Modern Muzak

Muzak, also known as Elevator Music, has always been a great joke. Hearing a Steely Dan tune like “Do It Again” while leafing through a six-month old issue of Field & Stream at the dentist is its own special circle of hell, especially when the mind starts getting infected and singing along silently to the bowdlerized tune (“Back, Jack, Do it Again ….”). And many a great movie has used elevator music to great comic effect. My favorite being Dawn of the Dead (yes, it’s Zombie week at Churbuck.com).

Muzak, at least the true commercial version, is supposed to have a specific effect on the listener. According to the Wikipedia:

“Elevator music is typically set to a very simple melody, so that it can be unobtrusively looped back to the beginning. In a mall or shopping center, elevator music of a specific type has been found to have a psychological effect: slower, more relaxed music tends to make people slow down and browse longer.”

Which brings me to my constant musing about the effect that background music has on certain behaviors. I’ve written in the past* about the way that certain music can improve my ergometer results while other songs effectively kill it. This isn’t your usual athletic lockeroom get-psyched cliche music.  I’m not referring to Eye of the Tiger or House of Pain’s Jump Around. That Rocky soundtrack stuff isn’t what gets my 500 meter splits down an additional two seconds. Indeed, there is some academic research that confirms that some music can improve aerobic results but I’m too lazy at the moment to hunt it down.

When I tended bar it was a given that loud music drove alcohol consumption higher.  At some point in the evening the manager would always step in back, find the big volume control, and crank it when the joint was good and buzzed. Of course the din made it impossible to hear some desperate dipsomaniac shout an order over the heads of her fellow patrons for a pina colada, a peach daiquiri and a sloe gin fizz shortly after midnight on a Saturday night when the only thing that would keep the bar out of the weeds was sloshing wine into glasses and pulling drafts out of the taps. “What?! What?!” we’d shout, handing over a napkin and a pencil with a shrug and the implied suggestion to write it down. Obviously loud music made it difficult to conduct a conversation and all that shouting of “WHAT?” led to a subtle anxiety that could only be slaked by another drink and another drink after that.

Silent restaurants are spooky. I suppose a low volume soundtrack gives one the illusion of being in a sound bubble where one’s conversation can’t be overheard by the next table.

When I was writing unpublished novels and short stories in great earnest during college, I found I could only enter that special creative zone if there was music playing. Loud music. Something about writing to rock and roll got me into a typing groove. I can read fiction with soft music in the background — jazz, etc. — but can’t concentrate on academic level stuff if there are lyrics involved — the word absorption gets mixed up.

My big revelation, and this goes to the post’s headline, is my re-discovery of the Ambient genre and how perfectly it suits a day of concentration. In the mid-70s, when I was a college student, I had two roommates with very eccentric tastes in avant garde music. I’m talking stuff by Morton Subotnick, Sun Ra, Stomu Yamashta and most memorably, Brian Eno, in particular his Ambient 1: Music for Airports. For some reason, ambient is way back on my personal playlist these days.

I think of Eno as the father of ambient music — he’s a genius at elevating background noise from elevators and waiting rooms to high art. Another godfather of ambient has to be Vangelis, particularly his soundtrack for Blade Runner:

So, it’s strange as I age that my taste is music is not the chestnuts from my youth; one more rendition of Freebird or Green Grass and High Tides Forever and I’ll lose it. What’s surprising me is how my tastes have swung to utterly obscure musicians I would never have encountered were it not for the random intelligence behind Last.fm. So, with that said, here’s some names that deserve to be checked out. This is great music to plug into in the background when you’ve got other things to do.

  • Aphex Twin
  • Eskmo ( a favorite video)
  • Lorn
  • Boards of Canada (note the YouTube comment, “The Ultimate Homework-Doing Music”)
  • Carbon Based Lifeforms
  • Loscil
  • Stendeck
  • Totakeke
  • Monolake
  • Robot Koch

 

*: My erg playlist, from 2006 pretty much is holding firm. Suggestions always welcome as “erg playlist” seems to be a top search term driving people to this blog.

