Labels and labeling aren’t helpful, at all, with one exception: to find yourself
“What are you, little one?”, “why can’t you be like everyone else?”, “it’s just a phase…”, “we need to see a doctor!” In this progression, many a conversation has been held around kitchen or dining room tables around the world, in many different languages. At some point, labels were used: “how can you know you’re [label]?” or “mom, dad, I’m [label]” etc. Over the years, I’ve had neverending discussions with people about our labels, who we are, what we are, and most importantly, why we are (or why we aren’t like the rest…)
Clara, my short story for the upcoming Beaten Track Anthology “Never Too Late“, is about someone who defies labels, too. Clara is, quite simply, “a Clara”…
Labels, I find, tend to get in the way of progress, of true equality. This isn’t primarily about being LGBT, or SAGA (sexual and gender acceptance), or about “masculine” and “feminine”, although the two are closely linked, particularly when it comes to our society, and our value system. Here’s why, and I’ll give you a couple of examples to show why labels are great if you need them to find yourself, but really, really suck, when it comes to shoehorning others.
When we fall in love, or when we’re horny (or sexually attracted to someone if you prefer), a great many things are in play, procreation rarely being the focal point, no matter what they say. We are lucky to be one of the many species on this planet to actually be able to have sex and relationships for pure joy. We should make the most of it. Whether the person we are together with is procreationally compatible with us is irrelevant in nine out of ten cases. We are also lucky to live in a day and age where procreation is no longer necessarily needed to keep our societies growing (a conservative mantra usually) since there are enough kids being born as it is.
I have several friends in my circles who at some point in their lives came to the realization (although this is a lengthy – life-long (?) – process rather than a one-time revelation) they weren’t as clear-cut “male” or “female” as everyone thought, least themselves. A few of them are married, and there are plenty of cases out there which have been dragged around the media. Most people would say that two men who are married are “gay”, right? You might stretch yourself to a compromise that it is entirely possible that one, or both, might be bi-sexual, but with the lingering doubt about “why didn’t they just marry a nice girl then?” (but let’s not be bi-phobic, shall we?) But would you consider it possible that two men are married where at least one of them is straight? Both even? Yet consider this:
Adam marries Eve, Eve realizes she’s really more Steve and transitions, with all the “bells and whistles”. Since Adam really loves Steve, they stay married. So, does that mean that Adam is now gay since clearly he’s married to a guy? Or, as those awful romance books will trope it, is he merely “gay 4U”? Or is Adam still straight? Was he ever straight? Is he pansexual? Here’s the thing: labeling Adam is none of our goddamn business. We shouldn’t even ask him. We should just be happy that there’s one marriage, one relationship, that pasts the test of time and doesn’t break over something as fundamental as a trans/queer coming out.
In the case of Steve, you might say it’s clear-cut since Steve goes from being a “woman” (although was he ever?) to being a “man”, but what about Josie, who considers themselves queer, floating freely between genders, one day feeling all male and butch, the next donning make-up and a nice girly dress. They aren’t “agender”, since clearly, they embrace sometimes very stereotypical gender representations, unlike Sasha, who absolutely hate everything about their born sex and thus assigned gender and consider themselves “agender”, meaning they are neither male nor female, although, to the naked eye of the observer, the way they dress and act, may at times appear very similar to Josie. And yes, there’s the mess with pronouns which gives more people headaches than necessary. Remember this with your “they/them” friends: in 99 out of 100 times when you’d have to use the “they/them”, they will not actually be in the room to hear it – and be offended – as you’d otherwise be using the pronoun “you” in addressing them. Therefore, no need to really worry. You’ll be fine. Just try to get it right. It’s intentionally getting it wrong which is the offensive gesture. What about Josie’s and Sasha’s spouses? What would you label them?
So why do we use labels in the first place? Quite simple: we are so used to the binary system or “male” & “female” and them being straight, that everything that falls outside those categories is confusing to most. Our brain has a built-in need to understand, to categorize, to box things neatly, and that’s where labels come in handy. Problem is that labels can cause offense and be hurtful. Just imagine how Donald Trump would react to being addressed as “Mrs. Trump”, or if you’d call the Queen of England “Mr. Windsor” or “His Majesty”… Imagine yourself, if you’re cis-gendered, being labeled the opposite by a complete stranger. It would certainly sting, and you’d ask yourself “why would they say that?”, “what’s wrong with my masculinity/femininity?”, “what clue could they have misinterpreted?” and depending on who you are, you might ponder for a long time about what signals to avoid sending henceforth. It’s how we tick. Not having a label makes us uncomfortable, and we’d rather shift then discomfort on the other, rather than dealing with it ourselves. Quite egotistical really!
