February 20, 2010
Roadshow Stop: Growing Chefs!
Roadshow Mentor: Helen Stortini, Executive Director
After University, wayward and unsure of how to get a real job, I decided to go treeplanting in Northern Ontario. It was hell. I would spend 10 hours each day clawing my way through the churned up land of a clear cut block, trying to get pine seedlings into non-existent top soil. Each time I thrust my shovel into the ground, it would smack hard against the unyielding rock of the Canadian Shield and reverberate back up my arm. With 40 pounds of trees strapped to my hips, I waddled around overturned tree stumps and razor sharp brush to try and plant my trees–worth 6.5 cents each. Swarms of black flies and mosquitoes relentlessly buzzed and attacked–sometimes biting so close to my eyelids that I came home with tears of dried blood streaming down my cheeks. At 6:00 pm, a rickety old school bus would ferry me back to camp, which consisted of a small pup tent, cold showers, and crappy food.
Sitting on the back of the bus, I would pull off the duct tape that I wound around my fingers to protect the skin on my hands. It only helped a little–most of my skin was rubbed raw from jamming my hands into the ground all day. As we bumped along the dirt road, exhausted and filthy, my friend Guy and I would discuss our futures. We would declare adamantly that we never wanted desk jobs. The idea of a desk job seemed like a form of imprisonment, as though taking one would be selling out and succumbing to the rat race that was responsible for so much evil in the world. Somehow, the 10 hours of physical torture I endured six out of seven days seemed better.
Those anti-establishment attitudes ended with the nineties. Thankfully. And while I avoided the ‘desk job’ for sometime–working farms in Australia, teaching kids in Japan, and two more seasons of planting–it eventually caught up with me.
Without me even noticing.
Pre-Roadshow, almost every job I’ve done in the last six years involved planting my tush on a desk chair in front of a computer. (A few years ago, I had tendonitis so bad it rivaled the case I got while treeplanting.)
Being on the Roadshow has had me re-examine my nineties take on the ‘desk job’. While it is certainly naive, there is still something to be said about wanting to avoid a job that makes you unhappy and painfully aware of the 8 hours plus of each work day–desk or no desk. My desire to avoid this–to find something fulfilling and rewarding–is what put me on the Roadshow in the first place. I wanted to be sure I didn’t take a job simply for the sake of having one. And it’s been tough. I’ve been offered jobs (mostly fundraising positions) that paid well, and in some instances, were high profile. But they weren’t what I really wanted to do. And I knew taking them would mean, after the newness wore off, I would be right back where I started.
People who love their work
Through the Roadshow, I’ve had the chance to work along side a number of people who love their work, who actually like to get up in the morning to do their job. It’s been an inspiration to think that it’s possible to have this kind of relationship with your work and given me hope that I might actually find that.
And the next stop on the Roadshow was no exception. It was with yet another person who loved her job. My mentor for the day was Helen Stortini, the Executive Director of a non-profit called Growing Chefs! Chefs for Children’s Urban Agriculture. The organization’s goal is to teach kids and the community about the food they eat and inspire them with the idea that they can grow their own food, even in the city. It brings chefs into elementary school classrooms, dressed in their chef whites, to plant windowsill vegetable gardens, teach kids about food, and do cooking lessons.
Much like the Executive Director’s position, my role for the day was varied. I worked on volunteer recruitment–going from kitchen to kitchen trying to enlist new chefs. I researched funding opportunities. I developed a communications strategy and wrote copy for a new website. I organized the schools, finding out which classrooms would participate in the program. And a whole slew of other tasks–some administrative, some creative, some strategic.
At the end of the day, while I had spent most of my time at a desk–and still had all the flesh on my hands–I felt great. I wasn’t filthy or covered in bug bites, but I did feel exhiliarated–like I had been part of something really important. Like I could do this every day and feel good about it.
The Love Child of Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters
Now, before anyone corrects what would appear to be typos, it’s time for the full disclosure. I’ve got a job. (Gasp!) A part-time six-month contract, but a job nonetheless. And I love it. I found it the old-fashioned way with a resume submitted to an online ad. (Okay, well not that old-fashioned. But it was reassuring to know that it’s still possible to find work this way).
