Tag Archives: featured

Cut Me Some Slack

This weekend I’ve been learning all over again what it means to be a complete beginner at something.  You see, I went out and bought a slackline.  If you’re ever wondering exactly what it must feel like to be a young toddler learning to walk for the very first time, then I can’t recommend this sport highly enough.

There’s something wonderfully refreshing about tackling an activity you’ve never tried before.  Every little achievement feels like a major triumph.  To be able to stand on the line for a few seconds feels amazing; to manage to take a step or two before falling off can lead to wild applause from the bystanders.  And it’s also very egalitarian; the 10 year old in our party was making progress every bit as fast as me.

It got me thinking about the nature of fitness.  I often hear people say that they ‘want to be fit’, without ever really unpacking what that means. At it’s most fundamental, fitness refers to the body’s ability to perform a task.  And I realise that I can be exceptionally fit in one area and completely unfit in another.  For example, the months and months of training that I put in in order to be able to run an ultramarathon did absolutely nothing to prepare me to walk across a two-inch wide strip of webbing strung between a couple of trees.   Nor does it improve my ability to, say, perform push ups or hit a golf ball.

So the concept of fitness obviously encompasses a number of physical abilities.  I think they could be broken down as follows:

  • Endurance.  The ability to perform a repetitive action without becoming fatigued.  My marathon-running friends like Patrick have this in spades.
  • Strength.  The ability to apply force to an object.  Typically, we runners don’t do so well on this.  Ask me to do bench-presses or pull-ups, and I’ll tire out pretty fast.
  • Flexibility.  To be able to move limbs through a wide range safely.  Again, running doesn’t really do much to improve this.  My Yoga poses leave a lot to be desired.
  • Balance.  The ability to control your center of gravity on an unstable surface.  As the slackline is teaching me, I may be able to get myself around a triathlon course, but taking two or three simple steps can be a daunting task when the surface you’re on is swaying, bobbing, and responding to your every move.
  • Technique.  The ability to perform an action correctly and efficiently.  Every sport requires a commitment to learning correct body mechanics.  If you run incorrectly, you will hurt yourself.  It’s as simple as that.  If you learn to swim correctly, you will glide through the water nearly effortlessly, and still outpace those around you who are spending far more effort than you are.

There are probably more that I haven’t thought of.  I’m sure that diet fits in here somehow as well.  If I can perform well athletically but I’m not giving my body the food it needs to recover quickly and maintain health for the long term, then I’m not sure that I can claim to be truly fit.   So perhaps the final element of fitness is humility, the ability to adopt a lifestyle of continuous learning.

Today I got another taste of that on the slackline.  Tomorrow, who knows, I may stay on it for a few seconds more!

Constructing Gender

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender recently.  In part this has been sparked by reading Margaret Farley’s excellent book Just Love.  Her work has  helped me realize two things.

  1. Gender permeates our thinking and speaking.
  2. Gender is harder to define than you might think.

We are forever talking about gender, and the differences between the sexes.

Books like “Men are from Mars…” become bestsellers.

Movies are categorized into ‘chick flicks’ and guy flicks.

Language itself is frequently gender specific.  In French, and in many other languages, objects are considered to be masculine or feminine, and referred to differently in each case.

Religions talk about gender a lot.  Many religions have codes outlining acceptable behaviour for men and women, and for the relationships between the two.  Even today, the Catholic church teaches that not only are women not permitted to be priests, they are not able to be – it is a kind of category error.  In the muslim world, there are strict rules regarding the participation of men and women in communal worship.

Gender-based violence is still a  huge problem in our society.  Perhaps 1 in 4 women in Canada have experienced some kind of sexual assault.

And yet despite this preoccupation with gender, I’m finding that it’s harder than you might think to define what we mean by the term.

When we talk about gender, when we talk about masculine and feminine, what exactly do we mean?

Maybe we mean the behavioural traits that are associated with one gender or another.   But what do we do if these vary from culture to culture?

Maybe we mean the physical characteristics that are associated with a gender.  But again, what if these overlap?  Men are said to be stronger athletes than women, but this is only true in the aggregate.  I will never run a triathlon as fast as Chrissie Wellington, however hard I train.

Perhaps we mean the social roles that men and women are expected to fill.  Nearly every society on earth divides task by gender, but interestingly they don’t always agree which tasks should be performed by which gender.

Perhaps when we’re talking about gender we’re simply talking about biology – the presence or absence of specific reproductive organs.  Although interestingly enough, these only start developing after a couple of months gestation, in response to certain genetic triggers.

So perhaps gender is all to do with genetics and chromosomes.  Fair enough, but even this runs into trouble when we start learning about the complex ways that humans and other animals determine gender.  Humans use X and Y chromosomes, other animals use Z, W, O chromosomes, or even environmental triggers such as temperature, to determine the gender of an infant.  Still other animals change gender during their lifetimes.   And even in humans, there are combinations of chromosomes and genes that lead to indeterminate gender.

So we’re left with this strange state of affairs – words that we all use, that we all assume have a common, shared meaning, and yet on closer inspection may hide some very complex realities.

I mean to consider the implications of these complexities in subsequent articles.

Changing the World Through Stories

JFK once said that the only reason to give a speech was to change the world.

I think this is wise advice.  I’ve been reading a lot recently about the art of speaking and presenting, and the true masters of the subject seem to agree on a couple of points.

Firstly, PowerPoint is evil.  Or at least, can be used as a tool for evil.  Consider the following slide, for example.




That’s part of a real PowerPoint presentation given by a real military commander trying to explain the goals of the occupying force in Afghanistan.  I don’t understand it.  I’m sure the audience didn’t understand it.  And I’m not at all sure that the guy giving the presentation really understood it.  If you can’t get your key point across in a few sentences, you’re probably not sure what you’re trying to say.

Fortunately, the masters of presenting agree on a second point.  Speaking and presenting is about telling stories.

Consider this example:


This is from a vastly better presentation, Pixar’s 22 Rules to Phenomenal Storytelling. Go and watch it now.  Seriously.  I’ll wait.

Done?  Good.  The author of that presentation had a clear point he wanted to make, and made it with simplicity, creativity, and a keen eye for design.  All the hallmarks, in fact, of the company that he’s talking about.

If, like JFK, we want to change the world, we’ll need to do better than endless bullet lists and obfuscated flow charts.  We’ll need to learn to tell honest, simple, engaging stories.