Alok Vaid-Menon is an example of what I’m talking about. Alok defies labels, with the exception of their beautiful name. To learn more about them, their art and their views, listen to this great podcast. Photo: Alok Vaid-Menon
The “rest” of us are quite the same. As a father, I often get to hear that “well, you’re not a mother, you couldn’t know how this feels…” to which I could say a whole bunch of things, but it just exemplifies that we attribute so much content to a specific label, regardless of whether it is true, or not, or to what extent something holds true.
I’m not saying all women are as physically strong as men, but there are a significant number of women who are significantly stronger than a significant number of men. I’m not saying that all men are better at raising kids than women, but there are a significant number of men who are significantly better at raising kids than a significant number of women.
Now replace “physically strong” & “raising kids” with anything, and you’ll get my point. Labels just aren’t helpful. They just cement our prejudice. Labels are necessary though, for ourselves, as we try to learn who we are, ourselves. The minute you realize that you’re different, “abnormal”, a “freakosaurus”, that’s when labels can help you. Whether you’re a gay boy or girl slowly walking the path from straight to gay via bi (it happens kids) or whether they stay put at bi, whether you wake up one day to realize that the body bag you’re in doesn’t quite suit who you are, and you need help to find out where on the spectrum between the poles “male” and “female” you are at home, or whether you’re an eternal wanderer. If a label helps you to find yourself, and – more importantly – others like you, then great.
I’ve used labels to describe things here, too. If you go back over the text though, you’ll realize that the only label which really fits each of the individuals above, is the one we learn when we first meet them, their name: Adam, Steve, Josie, and Sasha. And they’re beautiful labels, individually tailored to fit each and every one of those amazing human beings. The rest? None of our business really, as long as they are kind, gentle members of society.
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“Boys will be boys”, right? Seems many of the tactics of straight men have also been used in the gay community…
Interesting days we live through, eh? I’m not even referring to the orange cheeto currently occupying the White House, although he is, of course, one of the worst offenders in terms of the whole #MeToo campaign, yet oddly, while male chauvinist pig after male chauvinist pig has been forced out of their jobs (too many to name), DOTUS himself seems to still hover unfazed, above it all. Strange times. Sexual harassment isn’t anything new of course, but the #MeToo campaign has grown into something much bigger, much larger, and it’s refreshing to see how so many millions of women around the world suddenly rise up and demand things to change for the better, at last, at long last.
From my personal vantage point, I look at this all with a certain amusement, because I don’t even get it, I don’t understand how any man would want to grab a woman by her genitals or shove his hands down her bra to give her a good squeeze. But that’s because I’m gay, and I’ve just not interested, and why would I squeeze goods I’m not interested in buying? That would be like squeezing avocados in a store just to see whether they were, in fact, ripe or not, even though you don’t like them. However, I do like men, and so it stands to reason that I might do what is done to women, but to other (gay) men? I’ll get back to that later.
The question warrants asking, because we’ve seen the stories told about other LGBT men, from disgraced Kevin Spacey to George Takei. And it made me wonder, because when “uncle George” talked about his own experiences with Howard Stern, and seemed to shrug off some allegations with “not remembering”, people were understandably upset. Yet don’t we all forget? Let me just say this with regards to my own experiences: I have met people I’ve apparently had sex with, many years later, and I had absolutely no recollection of it. That is, of course, embarrassing in that moment when you see that person again, but is just a symptom of what we think is important in our lives, and what isn’t. “What”, mind you, not necessarily “who”. Do I remember ever behaving inappropriately toward other men? In bars, discos or elsewhere? Honestly? I don’t remember. Is it possible? Sure, anything is possible. I am a flawed human being like the rest of them, but unless someone specifically was to jump-start my memories, I can’t remember anything. I don’t think it’s likely though, because of my own experiences as a victim of sexual assault, rape and my deep convictions with regards to that topic. What I do remember, however, are my own experiences as a young gay man, going out, and the constant groping and touching going on in gay bars. Someone recently wrote an excellent post about this on Facebook, in response to the allegations against George Takei, and I do remember all of this going on vividly. Yes, it may have been part of the male gay community, and it may have almost been a necessity to meet people a long time ago when our entire community was reduced to sex(uality). Does that mean we still have to do things this way? I asked some gay men around me, some my age, some older, some younger, about their own experiences, and these are some of their answers:
“Things were very different for gay men in the 80s. Being groped was a regular part of my life. If I didn’t like it, I’d tell the guy to back off, but I wouldn’t make a huge deal about it. There were exceptions, such as the story I’ve told about a man pulling me into a dark room and yanking my pants down. I had to literally fight him off, and that was scary.