But I never would have found it without the Roadshow. Without the Roadshow, I would have taken a fundraising position ages ago. And my stints job shadowing have helped me realize that working with food, food writing, food education, and food systems was where I wanted to focus. (Thank you Chef Kristine and Chef Robin.) I guess I’ve always secretly wanted to be the love child of Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters–the Roadshow just helped me realize I could be this through my work.
I agonized over whether or not to take this job. Because I felt like it would be the end of the Roadshow. But at the same time, the whole point of the Roadshow was to do exactly this–help me find work that I loved. And it did. But along the way, I fell in love with the act of doing the Roadshow. I was so torn on what to do.
So I decided I’m going to have my cake (which isn’t much, trust me) and eat it to. I realize employment takes away some of my credibility on the ‘Unemployment Roadshow’–but I’m still going to do it. Because 50% of my working week remains unemployed. Although I suppose now I’ll have to re-brand as the Part-time Employment Roadshow or Underemployment Roadshow. But whatever. The Roadshow will continue on. If you’re willing to ride along with me in an exploration of meaningful employment and the work people do, I’m willing to do it.
Besides…I still need to get myself gigs as a flight attendant, stand up comic, adult store attendant, carney, zookeeper, mascot, embalmer, and chicken sexer!
And check out this great TedTalk by Jamie Oliver on the importance of food education
January 22, 2010
I thought today on the Roadshow, I would post a few handy resources for my fellow unemployed. These things are really only helpful if you are an “Insured Participant” meaning you’re currently collecting Employment Insurance or have collected it in the last three years. (Please note that these are services available in British Columbia–not sure how it works in other provinces and territories.)
1. If you’re on EI, you’re entitled to a case manager. Get one, even if you’re almost at the end of your claim. Because the case manager will tell you in more detail all of the great services that you can access.
2. Wage Subsidy programs — If you’ve been on EI in the last three years, you can apply for targeted wage subsidy. You can get more information about it at Future Works. This program will entice an employer to hire you because the subsidy program will pay up to 40% of your wages for three to four months. It’s geared for folks who might need to do some on the job learning.
3. Self Employment programs — Same deal — if you’ve been on EI in the last three years you’re eligible. This is for folks who want to start their own business. A case manager can give you all the information to get you started on this. Or you can find more information on the Service Canada site.
4. Tuition — EI will also chip in for additional skills development. They’re not going to pay for your masters degree. But they will contribute to some skills upgrading and training. Check it out here.
The Roadshow will return with its regular-scheduled programming next week!
January 15, 2010
Roadshow stop: Kung Fu Instructor
Roadshow mentor: Sifu Ralph Haenel, Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver
The air in the narrow studio was sticky from sweat and laboured breathing. Slightly worn from an intense round of sparring, sixteen men lined up before me awaiting instruction. They ranged in ability from beginner to 2nd grade instructors, but even the newest of the beginners was more experienced than me. (Since I don’t think six months of watching Bruce Lee films with my post-college boyfriend counts as Kung Fu training.) And there was no way to fool them otherwise — I had already made a rookie mistake of greeting them with a hand gesture that implied I wanted to fight, not say hello. (My right fist pressed into my left palm with knuckles facing inward instead of outward.) The class stood patiently waiting for me to tell them what to do. I stared back at their expecting faces wishing secretly that I could instantly upload Kung Fu fighting into my neuroreceptors.
This Roadshow stop was at Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver. The Sifu, which loosely translates to “father master”, Ralph Haenel started the school in 1994 after immigrating to Canada from former East Germany. Ralph isn’t what you would expect from a martial arts instructor. He laughs constantly, has a jovial demeanor, and his classes are fun and informal. Unlike what is often depicted in the movies, his students don’t cower before him obediently as he yells out military style drills. Instead, he offers encouragement and support. He playfully teases his students. And they tease him back — not at all the quiet deference I had imagined.
But it’s clear, despite this level of familiarity, Ralph’s students respect him and take his teachings seriously. They know that in the midst of a demonstration, while he’s poking fun at them, or possibly making a joke about himself, he could switch gears in an instant to deliver a powerful blow (which he sometimes does.) And they understand that what he teaches them could potentially save their lives in a violent situation.
Much like Ralph isn’t your stereotypical Kung Fu instructor, Wing Tsun isn’t your typical Kung Fu. It doesn’t look like the stylized stuff you see in films. (Although Bruce Lee did train in Wing Tsun.) At first glance, it looks sloppy. But a closer examination reveals that seemingly sloppiness is actually a calculated (and potentially deadly) fluidity. And Wing Tsun is all about self-defense. It’s not a sport martial art. People don’t train for scenarios involving a referee and a rulebook. They train to protect themselves from harm.
