Adios Unwelcome Pounds ~ Welcome Wellbeing!

It’s all a conspiracy!

Strange how my trousers had shrunk. And in an act of cowardly collaboration, my bathroom scales (in league with that dastardly mirror), had started to lie. The holes in my belt had waited until night-fall to edge outwards. Even my bathroom towel seemed smaller. There was conspiracy afoot!

Reality

Which was when I remembered T.S. Eliot’s words: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” And the reality was that despite quick walks, my metabolism was slowing down. Or however those in denial of weight-gain explain a thickening waist.

The fightback begins!

So a year ago, I joined a gym. It’s my sort of place with a dedicated boxing area, state-of-the-art cardio and weight equipment, interesting classes and friendly members.

The longest journey starts with a single step…

After an absence of eight years, those first steps in the gym shocked me: I’d lost all my stamina! My range of movement had tanked! As for my boxing technique—I’d forgotten the difference between a left hook and a fish hook. Depressingly, for six weeks the scales in the men’s changing room refused to register any improvement which meant one thing: The conspirators back home had gained an ally.

Persistence…

My routine was simple. Three or four visits a week. Start with stretching and warm up. Jump some rope, shadow box, then five three-minute rounds on the punch bags. Cardio machines (what sadist invented the StairMaster?) followed by dumbbells. Then stretching and deep breath, in readiness for another confrontation with the dreaded scales that not only indicated my weight, but also informed me of my Body Mass Index (BMI). Too much information.

A note of caution

I’ve learned to listen to my body. If something is hurting, I stop. I stretch. I always build slowly to greater effort and monitor my heart rate. That way I’ve kept injuries to a minimum.

Progress

After a hesitant start, I’m up to fifteen rounds on the bags, a hundred floors climbed (think Empire State Building), two thousand dumbbell lifts and hundreds of calories burned each visit. Soon my trousers threw in the towel and started growing again.

What made me keep going?

I didn’t look too far ahead. I set myself realistic goals and congratulated myself on reaching them. A pound or two lost each month on the scales or added to the dumbbells was achievable. Everything else was a bonus and soon they began to flow: I’ve got my energy and flexibility back! My resting pulse is under sixty. My BMI is comfortably in the green band and I don’t need to buy a new wardrobe.

You can do it too!

I added a healthy diet too and am pleased I’ve (mostly) stuck to it. I really do feel twenty years younger and recommend using a gym to anyone who wants to shed the pounds or just improve their sense of wellbeing. Because wellbeing matters.

 

Advertisements

BAM Festival!

Just back after a couple of days volunteering to help out one of my favourite charities, Good Lad Initiative (GLI). I helped staff a table at the 2017 Being a Man (BAM) festival, held in London’s Southbank Centre.

A packed 3 day event

The three-day BAM Festival ran talks, lectures, seminars and panel discussions addressing topics from bullying to knife crime, from domestic abuse to fatherhood, from privilege to consent.

There were early morning runs, comedians, a talk by Man Booker Prizewinning author Allan Hollinghurst, LEGO workshops for kids, a lecture on ‘How to be a Superman? Gender Equity for Boys’, a Finnish shouting choir, music,… and much more.

Good Lad Intiative

The crowd ebbed and flowed past our GLI table. I spoke to several teachers who were interested in booking us for their schools. An aspiring actor completing his Master’s in drama was looking for ideas for a 40 minute single-man performance. A psychologist dropped by: she engaged me in a discussion about male suicide (which accounts for 75% of suicides in the UK).

I took contact details for a number of potential volunteers and got to meet other GLI team members. I was impressed by the interest, the enthusiasm, the desire to facilitate change.

What does GLI do?

It trains men to run workshops in all-male school classrooms, for pupils aged 12-18, which address issues of gender equality and masculinity. We encourage them to talk openly using the media of role playing, games and exercises.

It’s fascinating to see the pupils challenging their preconceptions and peer pressure, as they articulate thoughts on various topics, often for the first time. At the end of the day, their feedback—which tends to be highly positive—is analysed. But of course, when I was at school, I’d probably have given anything five stars that replaced three hours of geography and math(s)!