But things are different now. Men can’t grab at each other like they used to. People have learned more about boundaries — which is a good thing.”
Someone else had this to say, and I can sympathize with him, not to mention that I felt the same when I felt like an ugly duckling:
“When I first went clubbing in […] as a student I would be grabbed and pinched and oogled all the time. It was just how it was in gay clubs then. It may be the same I don’t know I’ve not been clubbing recently.
To be honest, having struggled with who I’d fancy and getting my head around it being men, back then I took the grabbing & pinching as a compliment because it meant *someone* fancied me; even if I didn’t wanna go to bed with them it was an option I then had unlike before.”
Here’s a comment that I know many women will recognize:
“That was a part of gay culture I hated. Being groped, pinched, fondled without permission pissed me off. Being told what a cold bitch I was for rejecting these advances made it worse.”
I wish I knew for certain that things have changed. Someone very wise said on a podcast the other day that the LGBT community suffers from more alcohol and drug abuse, is more prone to mental illness than anyone else. Given our treatment by parents, schools, workplaces, and society at large, no surprise. Sadly, where alcohol and drugs go in, sense goes out, and people act stupidly. So I’m not as optimistic as the first commenter above. But it certainly seems necessary.
I remember being subjected to all of the above, and I know for a fact that there are three decades between the first and the second commentator, so if anything’s changed, it must’ve been very recently. Some aspects of gay history and culture are unique, and they’re mostly going away (from bathhouses to sex clubs), and our more open embracing of our sexuality, or sex drive to be more accurate, isn’t a bad thing per se. I quite like having sex myself, and I quite dislike monogamy and societal rules built around religious concepts and morality. They serve no one but to oppress. We are one of the few species on the planet that can actually have sex just for enjoyment, and enjoying ourselves, feeling good is not a bad thing (don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise), quite the contrary. Happy people are more likely to be good people, helpful and honest. Suppressing our sex drive, to hide behind veils of vows of monogamy etc. will only lead to people cheating and lying to each other, from the Groper in Chief to Roy Moore and all those other men who have been caught with their pants around their ankles. And where there’s a straight man, there’s usually also a woman. It takes two to tango. Women have sex drives, too.
Here’s the point though: to have a sex drive, to embrace it, have sex with multiple partners or to merely jerk off to a good porn flick or an erotic story is all fine, but to force your needs onto others just isn’t cool. As gay men, we can’t hide behind our “oppressed” label anymore. I hated being disrespected by older gay men in clubs when I was young, and I’d hate to do the same to the young men growing up today. Mind you, I haven’t been to a club in decades (which is why I have no clue what goes on these days), but I do meet other gay men all the time, at conventions, meetings, events. And I keep my distance, physically.
There is a “pecking order” in society. We all know that age, money, job, gender, sexuality, they all give you power over others, perceived or otherwise, depending on the culture of that society. Some use that to their advantage, which is wrong. That’s the only way I can say this. However, to get to the real root issue here, we must dig deeper. MUCH deeper. Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast I listen to regularly, a podcast I was on just two weeks ago, as a guest. The guest on Monday’s recording was Alok Vaid-Menon, a trans artist, and activist. Let me just say that his words summarize most beautifully the real issues we face in our cis-gender-centered world, and if you have a half hour, I highly recommend you listen to Alok with an open mind. I’ve written about feminism in the past, and how I believe that our fate (i.e. that of the LGBT community) depends on the success of feminism, first. Alok explains why, and I don’t remember just how many times I shouted “I totally agree” while walking my miles on the treadmill, listening to him. You can find the episode right here.