  1. Scum of the Earth: Rob Zombie
  2. Who Was in My Room Last Night: The Butthole Surfers
  3. Jesus Built my Hot Rod: Ministry
  4. Ain’t my Bitch: Metallica
  5. Rusty Cage: Soundgarden
  6. Sex Type Thing: Stone Temple Pilots
  7. New World Order: Ministry
  8. Hey Man, Nice Shot: Filter
  9. My Own Summer – Deftones
  10. Astro-Creep: White Zombie
  11. Them Bones: Alice in Chains
  12. Time Bomb: Godsmack
  13. Blizzards, Buzzards, Bastards: Scissorfight
  14. Du Hast: Rammstein
  15. God Save the Queen: Sex Pistols
  16. You Think I’m Not Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire, Queens of the New Stone Age
  17. Jump Around: House of Pain
  18. Liberate: Slipknot
  19. She Sells Sanctuary: The Cult
  20. California Uber Alles: The Dead Kennedys

Row, row, row the boat

Great Head of the Charles — light wind, smooth water, and a boat that came together surprisingly well for one that hadn’t rowed together as a crew before a single practice on Friday afternoon. The event was the Senior Master’s Eights — a 40+ fleet of boat with an average age of 50 or more — consisting primarily of alumni boats representing past Olympic teams, college classes, and boat clubs. I filled a seat in the Northern Virginia Rowing Association’s eight, on the portside four-oar.

from Row2K

(I am fourth from the top in the grey baseball cap, hitting my catch woefully early)

Great race as the crew improved their time over last year’s, and personally it felt more than good to just get a chance to participate in the world’s largest two day rowing regatta.

Sean Maloney’s Rowing Recovery

I met Sean Maloney in Beijing in 2008 during the Olympics. A fellow rower, he had just returned from a row down the course at Shunyi, something I was insanely jealous of as my colleague Alice Li hooked him up with a boat and permission. I didn’t get a chance to row in China, but the expression on Sean’s face as the conversation changed from business to rowing made up for it as he described the awesome feeling of rowing down the lanes where the world’s best would compete in a few days.

Viewed as one of the top talents in Intel’s executive ranks and the likely successor for the top job, Sean suffered a stroke in 2010. The doctors said he wouldn’t row again, so he got in a boat and proved them wrong, competing in the 2010 Head of the Charles.

This video is him telling the tale of rowing and his recovery. I have to say, one year later, he sculls better than I do and has a great finish.

Training for the Charles in Cotuit

I remembered yesterday that the deadline for entering the Head of the Charles Regatta is coming up soon, so I logged into the HOCR.org site and filed an application for one of the precious slots in the Grand Master Singles scull event. I was lucky enough to score an entry in 2003, pulling a dismal 23’03” and finishing second-from last in a field of 39 senior masters. I had my excuses — it was my first Head alone, sculling (I’ve always participated in a team boat with at least four rowers), and I had a torn intercostal muscle in my right rib-cage, necessitating a massive overdose of Advil on the dock.

Update 8.3.11: Entry wasn’t accepted by the HOCR Gods so no Head of the Chuck this year for me. I did enter the Green Mountain Head in Putney, Vermont though. Better scenery.

Excuses, excuses and hope springs eternal. So once more I am crossing my fingers and hoping for an entry in this fall’s regatta, arguably the greatest rowing event in the world.

Application filed, I woke up this solstice morning to bluebird skies and zero wind. I set out the trash cans, drank a cup of coffee, and ten minutes later was backing away from the beach at the foot of Old Shore Road in my old Empacher. I set out around Grand Island in a counter-clockwise direction, rowing a slow stroke rate with firm power, cranking along on a mirror-like surface completely pleased to be able to do such a graceful thing on a whim on what I parochially consider the best rowing water I’ve ever rowed on. 8,000 meters and 43 minutes later, and I was pleased to see my average pace at at the same level it was eight years ago in 2003, a good harbinger I hope of some fall regatta success.

Funny, but in the back of my mind looms February and the 2012 CRASH-B sprints, the world championships of indoor rowing. Every pull-up, every overhead power snatch, kettlebell swing and burpee I’ve done this spring has been with that ugly six and a half minutes of agony in mind. To see them payoff on the water is very rewarding, but for some reason the boat is far more arbitrary a gauge than the merciless ergometer.