After introducing me as a ‘guest instructor’, Ralph led the class through a series of sparring exercises to work on improving reflexes, speed, and strength. In his demonstrations, Ralph selected a volunteer and encouraged the student to hit him with all their force. This is also unique to Wing Tsun — in other martial arts a student is usually forbidden to hit his teacher. But in order to simulate a real life physical confrontation and trigger adrenaline, actual contact is necessary. Ralph sustained blow after blow from his students. But according to him, it doesn’t hurt.
“You just get used to it after a while,” he says. “The body can handle a lot more than we realize.”
And Ralph has handled a lot more than most. As a young man in East Germany, Ralph’s interest in martial arts raised suspicion among the Stasi, East Germany’s Secret Service. Unbeknown to him, he had been under surveillance for years. In the summer of 1988, because of his involvement with Wing Tsun and his interaction with martial arts organizations in the West, he was thrown into jail as a political prisoner.
“As a political prisoner, I was among doctors, lawyers, pastors, artists, a wide range of people who had collided with the cold inhuman communist dictatorship. We were placed in one of the secret service controlled prisons and purposely put into a population of criminals, who where each time rewarded when retaliating against a ‘political’.”
But Ralph’s imprisonment only spurned a dedication to the very thing that caused his incarceration in the first place. When the Wall finally fell, and Ralph was freed, he moved to West Germany to train as a certified Wing Tsun instructor—and he’s been doing it ever since. This past December he celebrated his 25th Wing Tsun anniversary.
During the exercises, Ralph encouraged me to wander the room and join in. I would pair up with a student or a trainer and awkwardly fumble through the drill. I couldn’t help but involuntarily squeal and apologize every time I actually hit my partner.
As the end of class approached, Ralph gathered the students around and handed the class over to me. I was floored. Even after three hours, I didn’t know a single thing about Kung Fu — or at least I didn’t think I did. As the ‘guest instructor’, it was the scenario that I had hoped most to avoid. But it was as if Ralph sensed my dread to be in the spotlight and decided I needed to overcome my fear.
I looked to Ralph for help. He smiled back at me encouragingly. It was clear to me that Ralph’s not just in the business to teach his students how to deliver a punch or dodge a blow. Instead the core of what he teaches his students is to believe in themselves—to have the confidence to deal with whatever life throws you—be it a violent attack or an unwanted turn in the spotlight.
I looked at the faces of the men and boys lined up in front of me. I knew there wasn’t going to be an instant upload of Kung Fu techniques to my brain. So I picked a punching drill I had seen Ralph do earlier and decided to just wing it.
Click here to learn more about Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver. To try out a class for yourself, check out the Wing Tsun open house on February 1st and February 3rd.
Some kickass Wing Tsun action by Sifu Steve McMinn 1TG.
January 8, 2010
One of the unexpected results of my Roadshow has been the significant amount of empathy I’ve received. I guess this isn’t too suprising given that Canada’s unemployment rate is 8.5%. (And that 8.5% doesn’t include folks who are under-employed or funemployed.) But the empathy isn’t just from my fellow unemployed. It’s also from people that want to pursue their dream job but, like me, don’t know what that is. Many have, however, expressed that the Roadshow has inspired them in their search. (Which admittedly, gives me the warm fuzzies.)
So I’ve decided it is time to expand. To start, I’ve invited a couple foreign correspondents to come onboard. At the moment, I’ve got people stationed in Australia and the U.K. They’re going to make the occasional guest appearance telling their own tales of job shadowing, as well as their own twist on how they plan to seek out their dream job.
If you too want to be a foreign (or not so foreign—some Canadian placements would be great) correspondent, let me know. Be you employed, under-employed, or unemployed, the Roadshow would love to hear your story. Shoot me an email at email@example.com.
January 6, 2010
On Monday morning, the Roadshow made an appearance on CBC’s Early Edition. If you weren’t up Monday morning at 6:21am, have a listen.
Associate Producer Rob Easton tagged along for the Roadshow stop as a dog walker. If you missed the piece on dog walking, you can read it here.