Making a difference

‘Being a man’ is a huge—and until quite recently—a largely neglected topic. I’m constantly learning and questioning my preconceptions. Good Lad Intiative is one of those initiatives that deserves to succeed because it’s really making a difference.

Too late to save the oceans?

The Big Question

It’s been coming up in conversation a lot recently: “Is it too late to save the oceans?”

Perhaps the Professor would answer it…

Greenwich University

With that question in mind, a crisp evening not too long ago saw me travelling twenty-one stops on the tube and Docklands Light Railway to Greenwich University. I was attending a lecture by Visiting Professor Steve Fletcher PhD, of the United Nations Environment Programme and World Conservation Monitoring Centre!

The lecture title? “The Future of the Ocean: Health, Wealth and Biodiversity”.

But first – the Cutty Sark!

But before hunting down the proper lecture hall, a quick moonlight inspection of the Cutty Sark.  This magnificent tea clipper was built in 1869 and recently restored at a cost of £46m following extensive damage caused by fire.

As I studied her pitched, sweeping hull, her proud masts with their triangulated rigging, I wondered at the state of the ocean when she raced back with tea from the Americas and wool from Australia.

She launched just seven years after Alexander Parkes demonstrated plastic (or “Parkesine”, as he named it) at London’s Great International Exhibition in 1862. With the arrival of steam power, the great ship was soon rendered obsolete. I wonder if Mr Parkes ever imagined the benefits and damage later iterations of his invention would bring.

Greenwich University

Greenwich University—a maritime tradition, a maritime lecture

Once inside the spacious lecture hall, I noticed that the attentive audience (to my untrained eye) contained many students and I spoke to one, well into his doctoral thesis on the oceans, who’d attended my alma mater, Oxford.

$190 billion per year

Then the professor started, by painting a rather grim picture.

Did you know that the global seafood industry is worth $190bn but only 6.4% of the ocean is protected? If fish were people, the equivalent is that every one of us would be carrying half a kg of plastic in our stomachs.

The professor discussed illegal fishing (and the link to people and drug trafficking), pollution, the cruise industry, and the damage caused by a host of other human activities. 70% of the Great Barrier Reef has now been lost.

Ghost fishing

One slide of four turtles drowned by a discarded fishing net (known as “ghost fishing”), was particularly upsetting. We were reminded of the 1992 “Warning to Humanity” by 1,700 scientists of where we were headed if things didn’t change. And all this was supported by a series of well-chosen slides.

The professor isn’t alone…

But there was good news too. Teams of politicians and NGOs, often enabled by the UN, are now meeting around the world to agree protocols, set targets, honour commitments.

…even the white spotted wedge fish is on side!

Important (for a variety of reasons) species—such as the white spotted wedge fish—are now targeted for special conservation attention. I admit I had to google that one when I got home, to discover I knew it as the guitarfish I’ve seen on occasion resting on the sand in tropical shallows.

Opinion leaders, and the not-for-profit sector are finally being heard. The general public is beginning to wake up with economic, social, political and wellbeing issues associated with the ocean at the top of the agenda. And things are beginning to happen about plastic: the UK’s consumption of plastic carrier bags has dropped 85% since the introduction of a 5p tax per bag. Make it £5, I say, and do the same with plastic coffee cups and drinking strays!

…back to the Big Question

Asked at the end whether he thought it was too late, the professor answered that he’s an optimist, and thinks we can turn this situation around. He explained that the time has come to embrace the environment and treat it as a partner.

The old model of human activity necessarily causing environmental damage should be changed to one in which there’s a mutuality. Protect the ocean and we’ll all benefit. That makes sense to me. And no doubt to white spotted wedge fish too.

3 things you can do to help save the oceans:

  • Buy a re-usable thermos for all your water, tea and coffee purchases…and remember to take it with you!
  • Use tinfoil instead of cling film (Saran wrap) in the home
  • Join a plastic clean up group. Here’s the one I chose and highly recommend if you’re in the area: https://www.thames21.org.uk/

 

Bringing London’s Waterways to Life

I spent a fascinating and enjoyable Saturday near Wembley recently learning about the challenges facing London’s waterways, courtesy of Molly, of Thames 21, a registered charity. Like me, she’s a displaced New Yorker, though the time she’s spent in the (dis)United Kingdom is rather less than mine.

