The value of slowing down

Bear with me here. It's going to start off looking like an exercise post at the beginning. It takes a little while, but I wind up making what I think is a valid real-life point eventually.

I slowed down my workouts this week.

My typical workout looks something like this. Set my Nike+ iPod to 5K. Run as fast as I can manage over the distance. Finish in about 14 minutes. Feel like crap. Sit for a minute (well, three, really) and have some water and try to catch my breath. Set the chest press on 135, the lat pull-down on 140, the seated row at 125 and the shoulder press at 90. Do 3x5 quickly on each (that's three sets of five repetitions). Walk the track a couple of times. Climb up the stairs and sit long enough to let my heart rate down and to let the flow of testosterone normalize.

The next morning, I'm fine. Possibly a little stronger, but I don't hurt.

Reference, for those of you who don't know me personally. I'm somewhat fit (14 minute 5K on an indoor track is competitive, even). I have about 15 pounds of fat to lose (I'm 20& body fat at 160 pounds – 15 pounds of fat down would get me to about 14% body fat, which on a guy maybe let's you start to see the top two portions of the ab muscle). (Also, I work in a gym, so I've become a bit of a fitness geek, I know all about Dbol pills and that the rectus abdominus is a single muscle; a 6- or 8-pack is really just definition of one muscle.)

My workout today was excruciating. I ran something like 3.8 miles in 28 minutes. A 5K, which I do in half that time, is about 3.1 miles. I slowed my pace WAY down and went for time. I did the same four machines, but I did 3x8. Very slowly. Like 6 seconds out, 6 seconds back. My last set on the chest press I was having a hard time cranking out 50 pounds (you'll remember I do 135 normally). 70 on the lat pull-downs, 60 on the rows and 35 on the shoulder press.

I'm currently having a hard time lifting a glass of iced coffee.

This makes me a bit curious about the value of slowing down. Now, don't get me wrong. Pain and soreness are not always the measure of a good workout. But I can tell that this is muscle confusion, not injury.

One thing going slowly does do is make us pay attention to detail. It also requires us to be more efficient. Neither of those is a bad thing.

In fact, there's a whole industry of innovation going on for making us more efficient. Go ahead. Turn on your smart phone. Go to whatever your app store is – it doesn't matter if it's a BlackBerry, iPhone or Android device. I'll bet there's a whole category of apps called "productivity."

These are things like to-do lists. Task monitors. Things that disconnect you from the Internet or social media so you can do some actual work. Apps that make multiple social media accounts easy to use together. Things that help you do stuff faster, so that even if you're doing those things more slowly, they're getting done in the same amount of time.

Want another way to do things a little more slowly?

Take a look at your to-do list. Rate stuff on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being very important and 5 being not at all important. Cross off everything with a 5. Move everything with a 4 to the bottom so that you can get to them when you get to them. Go do all your number ones right now.

And...go!

What’s the value of free?

Oh my. Did you watch that video? Because if not, you should. It's about a prayer book. A really old one. That was written on top of three other books. By that, I mean whoever wrote the prayer book had these three books. He cut them up, erased them, bound them again, and then wrote the prayer book.

A thousand or so years later, the prayer book winds up on a professor's desk, and they try to figure out what lies underneath the prayer book.

And they found previously undiscovered works by Archimedes. Archi-fucking-medes. Previously. Undiscovered. Works.

And guess what? After a decade of work and doing all sorts of amazing things to reconstruct it and gave us all the work they did for free. For fucking free! Seriously, it's all right there at that link!

A whole bunch of people spent 10 years of their lives on this, and we have it for free use, for the love of knowledge.

Think about that the next time someone offers you something for free. Don't just shrug it off because you think "free" means "worthless." Consider that you could be privy to something amazing. You might not be – but then again, you've probably paid for plenty of stuff that might be considered crap.

Want some other stuff that's free that I've found absolutely amazing?

» The Flinch, by Julien Smith
» The Hero Handbook (PDF), by Nate Green
» 279 Days to Overnight Success, by Chris Guillebeau

Now go. Get reading. If you don't like them, I'll double your money back.

Who wants to help youth baseball and disadvantaged kids in Syracuse?

Update June 26: Sean wrote an additional column this morning about some of the stuff below.

The wheels in my head got to turning early Friday morning. I'm excited about the possibilities of this, so I thought I'd write something up, see what you people think, and see if you have any ideas for me as to who needs to be involved from an administration level.

