfare continued throughout the Chechen Republic.  In April 2009 the Russian government formally ended the decade long “Counter-Terrorist Operation (CTO)” regime in Chechnya.             

Okay, that’s Chechnya, but no one in the West seems to know or care about Ingushetia or Dagestan or Kabardino-Balkaria.  Even my friends who regard themselves as foreign affairs savvy unembarrassedly tout their ignorance of this confusing hodgepodge of mostly Muslim clansmen fighting for God knows what in one of the most little understood places on the planet.  The simple fact of the matter is that even before Stalin’s brutal relocation of the Chechen and Ingush to Central Asia in 1944, the Muslim portions of the North Caucasus were never fully integrated into the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire.  The Russian language, at first an imposition by imperial conquerors is now the only common tongue tying the tiny, yet remarkably linguistically diverse area together.  Packed between the Caspian and Black Seas the North Caucasus is host to dozens of distinct languages.  Yeah, dozens; Dagestan alone has more some ten linguistically distinct ethnic groups.  I suppose the Caucasus Mountains discouraged different ethnicities from talking to each other too much.  That’s not to say that everyone here speaks Russian well.  There’s a great story about Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov bringing Putin to his assassinated father’s resting place during a state visit to the republic. 

“My father sees you in your tomb.” Ramzan is said to have told the Russian President, which, of course, sounds like a creepy, poorly worded death threat.  

“Curse that tongue of yours.” Putin supposedly replied.  It’s a gentle jibe in Russian and if the story is true indicates that Putin understood that young Ramzan meant to say, “My father sees us from his tomb.”  My friend Ruslan laughingly told me that Putin arranged for a Russian tutor for Ramzan shortly thereafter.      

Once, in the tiny war pockmarked hamlet of Bamut I asked a group of Chechen MVD troops what they thought of Ramzan (I figured it was only fair, as I had just been required to give a detailed description of my thoughts on Barack Obama). 

“On Takoy Krasovchik!”  One kid enthused, “He’s the man!  Did you hear how he led that special operation in Grozny last week?”  That’s right, folks, when the shit goes down in Chechnya the President of the Republic dusts off his AK and takes matters into his own hands.  And many young men in the republic love and respect him for it. 

The Basque, the Scots, the Pashtun, the Kurds: what is it about mountain ranges that hardens a people and imparts a fierce sense of independence?  Whatever it is, it seems it also imparts a remarkable capacity for violence.  And not just the “bad” kind either.  Last year I sheepishly watched the U.S. National wrestling team get its ass whipped by the North Ossetian team.  Not the Russian Federation team, not even a North Caucasus team (if such a team existed) – the North Ossetian team.  More people live in Rhode Island than live in North Ossetia.  As the only American in the crowd I really had to screw up my courage to shout, “USA!” at the beginning of each match.  The Polish colleague I dragged to the tournament with me was convinced that my chanting was going to get us lynched, but the North Ossetian crowd took my feeble cheers with good humor.  I guess that’s easy to do that when you’re trouncing the competition.

At my gym in Vladikavkaz the following conversation played out, in various shapes and forms, on at least four separate occasions.

“Where are you from?”  

“I’m American, from the USA.” 

“Yeah, but where are you from,” and here they would run their hands in front their faces as if to say, because you’re not white, “by nationality?”
“Well, most of my ancestors were from Africa,” I would begin tentatively.

“So, you’re African-American?” They would ask eagerly. 

For a host of reasons that I wont’ get into here, I’m not crazy about the term, “African-American.”  But, David Sedaris put it best when he said that, when conversing in a language that is not your mother tongue there’s a point when moving on becomes more important than being fully understood. 

“Well, yeah.” I would reply cautiously.

“See he’s African-American, like _________.”  Fill in the blank with famous black American boxer, wrestler or UFC contender of your choice. 

“Da, Roy Jones Jr., on takoy krasovchick!” 