Training for the Head of the Charles is a matter of working towards a 5 km distance. Funny how the presence of 100,000 cheering spectators seems to shave a minute or two off the time — but to give you and idea of what I’m up against. Here’s the course on the Charles River as mapped in the g-map pedometer:

And here’s the same distance mapped on Cotuit Bay:

The Real Deal: water rowing resumes

My rowing club, the Union Boat Club in Boston, has a rule for cold-weather rowing called the “Four-Oar Rule.” It’s simple, makes sense, and is safe. When the water is under 50 degrees fahrenheit no one can go out on the Charles alone in a single scull, or together in a two-oared pair. The only safe combination is two people in two singles, or four people in a four, or two people in a double (two oars each). It’s all about the capsize effect and hypothermia. While thankfully rare, capsizes do happen (I average one or two a year, usually because I hit something because I’m not looking over my shoulder every twenty strokes or so) and are real inconveniences to recover from.  First is the shock effect of rolling into the water after working away and building up a good sweat in the sunshine; the next thing you know you’re blowing bubbles under water trying to get your feet out of the sneakers screwed into the foot stretchers.

Having that happen in cold water is not something I ever want to experience, so I tend to be wimpy and stay off of Cotuit Bay until some point in the spring when conditions feel just right — warm temperatures, calm water — to make my annual shakedown cruise.

That day came late this year, only this past Saturday, April 9. And this morning the email came in from the Union Boat Club that the Four-Oar Rule has been lifted.

I had an exceptional row — considering it was the first of 2011 and my hands lack the required calluses – – and right from the first full stroke a few yards off of the Lowell’s beach I could tell the past two months of CrossFit and the million of erg meters before that are going to pay off in a big way in terms of control and power.

I’ll start following the CrossFit Endurance program which blends the six weekly workouts of the day with three rowing workouts that take place at least three hours after the Xfit WOD.  I’ll shoot for one 2,000 meter time trial per month and start training for next year’s CRASH-B’s in earnest.

I find myself thinking of the current world champion, Michele Marullo, during the worst parts of the Crossfit workouts, and just when I am about to toss the towel and bag that one extra burpee, I think: “What would Marullo do?” Competitive impulses are a bitch.

The Body is Evil and Must Be Punished

As I finished the indoor rowing season with February’s CRASH-B sprints, I considered the dead-spot in my fitness/self-abuse calendar between erg season and  when on- the-water rowing can resume without too much risk of killing myself with a hypothermic capsize on Cotuit Bay. More erging was not an option – I’ve got 1.3 million meters logged in since June and don’t feel the need to pile on any more.

It was obvious to me after the CrashB’s, that if I am going to move to the front tier of master’s rowers next year I need to focus on sheer strength. My cardio-vascular/VO2 max capacity is fine, my legs and lower body are fine, it’s all the rest that needs to go to the next level. Whaling away, an hour a day, on a machine as specific and restrictive as the erg is the very definition of putting oneself into a rut. I needed some cross-training, some exposure to some different routines, and the traditional gym wasn’t going to cut it.

Me swinging the kettlebell

So the solution was to join Cape Cod Crossfit.

I’ve blogged about Crossfit in the past — I took it up on my own in the spring of 2008 and stuck with it until the following winter when a torn rotator cuff knocked me out of action. The program – or cult, or whatever you want to call it — was started in the late 1990s by former gymnast Greg Glassman in a couple bays of an industrial park in Santa Cruz. The philosophy is pretty basic and can be stated in 100 words:

“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean & jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouetts, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”

I took to Crossfit because it can be done solo — without paying dues or showing up, or worrying about how you look when you do it in a crowd. It prizes fundamental, primitive exercise. No fancy Nautilus machines or stair-steppers or spinning classes. You pick heavy stuff up and put it down. If you can use your own weight to good effect – think a classic pull-up or push-up — then that’s the way to go.  Crossfit also loves the Concept2 ergometer (which is how I became aware of the program in the first place), and more and more Crossfit-trained athletes are starting to dominate the world indoor rowing rankings.

Crossfit happens six days a week in a former Blockbuster store in an upscale strip mall in the next-door town of Mashpee. A big welded pull up rack runs down the center. A couple dozen plywood jumping boxes, four ergometers, an array of cast iron kettlebells, and about 20 Olympic free-weight bars. Add in some gymnastic rings, a couple floor-to-ceiling ropes, and a lot of jump ropes and you pretty much have the classic Crossfit gym or “box.”