To invite me to work with you, or just say hello, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
December 29, 2009
*Welcome to readers from the Tyee and CBC’s Early Edition*
As much as I love the city of Vancouver, I have an equal fondness for Toronto. (I’m a rare breed, I know.) Since I’m in Ontario visiting my family, I figured I might as well take the Roadshow with me. So starting today, I’ll be looking for some roadshow stops in this lovely, albeit (insert expletive here) freezing city. If you have any suggestions, or want to invite me to work, contact me here. I’m in Toronto until January 5th.
Also, I have the final list for the Roadshow Readers’ Choice. Here are the most popular (mixed in with some of my favourites.) I’m leaving it up to you to make the final decision. Contact me here to cast your vote, or to add a few more to the list!
Adult Store Attendant
Stand Up Comic
The Roadshow will resume with its regular-scheduled Roadshow stop posting in the New Year. Next up, Kung Fu fighting!
December 22, 2009
*Welcome to readers from The Tyee*
Roadshow stop: Carbon Project Solutions
Roadshow mentor: Joseph Pallant
Of the few things that stand out from my high school education is a video that I watched in my OAC World Issues Geography class. (My reference to OAC may give some indication of just how long ago this was.) In high school, videos usually meant nap time. But for this particular flick, I was compelled to stay awake. It was all about the environment–specifically global warming–which was still more than a decade away from being a household word. The video, set in a utopic future, was a mockumentary on how the world solved its environmental and social issues, such as pollution, poverty, and even war, through carbon trading. It seemed so simple–wealthier countries that exceeded their worldwide regulated carbon output quota would invest in clean energy production in developing nations. This created a reduction in the greenhouse gases pumped out into the atmosphere and stimulated economic growth in countries that needed it. Even my apathetic 18-year-old brain thought this made sense. Both my geography teacher and the video were way ahead of their time.
So why all this nostalgia about my first encounters with carbon management? It seemed appropriate, in light of the recently finished (and mostly disappointing) United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) to post my Roadshow stop with Joseph Pallant, the president and CEO of Carbon Project Solutions. Because Joseph is all about carbon. His company, Carbon Project Solutions, helps businesses, governments, and organizations access the carbon market and develop emission reductions projects. And he works both sides–he helps companies offset their carbon, as well as companies who have offsets to sell. (For a definition of carbon offsetting, have a look here.)
For my day at Carbon Project Solutions, Joseph approached things a bit differently than most Roadshow stops. Usually I’m given a task that requires an extra set of hands. But ever the entrepreneur, Joseph took a close look at my skill set to see how he could use it to his advantage and created a task designed specifically for me, which was to write the copy for his website. It was definitely a challenge. Because Joseph speaks and writes in “carbon-ese” or carbon jargon. But his website needed to make issues such as carbon offsetting, emissions reduction, carbon management, and what role Carbon Project Solutions plays in these issues, accessible and easy to understand by non-carbon-ese speakers. (Admittedly, this wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory for me, as one of my roles at the David Suzuki Foundation was to do exactly this. I translated complex scientific environmental issues into relevant and compelling messages that prompted people to act–specifically to donate.)
After much back and forth, Joseph and I developed a script that we both felt represented him and his company–and was concise in its message. It was a job I was happy to do. Because I believe Joseph, and individuals like him, are part of a greater movement that will make the utopic picture painted for me as a pre-adult become a reality. Sure, it may be an overly optimistic attitude, especially in light of the COP-15 outcome, but even when I wasn’t napping in high school, and currently still today, I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer.
Oh..and if anyone remembers what video it was that we watched in Mr. Annett’s OAC World Issues class circa 1995, please send me the name!
My Soapbox (It’s my soapbox and I’m going to stand on it!)
A few breakdowns and discussions on the disappointing outcomes of COP-15:
The Flopenhagen Accord
The Guardian -George Monbiot
The Guardian – John Vidal, Allegra Stratton and Suzanne Goldenberg
A cool environmental design company:
December 1, 2009
I’ve been on the Roadshow for just over two months and I’ve done a total of 14 different jobs. While I haven’t yet surmised where I want my career path to go next, I have gleaned an inside look at many interesting professions. So far, most of the Roadshow stops have been through referrals or people contacting me. Now I’ve decided to put my fate in the hands of my readers. Yup, that’s right: you. I want you to pick where I go next. Because I believe you will come up with jobs that I never would. (Think of it as a chance to act out your secret desire to be a high school guidance counselor.) So if you have suggestions on what type of work I should do, or a particular organization or company that you think I should work for, send me an email or leave a comment.