Once again, a long post. My apologies. But these are important days for all of us, no matter whether we cis-identify or not, and how we act based upon that in the world that surrounds us. What is your take on all this? I’m curious to hear from you, as always.
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Why the example of Kevin Spacey and others should serve as a reminder of just how dangerous homophobia can be
No, I’m not going to excuse Mr. Spacey’s behavior, which – although not proven in a court of law – has been subject to so many young men coming forward with similar stories that we simply cannot turn a blind eye. I’m not a court, but I’m also not going to apologize for his behavior or in any way try to minimize it. What I want to point at is something else entirely, how people like Mr. Spacey (we currently have a similar example with an LGBT woman in our public broadcasting system here in Sweden, and allegations against George Takei have also surfaced) who have lived closeted most of their lives, endanger themselves and – more importantly – others, for fear of being outed.
Why would anyone be afraid of being outed?
Right! Right? Well, being LGBT is unlike being a “four-eyes” or a “redhead”, things kids were teased with when I grew up. Being LGBT can get you killed, fired, imprisoned, put in a mental institution, neutered or made homeless (to just mention a few relatively common side effects.) Even in the U.S., where gays and Lesbians can get married these days, they could also lose their jobs for it, be refused access to anything from cakes to healthcare, and the Vice President of the Republic (a closeted gay himself!) wants to hang us all… Are you sure it’s so given to come out?
Yet we should, we have to. Particularly in the countries where being LGBT isn’t illegal. But that’s not the point here today. Instead, let me go back a few years, to that fateful night of Kevin Spacey’s assault on a very young Anthony Rapp, way back in 1986. What a year that was. Remember? Reagan was president, HIV was everywhere. Rock Hudson was already dead, and people were panicking that “poor Krystle might have AIDS…” That’s the world where a much younger Kevin met a fourteen-year-old Anthony. It’s a world where Hollywood is so homophobic and so closeted (remember how Stephen on Dynasty had his boyfriend killed by his own dad, and nobody batted an eyelash? Since we’re already on Dynasty turf with Rock Hudson…) that coming out, for a young actor like Kevin Spacey, irrespectively whether it is as gay or bisexual would’ve effectively meant the end of his fledgeling career. If you look at his IMDB profile you’ll see that he was just about to get his first roles in TV and film. No young actor (in their right mind) would’ve come out. They’re still not doing it…
His behavior is inexcusable, of course (I can’t say this enough), but at least partially explainable because of the environment that LGBT people face. You can’t date openly, like everyone else, so you do it clandestinely, and some just can’t do that without stepping over the line. Ask any Republican congressman or senator who’s been caught in similar positions over the decades, either with (young) boys or with male escorts. There’s a reason why they did it clandestinely: homophobia. Because they knew that if they came out, their careers would be over: politics, business or the movie industry, doesn’t matter. Most straight actors just date ahead, no worries about tomorrow’s repercussions. Some, like senatorial candidate Roy Moore, still doesn’t care that he once dated teens. Different topic, but equally disgusting.
Over the years, things have changed, and very brave people in many countries have come out and paved the way for others, Ellen DeGeneres being one good example in the U.S. Kevin Spacey’s weird coming out (as if anyone in the LGBT community didn’t already know) last week was awkward at best, and people have said pretty much everything that needs to be said about that. Yet this is still a thing. People his generation and younger are still afraid of coming out, and that fear, that paralyzing feeling of what a coming out might do to your career, is numbing. Couple it with the immense power of stardom (or economic, political power) and you have a very toxic mix. I think the Swedish case, and as revealed over the past few days, George Takei, are all expressions of this. And for the final time, not an excuse, merely a possible explanation. Worse still, not only does their closet behavior threaten their own existence, but also that of the people around them. I don’t doubt that there was a level of attraction between the stars and their victims. I’ve been the younger man attracted (being as much of a closet case as they were) to the older, too. I wasn’t out. Heck, I wasn’t even fully aware of being gay. But my older suitors were, smelling the gay (we call it gaydar) on me. That makes young LGBT people particularly vulnerable, because they’re not only insecure about their true identity, far from accepting it, and then being preyed upon? Wow. A dangerous cocktail. I was lucky to have been treated with respect and love, but when the other person is a star, closeted and paranoid, a quick “getting their rocks off” may be the only thing on their mind, not your well-being.