What started me thinking was Sean Kirst's column, which includes a bit about losing kids who started in youth baseball to the streets after they got priced out of playing. Sean told me in an email that sometimes the leagues just eat the sign-up fees for some kids in that situation, but I happen to know from playing in softball leagues that those sign-up fees help maintain the fields; I've played in enough of those leagues to know who is using the money for maintenance and who's using the money for repairs, and if the city is getting less money from sign-up fees in some neighborhoods than in others, guess whose fields are going to crap?

We first need to be honest with ourselves about youth opportunities in Syracuse. This goes way beyond Say Yes and the fact that anyone can benefit from an education and take that to stellar heights in a career. That's true. But. If you're the sort of kid who loves baseball and your family is in a position that financially they can't sign you up for little league, your income level is such that there are times your parents are making choices between feeding you, feeding themselves, paying rent, paying the electric bill and so on. You can't work until you're 16, and even then, another 20 hours a week at minimum wage isn't going to help all that much – and let's be honest, if you're working 20 hours a week, school is suffering.

There's an easy decision to be made, and that's why a lot of kids wind up on the street, running guns and drugs. It's not that they're lazy, it's that they're actually trying to help, and this is an obvious way to make a big impact on your family's financial future.

The Future Fund just gave a $5,000 grant to The Media Unit, a group that writes and performs pieces about issues facing underserved youth in the city, and the group has most definitely helped a lot of people; we hope that grant will help them grow and help more people.

Baseball's another way through. Keep kids playing, get them into college on a baseball scholarship. Awesome. But first we have to get them into those leagues. That got me thinking about an indiegogo campaign. You might know about indiegogo as the tool someone is using to raise money for Karen Klein, the Greece, NY, bus monitor who last week was seen on YouTube being tormented by kids on her bus. At this writing, a campaign started to raise $5,000 for a nice vacation for her has raised over $620,000.

At indiegogo, you put a goal on your campaign. If you hit your goal, indiegogo takes 4% for using their platform; if you don't, they take 9%. Those are definitely reasonable fees.

What if we started a fund there? It could be administered by some little league activists, someone at the city, someone at the Chiefs, or by another organization who just wants to show their support. Would you give $10 or $50 or $100 to such a fund to keep some kids in youth sports?

What do you think? Who needs to be in on it?

So that’s what our yard looks like! Hire Yardsmith

Note: The short version of this post is go hire Yardsmith if you need some yard work done. They did amazing job at a much lower price than I expected. The rest of this post is me rambling about how desperate we were and how awesome they were.

Those of you who know us well know that our back yard has become the stuff of ever-growing legend over the past 18 months. Here's the story on that.

Martin Luther King Day 2011 was particularly warm. We'd had this tree that needed to come down in the back yard for a while, and someone came over to take care of it.

Well, he didn't exactly take care of it. He left wood all over the yard, and left 20 feet of trunk standing, and promised to come back and finish the job in the summer (yeah, right). If I remembered who the guy was, I'd tell you, so you don't make the same mistake we did.

This tree, by the way, was a 60-foot maple, probably 120 years old or more. It wasn't little.

JB's brother Ben came over and helped a lot with the wood. He cut a lot of it, split more of it, and took well over 1,000 pounds of it off our hands (he has a larger plot of land in a more rural area. He helped us stack a bunch of what he didn't take.

Last spring, we had a barbecue. We invited people to come eat and take some wood to burn. One guy had a chainsaw in his truck; another guy had some tow straps in his. We took down the trunk.

I bought a chainsaw. Ben and I cut up and stacked everything we could. We did pretty well, but dropped enough chains and got uncomfortable enough with what we were doing that we decided we had to hire someone to take care of the rest of it.

We hired Lee's Tree Service in March to do the last 20 feet of trunk, which was firmly in the ground and about 3 feet in diameter.

It turns out it wasn't just us. Bernie Lee and his employee dropped three chains while cutting it up – there were nails and bullets and all kinds of stuff in the trunk from before the neighborhood was built around the tree.

Between Bernie and us, we got the wood out of the yard. There was still sawdust all over the place; I filled a bucket so that we could throw handfuls of maple dust on the charcoal. Yum. I raked up a couple of piles of sawdust, but there was still that and bark and such all over the place.

We got enough of that up that we were finally able to wheel the lawn mower out a couple of weeks ago. Yes, you read that timeline correctly. This was the first time we were able to get the mower out in nearly two years. The grass and weeds were thigh-high in some places. Moving some of the stuff around, we displaced frogs and who knows what other wildlife. We started seeing wild strawberries beginning to grow here and there.

JB started the mower up, knocked down a couple of feet of grass, and the mower stalled. Start, stop, start stop, and an hour later, we had a patch of grass. This went on for a week; she'd spend an hour starting and stopping, and we started to see some open space. Not much, but some.