I’ll take the most frequently suggested and best ideas, put it to a reader’s vote, and then try to arrange a Roadshow stop doing that job. Please send me your ideas by Dec. 16th.
Just in case you haven’t, be sure to visit the Roadshow Rules before making your suggestion. And in particular, pay attention to Rule #1. And as a recap, I’ve so far done the following:
Jewelry Designer (upcoming post)
Carbon Project Developer (upcoming post)
Film Executive (upcoming post)
Sous Chef for an Underground Supper Club
Looking forward to your suggestions! Send them here by Dec. 16th.
November 29, 2009
Roadshow Stop: Dog Walker
Roadshow Mentor: Laura Davies, Creature Comforts
You only need walk a few blocks on Vancouver’s 4th Ave or in Yaletown to see evidence of our society’s dog devotion–bakeries, spas, stylists, couture–all dedicated to the canine. Dog’s have their own magazines, therapists, accessory lines, portrait artists, gourmet foods, hotels–there’s no shortage of puppy paraphernalia and canine-centric services. Honestly, I find this abundance of doggy swag and pooch pampering all a bit mind-boggling. I understand that people love their pets and want to spoil them. And I get that there’s an element of showboating involved. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think that some dog owners who indulge themselves and their pets in this doggy decadence really believe their dogs need this stuff to be happy. (My cynicism may stem from the fact that I have seen perfectly healthy dogs being pushed in baby prams, sans baby, one too many times.)
Don’t get me wrong, I do love a dog in a sweater, and I have what some would describe as puppy fever. I’m known to stop strangers on the street to pet their pooch. I do want, and have always wanted, a dog. (Growing up we were a cat family.) But I refrain from getting myself a “man’s best friend” for a few reasons, the biggest being: commitment. Adopting a dog means (ideally) a minimum ten years together. That’s a long time (especially in dog years). I worry that I’m not responsible enough to provide a stable home for a furry little friend. I especially worry that once I have a job, I would have to leave my dog alone for 8-9 hours a day. That seems like a cruel thing to do.
Many pet owners find themselves in this dilemma. Some are lucky enough to bring their dogs to work. Others, if they can afford it, hire the services of a dog walker. I always assumed that a dog walker was the neighbourhood kid you paid $20 a week to take your dog around the block after school. Apparently, I still live in the 1980s, because:
1. No one trusts neighbourhood kids anymore.
2. Dog walking is a big, and competitive, business. The Google business directory lists more than 1500 dog walking companies in the greater Vancouver area.
For this stop on the Roadshow, I joined Laura Davies, a dog walker for Creature Comforts. Laura’s relatively new to the dog walking business and had only been at it for two weeks when I joined up with her. But she’s no stranger to animals–she rides horses and has had pets all her life. Like me, Laura is part of the recent economy’s wake of under-employed. She moved to Vancouver just over a year ago from Toronto, where she was an audio engineer for eight years. Unable to find full-time regular work in her field, Laura set up her own company, In Ear Audio, but business is slow. She needs other employment to supplement In Ear Audio’s income.
“I gave retail a try. But I discovered I’m not much of a people person,” she says with a laugh. “So dogs seemed like a better fit.”
I met Laura at the start of her one-hour group hike. She had already done her collection–gone around and picked up six pooches–and brought them to Pacific Spirit Park. When I arrived, the dogs were anxiously awaiting release from the back of the little red pick up truck that caged them. Once each dog’s leash was securely clipped on to Laura’s cross-chest harness, she lowered the tailgate and out they hopped. They were excited to get going and they knew the way. The rushed towards the path entrance with Laura in tow.
With a pack of six large dogs, I expected far more chaos. But Laura somehow managed to keep order. Even though she had only worked with them for a couple of weeks, the dogs knew her and obeyed her. When she commanded they all move to her left, they did it. And it was obvious that although she had only known these dogs a short while, some just a few days, she was already attached to them. She interacted with each dog as we made our way along the path. Mickey, the timid one, she spoke to softly. Cody, Skye, and Robi–the playful dogs who were allowed off leash–she would call to and they would come bounding through the woods at the sound of her voice. Pacey and Kiwi, the mellow and complacent dogs who trotted on-leash beside her, she would murmur to almost subconsciously, as she reached down to stroke their faces.
