A bit of a stretch

After my return from Edinburgh, it became clear to me that the one thing holding me back (OK, one of the things holding me back (OK, one of the many things holding me back)) from my dream of a life under the big top was a certain deficiency in the flexibility department.  In response, I have been trying to make good some of this deficit – at least in part by augmenting the role that stretching plays in my exercise regimen.  In some ways this was not too difficult, as I have always been decidedly reluctant to stretch – somehow expecting flexibility would arrive unbidden – upping the volume didn’t require very much (starting, as I was, from such a low base).    In others, years of neglect of this (possibly boring) area of endeavour has made my sudden Damascene (of the north) conversion quite the challenge.

Perhaps fortunately, this coincided with Alice Roberts’ excellent book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being.  This is a wonderful read and full of fascinating nuggets of information.  As the (not particularly) proud possessor of a human body, I have always found rather puzzling the idea – beloved by some who struggle with the concept of evolution – that it should be the work of an ‘intelligent designer’.  Worse than that, it is – apparently – his (or her – though rarely her, in this case) meisterwerk.  As a user, I would contend that the human body is clearly a rushed-job, bodged together as a supposed upgrade to an existing platform and clearly in need of a lot longer in beta test (and when are the patches coming?).  To the extent any design was involved, ‘intelligent’ is pretty low on the list of adjectives I would select to limit the noun.  Alice further hardened me in this view, particularly when it comes to the wiring loom.  If this was designed, then it is the work of a madman: it wouldn’t even pass muster for a third-rate electrician in a hurry, let alone a being with an impressive range of omni-skills on his CV and all of eternity to work on it.  It makes far more sense if you know about Mother Nature’s slow re-purposing of the now redundant gills left over from an earlier model – along with a bunch of other compromises arising from having to make the best of some now very old, and poorly documented, code.  This has made me suspect that AI will not come from the many very bright folk working hard to achieve it, but will instead appear by accident in a much patched, expanded and re-purposed IT system lying deep in a bank or airline (and probably written in COBOL – so perhaps the makers of The Terminator were more prescient than they knew).

Anyway, I seem to be stretching the already taut elastic of your forbearance rather further than even I might hope to get away with, so back to pliancy (mine).  It would seem that many features of our tree living cousins which had been assumed lost, are still available to humans: in particular, I recall that the idea that our feet are not capable of bending very far towards our shins is complete nonsense: we are in fact more capable in this regard than most of our ape-cousins (it’s just that very few of us put in the necessary commitment to tree-climbing from an early age).  Somehow, this gave me hope that, despite my antiquity, there was still hope that I could become much more bendy than has been the case for many years (possibly all years, though my actual childhood bendiness has now passed beyond recall).  So for a good month now, I have been surprisingly diligent in trying to become more lithe – and this is starting to bear fruit.

It would seem that unlike most of the great apes (and me, as of six weeks ago) my lumbar spine is not fused but does in fact retain some degree of mobility.  My shoulders, hips and even wrists are also demonstrating rather more flex than I have grown accustomed to.  It would seem that I am slowly undoing 40+ years of neglect and this became apparent in the shower a couple of days back.  I was innocently spreading the cleansing citrus foam of my shower gel to my body when I suddenly discovered that my hands were accessing regions of my back where they had not been for lo these many years.  Filth that had lain undisturbed for decades (or at least untouched, except by ad-hoc back-scratching tool) has finally been exposed to the direct action of cleansing soap and probing digits.  Who says circus skills have no place in the real world?  So much scratching to catch up on!