Men in the Caucasus value strength.  They respect it across cultural and ethnic boundaries and that’s a good thing.  It’s a region that continues to produces tough men in these soft times of ours.   Of course, the North Caucasus is most famous for violence-violence – that is to say the “bad” kind.  One of the things my little UN security section does here is track the number of “actual” security events reported in the media.  For our purposes “actual” security events are: armed clashes, attacks/ambushes, shooting incidents, land mine incidents, violent crimes involving weapons and terrorist acts/improvised explosive device (IED) attacks.  In 2010 Chechnya saw 93 such events and Ingushetia saw 196.  These numbers indicate a general improvement in the security situation in both republics.  Everything’s relative though.  Chechnya is one of the few places on the planet that is described as “relatively stable” in the same year it sees a complex double suicide attack on its parliament building, a large scale assault on President Kadyrov’s home village and several dozen IED attacks. 

But, in comparison to 2009, the year the Russian authorities ended the decade long “counter-terrorist operation” (CTO) in Chechnya, 2010 was relatively quiet.  The end of the CTO in Chechnya, spurred both law enforcement and militants to increase their activities; the former – to prove the CTO was no longer necessary, the latter - to undermine the decision and prove their existence and capability.  The surge in militant activities across the entire region in the post CTO period forces (or allows, depending on how you look at it) authorities to continue to temporarily reintroduce CTO regimes in various part of the North Caucasus.  Thus far in 2011 CTO regimes have been temporarily introduced in parts of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan.  A CTO is best understood as the temporary imposition of martial law on an area.  In these circumstances, law enforcement personnel have the right to ignore the rule of law (to the extent that it was respected in the first place) and conduct themselves as foreign troops in occupied territory. 

Nowadays all the talk is about a “Pan-Caucasus Emirate” and militant Islam and the specter of violence has shifted somewhat from Chechnya and Ingushetia to Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria.  The strangest thing about this is that Makhachkala and Nalchik (the capitals of Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria respectively) feel much less religiously conservative than Nazran and Grozny (the capitals of Ingushetia and Chechnya).  

My friend Maga told me a story of a guy in Kabardino-Balkaria who was at a picnic with his friends enjoying a few glasses of vodka.  One of the men, a guy with a reputation as a very devout Muslim, stood to pray, while one of his colleagues started pouring another round.  In Islam when one prepares to pray you bring your hands to your head in what has always struck me as a very solemn moment.  It was at this solemn moment that the guy pouring caught the eye of our devout Muslim, wordlessly inquiring whether he wanted another shot.  With his hands raised to his head he waved and nodded in the affirmative before kneeling with his head towards Mecca.  I’m no Political Scientist, but for me the alcohol test is a good gauge of religiosity in a Muslim majority Russian Republic and I’ve had beers in Makhachkala and Nalchik, but never in Nazran or Grozny. 

I’ve lived abroad before, but never felt as detached from the United States as I did here.  It isn’t a pleasant feeling and no amount of Zakaria, Maddow or Stewart downloads was able to really fix it.  What will I miss most about this job?  I’ll miss not shaving for the two months between my R&R cycle.  There is no lack of razors or shaving cream in Vladikavkaz; it’s just cool to arrive to Kiev from the “field” looking rough.  I will miss the painted rust feel of Grozny.  I will miss the miniature jam-packed urban mess that is Nazran.  I will miss the overly formal hand-shaking that takes place between men here in the North Caucasus.  It kind of annoyed me that I was expected to shake hands with every dude in my gym (call me a pansy, but sometimes tradition should take a backseat to hygiene), but I like how Caucasian men make a point of standing and looking you directly in the eye when shaking hands.  The same way my father taught me to shake hands.  Mostly though, I will miss coming home.  If you’ve ever returned from a long trip to a place where your safety is (to some extent at least) uncertain, then you know what I’m talking about.  My daughter squeals, “Pappa!” and I hug her on my knees.  I lean over to hug my wife’s midsection before rising, and kissing properly.  You feel like a man and that’s a good feeling.  Like a great big dollop of honey.  Returning to a normal family situation is going to be like spreading that honey around on a piece of toast and nibbling at it.  I’m okay with that; there’s enough to go around.