I went out and got a reel mower. It made moving around a bit easier, but it wood flatten some patches of grass. A couple of hours out there and I roughly doubled the size of the patch. That still left about 70% of the yard covered in crap, and we'd done five hours' worth of work.

I looked at JB and spoke a truth I don't think either of us wanted to admit: We were going to have to pay somebody to help us out here. I don't know much about the lawn service industry, but I figure that most lawn services make money from either big landscaping jobs or an on-going mowing and plowing contract. I thought it would be difficult to get someone to come out for one job.

I tweeted, "Anyone know a local lawn service that would do a one-off rockstar job at a reasonable price?"

A local comic and web developer got back to me and told me his client, Yardsmith, would surely fit the bill. I filled out their contact form on Saturday. It looked like we were just outside of their coverage area, and I mentioned that in my inquiry.

I got an email back on Monday morning from Craig at Yardsmith. He told me he'd be able to take a look at the property that day. I told him we wouldn't be home, but I gave him some general instructions for what we wanted.

He came back with a quote, and it was so far below my expectation that I honestly thought he checked out the wrong property. I didn't ask if he was sure; instead I pretty much just emailed back, "Awesome! When can you get here?"

He emailed Tuesday morning and said, "My guys can be there tomorrow."

I got home and moved a stack of wood that would have been in their way (yeah, we still have plenty – if you need some, just let me know; we'll burn a lot of it, but still), and emailed off some instructions, letting them know that I'd be at work but JB would be home.

I then saw this tweet from JB: "Pictures likely to follow once @JoshShear sees the beauty. Thank you Yardsmith, you guys did a great job."

I got home after a softball game, and brought Rufus out back to pee (the dog, not me; I'm still allowed to use the toilet) and check out the work. They did an awesome job. They even bagged and took all the crap they cut down. We could have bought them lunch on top of what we paid them and still not hit our weekly grocery bill. Go hire them right now for whatever you need. Here's their website again.

Know your customers: 2 very different dining experiences

Last weekend, I visited my parents in Springfield, Mass., to help get some stuff out of the house (they're moving to South Carolina, where the snowblower will be useless, the seafood and taxes cheaper, and the retirement easier).

We went out to eat twice, and had two very different experiences. The food, in both cases, was excellent – above expectation and worth the price.

I'll tell you first about Ixtapa #5. This is a taco truck parked in the parking lot of a grocery store in a heavily Latino community.

Their English is as broken as my Spanish. They serve tacos, quesadillas and Mexican sodas. Maybe they'd do a burrito. They put tongue (pictured), chicken or beef on your tortilla of choice. Bam, the end.

They're quick, the food is cheap, they don't chat a lot unless they know the customer's family (which is common in a close community like that one), and it's one of the most genuine dining experiences I've had (even though I was standing in a grocery store parking lot).

Next, I want to talk about Felix's Family Restaurant. This is an Italian restaurant that stands in what used to be a pizzeria. They overhauled it after a kitchen fire moved the pizza place a mile away. It should be noted that the building shares a parking lot with Felix's Auto Body.

We went to catch up with some old friends (and by old friends, I mean we've know the family for 30ish years). It was evident from the hugs and the animated talking that we were catching up and kind of caught up in ourselves.

Some wandering musicians began playing (accordion and guitar), and they were loud. They serenaded tables near and far with Italian songs – I get this; it's authentic and it adds to a dining experience.

We did our best to ignore the musicians – we made it obvious by not looking at them, not offering applause and certainly not participating when they stood over several members of our party and played in their ears.

And then they tried to engage us.

Let me make this clear. We weren't there to see a concert. If we'd been a table in the corner entirely ignoring a musician we (and other people) had paid to see and talking across the table at the top of our lungs so we could be heard, we'd be giant assholes.

But the musicians were ambiance, and we didn't want it. And they insisted. It took every hint short of asking if they'd just go play across the room to get them to let us enjoy our food.

The server was an entirely different story. She left one pitcher of water for 9 adults and wasn't attentive to it.

When she showed up with eight salad plates, she apologized, noting that she probably stole it – a cute joke, except that she then spent the next several minutes regaling us with stories of stolen restaurant cutlery, rather than, say, getting us another plate.

It took us 15 minutes to get a shaker of red pepper at one point during the meal.