So, inspired by my progress date, I now find myself in temporary possession of The Yoga Bible: on the hunt for routes to still further exploit the topological potential of my body.  I must admit that I have always avoided yoga – it always seemed too middle-class and cod-spiritual: the stuff of sitcom and celebrity, rather than real-life – and so had never expected this to happen (many younger versions of me will be very disappointed).  The only time I have previously attempted it (many years ago), I was accompanying the wife of a friend, as he refused to go, and my primary response (and hers) was uncontrollable giggles whenever we caught sight of each other (and so two promising yogic careers were over as soon as they began).  However, now I can see a use for the thing and hope to be able to better control my need to laugh.  According to the Bible, apparently, anyone who can breathe can do yoga – and certainly, I strongly suspect those unable to breathe would struggle with yoga and, in fairly short order, with anything much else which smacks of the living – so I should be in with a chance.  It would also seem that I have actually been doing yoga for quite a while without realising it – what other ancient skills might I have accidentally acquired and remain unaware of?  Might I be an absolute whizz at kung fu?

For now, I shall stick with acrobatics and yoga and eagerly anticipate a future in which all my dogs are downward facing and my positioning regularly lotus (or would that be Excel these days?).

Bread and circuses

Before we proceed with the main agenda of today’s post, I felt it was time to inject a little, much-needed structure into the madcap anarchy that usually typifies GofaDM.  So, let’s start with Matters Arising from the last post.

Having boasted of my skill and perspicacity in organising a rather successful trip to the Athens of the North, I feel I should perhaps give a little credit to mother nature (you really don’t want to end up on the wrong side of Gaia).  The weather in Edinburgh was unusually clement – so much so that I began to regret my failure to pack sunscreen (or a parasol).  According to the natives, this was not typical of summer 2015 as a whole and, in my brief visit, I estimate that I experienced more than 40% of the actual summer.  The sun is not always a friend to the Fringe-goer as the venues have a tendency to become rather toasty (and, indeed, sweaty) if the mercury rises by even a modest degree.  Here again, years of practice came to my aid and I chose to spend my whole Festival in shorts, thus gifting the general public with 360° views of my all-too-rarely exposed calves and shins (despite the potential provocation, swooning was, fortunately, kept to a minimum).  This additional exposed flesh seemed to work wonders for my body’s temperature regulation – well, either that or the Fringe have become better at venue cooling.  And now, that little piece of business out of the way, we can return to the main agenda.

Despite the title, I should prepare any lovers of the baker’s art for disappointment now.  Loaf-lovers will find little succour for their obsession here as I shall be concentrating on the expanse of title lying to the right of its conjunction.  At this year’s Fringe, I took in twenty-five shows over my six-and-a-half day visit – but this included four that might be considered to fall within the genre of circus.  This might not seem that many to you, but it exceeds in number all the circus-based entertainment I had attended in my adult life prior to that point.

When I say circus, you can keep your jugglers, fire-eaters, clowns and any animals whose participation remains morally viable: I’m really just interested in the gymnastic and/or acrobatic elements of the modern circus, basically, I’m looking for inspiration or tips.  The four shows were all very different, with a wide range of feats performed and a variety of approaches taken to link the physical feats together (and give the performers a brief opportunity to rest).  I could thoroughly recommend them all.

Something – a curious name for a show (does one go to the box office and ask for an hour of something?) – was the most approachable of the four shows, i.e. a few of the feats I can almost do and rather more I can imagine one day attempting.  It used the floor, tables and a ring or chain suspended from above.  The more physical elements were linked by slapstick and comedy and there were lots of costume changes – it definitely provided the most laughs of the four shows.

La Meute – used a lot of props, and in particular a lethal looking all-metal swing (constructed of something akin to scaffold poles).  This involved the cast being flung scarily into the air before summersaulting back down to a landing pad.  It also included some comedy (albeit of a slightly curious, French nature) and the male cast performed the whole show wearing only towels (which miraculously did not fall off – I can’t even keep a towel on whilst shaving).  I will not be attempting any of this in the near – or even distant – future: far too much need for split-second timing and risk of being smacked with extreme force somewhere painful (or worse) by a scaffold pole.  Irritatingly, most of the cast demonstrated that they could also sing or play a range of musical instruments as well as perform such extraordinary acts of physical derring-do.  I had thought that I was unique in trying to learn to sing and be a gymnast at the same time.