“Bringing London’s Waterways to Life” is Thames 21’s strap line and by waterway, they mean struggling Father Thames, his tributaries and the canal system within the catchment area (American: “watershed”).

One of the Challenges

I learned a lot. For example, during storms, the drainage system in Central London allows surface runoff from rainwater and sewage to mix, before discarding the end product directly into the river. Yuck. Further afield, the tunnel system is dual, keeping the two apart. A “super sewer” is currently under construction that should ease this problem.

Why this is so important

I already knew about the countless tyres (ironically, an ideal home for eels), supermarket trolleys (a safe haven for young fish), motorbikes, etc. that have been thrown in. But these are just the tip of the rubbish iceberg. How long does it take for human waste products to biodegrade?

  • Orange peel: 6 months (The New York Times)
  • Cigarette butt: up to 50 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic food container: 50-80 years (Penn State University)
  • Aluminium can: 80-200 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic soda bottle: 450 years (Penn State University)
  • Monofilament fishing line: 600 years ((Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Glass bottle: 1,000,000 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Styrofoam: never (Penn State University)

Getting prepared

Thames21 trains volunteers who then lead clean ups. We went through the Health and Safety guidelines and there’s plenty to think about. Guns and knives are found in the waterways regularly. Their live hand grenade tally is one. We didn’t discuss WW2 bombs but there must be hundreds—perhaps thousands—of them buried deep in the gloopy mud.

Other hazards included Weil’s disease (or leptospirosis). It’s a potentially fatal bacterium that enters the environment via the urine of rodents (especially rats). It can infect the victim via cuts or if contact is made with the mucous membranes. Consequently thick rubber gloves, “picking tools” and steel soled boots and waders are mandatory. If you get flu-like symptoms within several weeks of sharing a location with rodents, tell your doctor!

Then there’s Giant Hog Weed. A beast of a plant which should be left well alone on account of the bristly micro-hairs on its surface and highly photo-sensitive liquid within. If micro-hairs touch your skin, think acid. Think scarring. Think photo-sensitivity (a blistering of the skin triggered by sunlight, not a preoccupation with your Facebook profile pic). These symptoms can persist for months or years. Sounds off-putting? I’d say it’s better to be forewarned.

Progress

Clean-ups are organised locally and the charity is making a difference as streams are cleared, meadows sowed with wild flowers and stretches returned to something approaching pristine condition. Exercise is taken, friendships made and an occasional unplanned swim enjoyed. But it’s a constant struggle – and an important battle to be won!

And here, courtesy of the BBC, is a beautiful video documenting the return of kingfishers to one stretch of our waterways – an stunning illustration of why all this effort is so worthwhile.

I look forward to leading a clean-up soon!

***

Thames21’s vision is to put healthy rivers back at the heart of community life, and they’re taking a four-pronged approach to get there. Through their education programme, they are empowering people and their environmental enhancement work is transforming rivers; meanwhile their pioneering research and advocacy work are paving the way for sustainable change and all of this is achieved with the direct engagement and support from a wide network of dedicated volunteers. www.thames21.org.uk

Toastmasters Annual Club Contest – A Record Breaking Turnout!

TFL on Overcrowding Alert
The feverishly anticipated annual Humorous Speech and Table Topic Contests at my local club came around last Thursday night. Transport for London (the city’s underground train service) issued a Code Red warning that Central Line trains to the station nearest my club would be seriously overcrowded between 18:30 and 19:00 hours — at one point the Club Committee held an emergency session to consider relocating to Wembley Stadium…

But seriously… Soon our venue was filled to bursting with enthused members, expectant guests and effulgent contestants. Judges and contestants were briefed and moments later, we were underway…chaired by yours truly.

Armed and Dangerous
Paul, our armed and dangerous Sergeant at Arms (day job: accountant), then delivered a series of rib-ticklers borrowed from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (eg: “I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change”).

Humour Competition
We began with the Humorous Speech Contest in which our brave competitors regaled us with speeches that involved motor-cycle rider Dave Death, the ramifications of being rammed by a ram (in a particularly sensitive spot), all that’s wrong with squabs (young pigeons, apparently), how to survive a hangover and why touching your interviewer’s beard is unlikely to land you that dream job.