One of our party let her know she was allergic to tomatoes. When she asked that her dinner be altered to avoid tomatoes, the server brought a dinner that appeared to have something tomato red on it. After insisting there were no tomatoes, we learned it was marinara sauce. Which, if you worked in an Italian restaurant, you'd be required to know has a tomato base, no? And while the dish was replaced with something tomato-free, we didn't get an apology from management, nor did we get a discounted dinner.

Overall, we were at the restaurant slightly over two hours, without any unnecessary chatter; it just took that long to do dinner.

It was one of the worst customer service experiences I've ever had, and I had it in a place that stood to charge us in the area of $200 for our purchase.

Recommendations: Taco truck yes, Felix's no.

What’s YOUR secret?

In order for any of this to make sense, you need to click on that photo of Mackenzie above and spend eight minutes watching her Facebook video. I am so not going to give you a spoiler here.

I'm secretly a writer. You wouldn't know it from reading this blog, because the posts aren't regular.

I'm also secretly a musician. You wouldn't know it, because I pick up my guitar once a week and sit down at the piano about the same.

I'm also secretly an athlete. You wouldn't know it, because I spend a couple of evenings a week playing softball and the rest of the week saying, "Meh, I'll get back to the gym next week. Beer me."

I don't have any big real-life secrets that would fundamentally change your perception of who I am. I'm not disappointed in that. It makes my life easier. Mackenzie, as you now know (because you watched the video, right?), doesn't have any of those any more.

If Mackenzie can be that brave, I can certainly promise myself (and you, but myself more importantly) two blog posts a week, two workouts a week, and three days of playing music a week, even if it's only for five minutes at a time, right?

OK, done.

Now it's your turn. What have you been hiding? Why?

What gives you clarity? A books post

Here are the things I'm re-reading right now. [I didn't just re-brand my blog; it's more of a personal re-branding, with a blog redesign to match up.]

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller. The world hasn't really changed all that much since the days of pirates and kings. We just call them something different now, and the pirates are still the ones actually in charge. [Thought Review]

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut (affiliate link). Vonnegut's probably the closest I have to a literary hero. Slapstick is a novel that's something like an autobiography. But not really. It's irreverent, funny, and awfully honest. Plus, he has a catch-phrase.

The Flinch by Julien Smith. This book is basically about why you're I'm stuck in a career rut (or any rut, really). It's uncomfortable to read. It's also free (though only available for Kindle – and remember you can get a free Kindle app for any device that connects to the Internet). So, read it. [What You Need to Read]

What's getting you off your ass this week?

[Photo: The Flinch cover by Luca Pierro of Getty Images.]

In defense of baseball

American football is, without a doubt, the biggest money-making sport there is.

Auto racing is among the most popular.

Soccer – or football to the rest of the non-American world – is another of the most popular.

baseballBut people seem to have something against baseball. It's not just some people; it's a lot of them. It's boring, they say. Too slow. If, as an offensive player, you fail at your job 7 out of 10 opportunities, you're a sure-fire hall-of-famer.

In fact, the notion that a person can actually play baseball well offensively is just ridiculous (and as a culture, Americans are offensive-minded). Someone throws a ball from 60.5 feet away, often in the 90mph range. The ball moves based on the spin, and it's your job as a batter to take an instrument that's about 32 inches long and, at its thickest, about the width of the ball. There are eight people in front of the batter and one immediately behind attempting to stop the batter from succeeding. Seriously. Ridiculous.

Baseball's a different sort of sport. Endurance is important: in roughly six months, there are about 18-20 days off, including weekends. There's a lot of travel.

And there's very little predictability.

Johan Santana pitched a no-hitter last night. It's not an unheard-of feat. In fact, it's the third one in the major leagues this year. But he threw 134 pitches, which is a whole lot; this time of the year, many starting pitchers are just starting to be allowed to throw 90 to 100 pitches before they're pulled for worry that they'll hurt their arm. Santana threw 50% more pitches than he might have been allowed, and he still got batters to fail every time they were up.

He may not pitch well at all the rest of the year. Like I said, little predictability.

But there is some predictability.

Baseball people are numbers people. There are so many numbers measured and available that even an average manager could predict within a few feet where one particular fielder should play based on who is pitching, the type of playing surface, the time of day, the weather and what color jerseys his team is wearing. Change one of those factors (well, except the jersey color), and the same fielder could reasonably be moved 40 feet and the manager would still be correct.

I think few people (yes, some, but still, few) would argue with sitting in the sun on a quiet afternoon, the smell of freshly cut grass, hot dogs on the grill and a cold beer in hand. And outdoors, that's exactly what baseball is. And with a lack of predictability, there's always the chance that attending a baseball game means you're going to see something amazing happen.

[photo credit]