You – another oddly named show – had a single performer, ex of the Cirque du Soleil (which I know only via an episode of The Simpsons).  He used more limited equipment – a Swiss ball, some books and a frame with some long straps hanging down.  He maintained quite an odd monologue through most of the show – which given that I can barely speak having performed much more basic activities was rather impressive (even if the content revealed some substantial gaps in his understanding of nuclear physics and genetics).  He did do a few things which I might aim towards (and many far more impressive ones which may have to await my reincarnation into a more flexible form) – but he will not be invited to use my library given his treatment of his own books.  The show was good, but rather strange with a finale involving a lot of pudding rice and the audience being invited to throw it around on stage.

Limbo – was the last, and most expensive, of the shows I saw.  It also had the largest cast and set and included sword swallowing and fire-eating – which I will admit is quite impressive (and very hot) when you are seeing it from the second row.  It covered almost all the physical feats I have seen in previous circus acts, but generally added at least one little extra twist.  There was an extraordinary section where five of the cast were atop flexible poles swinging together and out into the audience which I have never seen before (and won’t be trying at home).  However, by far the most impressive element of the show was the most flexible man I have ever seen in my life.  I can only assume he must live a dairy-free life (an existence I am not willing to copy) and has no bones at all.  Not only flexible but incredibly strong in what seem impossible and unstable positions.  His acrobatics manoeuvres were the most impressive to me as they started without momentum – and I don’t feel the audience gave him the credit he deserved (showier colleagues gained the greater plaudits).

I rather fear that I am becoming obsessed by the circus: so many new feats to try (one day) or at least at which to take (very distant) aim.  If nothing else, I will be rather more diligent at working on my flexibility and stretching in the weeks to come.  I also found that the circus shows made an excellent counterpoint to the wordier fare which made up my other Fringe-going (and this very blog).  Should I be adding a more physical element to GofaDM, do you think?

Bendy fuss

I must apologise for the fact that this post will once again cover my goal of geriatric gymnasticism, but it is a major feature of my life and is rather on my mind at present (for reasons that will later be revealed).  In a desperate attempt to keep you reading, I am willing to enter into a solemn undertaking that no pictures of the author will be inflicted on readers of this post.  Following on from recent discussion on GofaDM, I recalled that the word “gymnastic” comes to us from the Greeks and refers to nudity.  I would like to assure readers that while gymnastics is less problematic than cycling for the naked chap, I still like to ensure that all loose items are properly secured before attempting anything serious.

Unexpectedly, one of those charged with helping me achieve my foolish, middle-aged ambition (well, one of them) recently said that my progress was inspiring to other clients.  I think (hope!) that she was joking: I do not feel ready to act as an inspiration to anyone – a terrible warning, yes; an inspiration, no.

The neophyte gymnast has to balance (well, duh) the need to be rigid with the need to be flexible (even bendy).  Whilst both requirements are progressing, I think I incline more naturally toward rigidity.  Yesterday morning, I came far closer to the splits than I had ever anticipated, though still not very close, which requires significant adduction of the legs (sadly, mine).  [BTW, isn’t “-duction”a marvellously flexible word fragment?  It can take so many prefixes: ab-, ad-, con-, de-, in-, pro-, re-, sub- and form a new word.]  As a consequence my adductors (and gluteals) have been remonstrating quite forcefully with the management since yesterday lunch-time.  The result is that my transitioning from standing to sitting (and vice versa), and indeed my bending down generally, has rather more in common with a pensioner than is desirable in a man the right (or on a traditional number line, the left) side of fifty.