For the most part, it was a pleasant walk through the woods. We had to occasionally call for the off-leash dogs who had strayed a touch too far. And there was a lot of poo to pick up. It was pouring rain, but the rain forest canopy provided enough shelter that it was barely a drizzle. About halfway through the walk, it was my turn to take the dogs. Laura held the leashes of Pacey, Kiwi, and Mickey and wiggled out of the chest strap. Still keeping a good grip on the leashes, she threw the harness over my head like a lasso. Once I had it snugly secured across my chest, she let go. I wasn’t expecting the dogs to have quite the force that they did. I felt like I had a team of small horses strapped to me and I was simultaneously the stagecoach and driver.
I worried the dogs might realize they had an amateur in control of them, but they continued on their walk as though they were oblivious to the changeover. Until about five minutes into it.
“Uh-oh,” Laura said. “Hold on tight to their leashes. Try to keep them close to you.” Following Laura’s instruction, I saw in the distance what caused her concern. It was another dog walker–her colleague, in fact. And apparently, of the seven dogs he had with him, one of them had the potential to be aggressive. Because he, unlike the five male dogs we had care of, still had his balls.
For about thirty seconds, it was a big mess of humans, leashes, and dogs. And then it was over. Following the loud and firm instruction of Laura and her colleague, the dogs separated themselves from the big dog pile, with not even a growl, and continued on their way–panting, sniffing, running, and chewing.
Before I knew it, the walk was almost done. Laura and I had chatted the whole way (you would never know she’s not a people person from her pleasant and friendly demeanour) and the hour flew by. I gave Laura back the reins, and started the next round of poo pick up. (The dogs knew it was almost time to go home so they made sure to do their business.)
Once the dogs were back in the truck, I gave each one a treat and let them nuzzle my face as I said good bye. I spent only an hour with them, but they nonetheless each doled out a generous amount of love. (It could have been the treats.) There was something so precious about their uncomplicated and unwavering affection. It made me want to take every one of them home. They were so content from the hour walk–and it was hard not to interpret it as gratitude. As they panted happily, and nosed my hand, I realized that there was a big difference between dog walking and the more frivolous dog services. Because dogs need to walk. They may not need their portrait done. And they might not need a designer sweater to be happy (although they look pretty darned cute in them), but they do need to walk. Laura was fulfilling this intrinsically dogly need. And the dogs relied on her and loved her for it.
As Laura unhooked the leashes and gave each dog a pat before closing the tailgate, it was clear she was also content from the hour walk. She was wet, muddy, and cold, but from the big smile on her face as she cooed to each dog, it was clear that a need of hers was also being fulfilled. Although unable to find full time employment as an audio engineer, she had found interim work that engaged her. Dog walking was a long way from manipulating and editing sound, but she had managed to find the enjoyment in spending a few simple hours a day with her six new best friends.
To invite me to work with you, or just say hello, send me an email at helen@unemploymentroadshow.
November 23, 2009
Roadshow stop: Personal Trainer
Roadshow mentor: Steve McMinn
Irv’s pull-ups. He barely needs my assistance.
My pull-ups. Steve is doing most of the ‘heavy’ lifting here.
Pull-ups are harder for women than men. It’s how we’re built. However, I am not 64-years-old and diabetic. Nor have I had eight coronary by-passes or high blood pressure. Irv has. You would think this might even out the playing field a little. But I got schooled.
Irv’s physical prowess for a man his age with his health record can be attributed to the twice weekly exercise he does with personal trainer Steve McMinn. They’ve been at it for two years. And it’s made a huge difference. Before training with Steve, Irv could hardly walk up a flight of stairs without the assistance of a hand rail. Now he can kick a 33-year-old (moderately) fit woman’s ass in pull-ups.
But ever the gentleman, Irv assured me with a big smile, barely discernible beneath his giant strongman-style mustache, that with practice and training, I could easily match him pull-up for pull-up in no time. Still breathless from trying, I rolled my eyes and laughed. He winked at me and in his soft voice said, “It’s true.”
“He’s right,” Steve said. “With practice you could do it. Anyone can.”