Many congratulations to Michael, whose well-structured and highly amusing “The Worst Day of my Life” pipped the others and secured him a place in the Area Final.

Impromtu Competition

My Co-Chair, Robin, successfully retrieved the secret Table Topic question, “If I could grant you one wish, what would you wish for?” from a bunker 4,000 feet below a North Korean mountain. It was cleverly and entertainingly answered by all contestants. Jeff triumphed and his ability to think and talk so elegantly on his feet will be tested again on the 27th where he will join Michael at the next Area level contest round.

It was a fun-filled and memorable evening with friendships made and new members signed. Many thanks to everyone who undertook a role. And a big congratulations to all the contestants. It was an evening in which everyone was a winner.

Become a TV Presenter

A few weeks ago, I attended a one-day seminar on Presentation Skills, hosted by the very experienced Brian Naylor of the TV Training Academy, London.

It seemed like a good way to build video skills–and turned out to be an excellent day! The event was filled with useful hints and tips on further resources.

I absorbed advice on how to approach producers, market myself, the expected highs and lows, and the need to never give up. Brian’s speciality? Shopping channels for which he demonstrated fundamental skills, like engaging with your viewers, body language, movement, being believable/trustworthy, holding items to camera and closing the sale.

Some key points

  • communication is 55% visual, 38% tonal – therefore passion, energy, confidence are a must!
  • preparation is key – the hard work is done before you get on camera. Know your subject cold, so you can focus on your presenting
  • the closer the camera shot, the less body movement you should include. Speak with your hands below your waist. Keep your feet still and stable in a power pose
  • look straight down the lens always. Only avert your gaze to look at objects the audience can also see. You can assume you are speaking to an audience of one, so speak/chat as to an equal
  • do your own practice reporting or “pieces to camera” for youtube. Make your own channel. Practice working to time, with props, mic technique and in different locations
  • bring your own area of expertise to your personal brand. Become a topic expert to differentiate yourself
  • recommended text: “The Charisma Myth”

Lots to think about and a day well spent! Brian’s explanations were incisive, useful and illustrated with great demonstrations. If you’re interested in improving your presentation skills, my experience with the TV Training Academy was positive.  You can visit their site and view clips at youtube.

 

An Odyssey and JYC

A humid afternoon found me not structuring the plot of a new novel as I needed to, but rather waiting for the doors to open outside the iconic Gate Picturehouse in London’s hurrying Notting Hill. Because today they were showing The Odyssey, the biopic of the life of diver, explorer and underwater film-maker, Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997).

Merriam-Webster defines an “odyssey” as a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune, and as much of the film took place aboard (or beneath) his creaky converted minesweeper Calypso, the title fitted like a hermit crab in a discarded shell.

This charming, polite but driven man brought the underwater world into the homes (via TV, not flooding) of millions worldwide. By adding a demand valve, he revolutionised the design of the SCUBA system (Self-Contained-Underwater-Breathing-Apparatus), vastly increasing divers’ underwater times. (Curiously, the film skipped this important point!)

Sublime Footage

I hoped for glorious footage in director Jérôme Salle’s 120 minutes and I wasn’t disappointed. Whether it was the frozen monochrome of the Southern Ocean, pulsing tropical reefs, or a humpback whale and calf, it was so real that I almost felt the undulating sea grass of the Mediterranean seafloor brushing my weight belt.

Beyond mere flora and fauna, what was brilliantly captured was the majestic infinity of the oceans. Equally impressive were the opening scenes where an old sea-plane danced with its shadow above a sunset ocean (in a subtle foreshadowing of later tragedy).

Interactions

JYC (as he was known by those close to him) was expertly played by Lambert Wilson who has a passing resemblance to the great man. We met JYC’s family, including increasingly lonely wife Simone (played by Audrey Tautou) and son Philippe.

Message

Sooner or later it had to happen and what started as a journey of discovery eventually reconfigured itself into an environmental message. Perhaps the treatment was a little overt—it felt like an after-thought—but given the state of our oceans, it was essential.

Conclusion: Four Stars

I’d recommend Odyssey. It’s a film about an important man and a critical topic.