I suppose this is a further reminder that whilst in my head I am still a student (though not a very mature one) to the rest of the world (and my body, in particular) I am decidedly middle-aged.  Given that people of my age are advised to check with their doctor before taking up needlepoint, my adoption of la vie gymnastique could appear cavalier.  In recognition of this fact, I recently acquired a new toy to check how my cardiovascular system felt about me hanging around upside down like a massive, if rather pale and inept, bat.  Actually, my toy only monitors my heart rate – by shining lights at my wrist – and reports back its findings to my phone.  However, this has reassured me that my heart rate at least remains within sensible bounds despite my lunacy.  We (well, mostly I) must just hope that my blood pressure is behaving itself too, but my head does go a lot less red these days so I have some hope that my body is adapting (or at least has stopped responding to every cry of “wolf!” it receives).

Talking of new toys, I have recently acquire a set of parallettes to boost my planche-related progress and advance my retirement plan: viz, to run away to the circus.

Parallettes - and bookshelves

Still life with parallettes and bookshelves

These have proved worryingly addictive – I feel the urge to use them whenever I traverse the hall.  Still, wannabe professional gymnasts seem to be training 40 hours a week by the time they are eleven, so I have a lot of catching up to do!

Getting my leg over

I like to think that I am in pretty good physical shape (I’d make no similar claims about my mental state) for a man of my age, after all I am shortly to reach the milestone age of 30 (and I’m doing it in hex which is definitely tougher than decimal.  Pleasingly, given my name, I am currently 2F!).  However, my day job is essentially sedentary requiring many hours to be spent hunched over a laptop.  This does have a deleterious effect on my posture and especially on my flexibility in some modes of movement.  I’m not even single-jointed, let alone double-jointed.

This inflexibility manifests in a number of ways as I go about my soi-disant life.  I find it quite tricky to look behind me when driving especially when reversing (luckily something I do very rarely) and I also find it hard to get my leg over my bike when I come to mount my metal steed – I normally try and use a kerb (or similar raised area) to gain a few inches.

Having somewhat successfully tackled my fear of heights, I decided this lack should also be tackled and so since the end of last year have been taking regular personal training to try and make myself more lithe.  This has meant the folk at Brightside PT have been making me do things while out-of-balance and often on one leg in an attempt to make me a tad more mobile.  This has been a slightly disturbing process, at least partly because the left and right sides of my body seem to belong to entirely different people: my body does seem to have been built from two previously written-off bodies in a surgical cut-and-shut operation (which does explain quite a lot, if I’m honest).  However, it is having results and I can now mount my velocipede without any difficulty (even when the rear panniers are full!).  Still, there is some way to go before I can consider myself as lissom as I would like.

As a some-time project manager, I know the importance of setting objectives – which should be SMART (readers will have to check for themselves what the mnemonic means as I have forgotten: suggesting it is rather a poor tribute to Mnemosyne).  Most folk when training set objectives based on increasing the weight lifted, the number of ‘reps” performed or the speed or distance one can cover in a particular sporting activity (or poor simulation thereof).  But, I am not “most folk” and this approach struck me as boring and so I decided to set some more interesting targets to achieve.  So after a little work with a search engine, I came across a number of objectives which I thought it would be amusing to achieve (not to mention, providing me with some unexpected and impressive capabilities for a man in his very early thirties to be able to showcase).  I produced a fairly decent shortlist in the hope that at least one of them might be achievable.  All the exercises would be considered functional, good for flexibility and my core – so meet my general requirements – though even I had my doubts about the achievability of the “human flag”.  My teachers, however, seem confident that I should be able to achieve three of my targets in time for the summer (subject to its availability) which should, in turn, act as a good basis to move on to more difficult manoeuvers.

So, by Wimbledon you can look forward to me performing one armed press-ups, one-armed pull-ups and pistol squats at any and every opportunity.  Just try and stop me!

This will all be great preparation for my future career as a rather tall and elderly gymnast and, in conjunction with my climbing, opens the door to a life in parkour.  I will also be in a strong position should I misplace any single limb – despite my avoidance of quasi-military organisations as a child, I always feel that it as well to “be prepared!”.