Steve had just done most of the work pushing me up to the pull-up bar five times. But he seemed unfazed and not the least bit breathless from hefting all 175 cm, 70(+)kgs of my squirming, flailing form to the bar. After demonstrating five unassisted pull-ups of his own, he explained in technical detail what muscles were involved, why it is such a difficult exercise to do, and how I could train for it. From the simple plan he laid out, I believed I might be able to do it.
Or, even more surprising, would want to do it.
I have mixed feelings about exercise. As a kid, I skipped school the days we had to do our fitness challenges, which included things like the dreaded pull-up. As an adult, I like it best when I don’t realize I’m doing it (like skiing or biking). But I need to exercise five times a week to stay in shape and keep the stress pit bulls at bay. So I force myself to run, swim, and go to the gym. But I’m most happy the moment it’s over–because this means it’s the longest period of time before having to do it again. (Probably not the healthiest attitude for my day as a personal trainer.)
I figured to be a personal trainer, you have to possess a blind addiction to exercise, replete with saccharine enthusiasm or testosterone-fueled pumping iron zeal. But after my day with Steve, I discovered that personal training (a least successful personal training) is more about relationships than being a gym nut. You have to be apt at reading people and sussing out what motivators will work for them. Because I’m not alone in my aversion to intentional exercise.
Steve’s been a personal trainer for the past seven years. And he’s not a gym bunny or a meat head. In fact, he’s really normal. He’s ebullient and sometimes a bit of a goof. (Like when he described to one of his clients the best way to defend herself in a knife fight–from his enthusiasm it was hard to tell if he was being earnest–as though this young, middle class Realtor would ever realistically find herself in this situation. The answer, by the way, is run like hell). But somehow this, along with his unruly mop of brown curls, makes him even more approachable. I always associate trainers with making me feel bad about myself because I drink too much wine, or inadequate because I’m not fit enough. But Steve doesn’t dole out the judgment. Instead, he motivates his clients with genuine encouragement. And probably most appealing for me, he’s not infallible. He occasionally eats junk food (he had McDonald’s for lunch that day) and skips work outs when he’s feeling lazy.
Steve believes being a successful trainer is about having the right personality. But he also believes it’s crucial to keep abreast of the latest developments in physical fitness. The best practices in exercise are constantly evolving, and he feels an obligation to his clients that he be on top of the most recent research–not the most recent fads, but effective techniques to safely improve fitness levels. It was through this kind of study that he came across his principle mode of training: kettlebells.
Kettlebells are an ancient form of Russian weight training. They look like cannonballs with handles. Although old, they fit with proven modern techniques of safe and effective weight lifting. According to all of Steven’s clients, hefting and swinging these cannonballs around is fun. And having fun is integral to Steve’s method of training. He believes it’s essential for people to actually enjoy their work out, or they won’t keep up with it long term.
After saying our goodbyes to Irv, we packed Steve’s kettlebells into the trunk of his silver Volkswagon beetle and headed off to meet the next client. Through the course of the day, we met with five personal training clients, and then did an evening group kettlebell class. (Personal training is not cheap, so to make it more accessible, Steve offers a variety of different programs, from individual training to group classes.) The day started at 7:00 am and finished at 7:30 pm. (We were supposed to start at 6:00 am, but thankfully for me, that client cancelled.) There were breaks between clients, but it was still a long day. Steve didn’t seem at all tired–or if he did, he was really good at hiding it. He maintained the same energy for his 6:30 pm class as he did for his 7:00 am client.
I think his stamina stems from not only a genuine (and non-annoying) love of physical fitness, but more importantly, a real love for inspiring and motivating the people he trains. Because he’s not just helping them shed a few pounds. At least that’s not what it feels like he’s selling. While that may be an end result and a goal for some clients, Steve seems to derive the most pleasure out of seeing the difference it makes in their lives. Irv is the perfect example of this–he claims Steve saved his life, and in many ways he probably did, or at least vastly improved the quality of it. Irv is far more active and mobile in ways he never thought he could be. (Including kicking the butt of a 33-year-old in pull ups.) And admittedly, Steve’s ebullience is infectious. He has a way of making his clients believe they can succeed–and once they believe that, they almost always do.
So even for someone like me, who would avoid exercise at all cost if I could, Steve’s somehow convinced me that becoming a pull-up champion (or at least be able to do one on my own) is a possible and even desirable goal.
To learn more about Steve and his kettlebells, visit his website.