I prefer the 6:30 am session which starts with a “warm-up” that would be most people’s workout.  Burpees (the most evil calisthenic devised), kettlebell swings, wall-ball throws, and 500 meters of rowing gets me far more than just “warmed-up.”

The workouts vary wildly from day to day.  Running one day, shoulders the next. Some take a half hour to perform, some five minutes. They are nearly always done as a group and against the clock, so there is an element of competition involved.

Today we did the workout of the day (or WOD) known as “Diane” (standard Crossfit workouts have female names for some reason). This consisted of doing 21-15-9 repetitions of deadlifts and handstand push-ups for time. I loaded the bar with 225 pounds and did the handstands from a kneeling position on a tall jumping box (modifications are permitted and strongly advised). The owner/coach Mark Lee walked everyone through 20 minutes of instruction on how to perform a proper deadlift and pushup, then he set the clock and counted down “Three-Two-One” and I was off.

Lifting 225 pounds off the floor to a standing, hanging position 45 times is not a trivial pursuit. Alternating those lifts with a blood-rush-to-the-head handstand is just plain mean.

I finished just under 7 minutes, stretched out on the floor and was home by 7:30.

Two months in and I am definitely feeling a serious difference. Soon I’ll start mixing in rowing workouts and begin testing myself against the 2,000 meter distance.

Marc Monplaisir, a fellow masters rower, is blogging about his experience with Crossfit and rowing.

 


Not good enough – CRASH-B Sprints

6 minutes, 39.9 seconds — good enough for 14th place in the 50-54 men’s heavyweight division.

But not what I was looking for. I had gone in hoping to pull an average 500 meter split of 1:38, but completely collapsed in the last 500, allowing three other guys in my heat to pass me in the last 250 meters after holding third place for most of the race. What happened? Negative mindset from the start, a serious desire to put down the handle at 750 meters, then a searing burning pain in my lungs unlike any I’ve felt before. Not my day.

Thank heavens my friend Marta (she of the Charge of the Light Brigade quote in the previous erg post’s comments). She sat behind me and coxed me out of an abject failure and some modicum of victory in that I beat my previous season’s best (6:42) from the Cape Cod Cranberry Crunch and kept my average split just under 1:40. As I told her before the race, keeping the split out of the forties was the main thing. Without her perfect coxing and exhorting I couldn’t have done that.

Michele Marullo from Rome took the race with a record breaking 6:10. Amazing, simply amazing to watch him pull that off.

Well, now I have a mark to beat next year. Onwards to Crossfit Cape Cod and some serious strength training before water rowing resumes in a month.

Here’s the replay of my heat:

Countdown to Agony

In 48 hours, at 9:40 a.m., I’ll be sitting on ergometer #19 on the floor of Boston University’s Agganis Arena, staring at a small square LCD screen flashing the words: “Sit Ready” “Attention” “ROW.”  While I dread it, I have to ask: how awesome is it to participate in the world championships of anything? Even if it is the world championships of indoor rowing? Sunday is the 30th anniversary of the event, which started in Harvard’s Newell Boathouse in the grim winter following the cancellation of the 1980 Olympics (thanks to Jimmy Carter’s Cold War displeasure with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan).  What was a humorous way to kill the tedium of winter training among a few elite Cambridge rowers has now turned into a major affair involving a couple thousand competitors and 10,000 spectators.

Then I’ll be off and puffing for the next six and a half minutes until I pull the handle about 200 times and manage to spin the flywheel at a rate faster than the other 80 or so heavyweight men in their early 50s sitting on identical machines next to me. The results won’t be pretty. The experience will definitely be ugly, and those six-and-a-half interminable minutes will likely be the worst six-and-a-half minutes I experience in 2011.

Or they may be the  best. In the end ergometer racing proves the cliche of the man who hits his head against a wall because it feels so good when he stops.

I’m tapering now with one light,  last row today on the deck in the springlike sunshine, a pyramid of ten, twenty, and thirty strokes at my race pace, then a rare day off tomorrow before Sunday’s moment of truth.  Hydrating, carbohydrate loading, stretching, fretting over my warm-up and race plan, always anxious about whether to set a pace and goal that is within or hopelessly out of reach. Whatever happens, the event provides the venue and the inspiration to dig a little deeper and try a little harder than I would alone, in the shadows of my garage, racing myself against the clock.

Here’s a virtual replay of the finals in my event last year (I didn’t participate).