I can’t know if Mr. Spacey had acted differently if he’d been straight like a fiddle, or out. Plenty of straight men (and women) who’ve acted horribly against their fellow human beings. I honestly couldn’t say. Looking at other powerful predators from the Kennedys, Donald Trump, Dominique Strauss-Kahn et al., homophobia isn’t necessary, but secrets and lies certainly aren’t helpful in situations like that. And I think in this situation, it might have made it worse… What do you think? One thing’s for sure. The #MeToo campaign better keep going until we have this mess sorted out for good, because no woman, no man deserves to be treated this way, against their will, and most certainly no minor.
It’s an unacceptable behavior to harass other people, sexually or otherwise. My take. What’s yours?
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It’s release day for Disease, and I can’t wait for you to read this one…
Disease, my new novel, releases today.
“How do you explain Alzheimer’s to someone who doesn’t have it?
It’s really impossible. One moment, you’re just like everyone else—talking, having fun, being part of a conversation—and then boom! You forget something, a word, a face, a memory, something that belongs right there, in that conversation. You stand there, in that circle of people, and that which you have forgotten becomes the elephant in the room, with everyone staring at you, waiting for you to remember. And you panic, you get stressed, and yeah, at that point, you’ll never remember it anyway.
People laugh at it when they think you’re just like them. Normal. Healthy. Not so much when they know you have it. The disease.
“Don’t worry, Hunter. We all forget stuff. It’s no big deal.” But it is a big deal. It is a very big fucking deal. It’s my memory—my life literally turning to goo inside my head. This thing is going to kill me!
Not that I’d ever say anything. People get antsy around sickness, around disease. So I keep my mouth shut. I drop out of conversations. Slowly. Retreat into the safety of my thoughts. For what it’s worth. For what’s left of them. If Ethan is with me, maybe I’ll take his hand, award him a glance. He knows of my pain. He’s the only one who really understands how I feel. At least, I like to think so.
Have you ever read The Neverending Story by Michael Ende? at is exactly how my mind is. Like Fantastica. Well, sort of. My mind was never really fantastic to begin with… But, just like the novel, Nothing is taking over, and little by little, it breaks down my mind, my Fantastica. Only there is no Bastian to rescue me. No Atreyu going off on adventures on my behalf. No Falcor to fly to my aid. Just the Nothing. Taking over, bit by bit. And you never know what’s next to go.”
Release day, and when Amazon finally opens the floodgates and sends the book to all those who pre-ordered it (thank you btw), I’ll be approaching the runway for a landing at Munich airport. So yeah, this is a pre-recorded post. Sorry. It’s my fifteenth release day since I began writing, and while I’m not feeling particularly nervous this time (I have seen so many gorgeous reviews already that I know the book will be well received), I feel a sense of accomplishment, pride. I hope you’ll forgive an old man’s indulgence. Yes, pride is a good word.
I lose my mom far too soon, yet it was still a relief for us. Why? The book will allow you to understand.
I also feel thankful to Hunter, Ethan, and Amy, for allowing me to tell their story. And I am grateful for the time I got to spend with my mother, herself a victim of the wretched disease that is Alzheimer’s, and in a way a template for Hunter’s mother. Through mom, I got to experience some of the later stage symptoms first hand, the emotional turmoil, the paranoia, and all the other symptoms that are associated with the disease, like losing your appetite, your sense of taste etc. While Hunter’s story is rooted in my own fears of having Alzheimer’s (unfoundedly as it turned out), his struggle helped me play with various scenarios of how we, as human beings, deal with a death sentence. To be handed a best before date is probably one of life’s greatest challenges, and Hunter allowed me to pitch various scenarios, different viewpoints against each other. In a way, Disease isn’t just about Alzheimer’s, but it’s a story about life, living life to the fullest, but also about our own control of our own fate, society, and our friends and families. At least philosophically.
Why read Disease? I’ve been asked this question many times. Whether you’re personally affected by Alzheimer’s (through family or loved ones) or if it’s just a theoretical concept for you at this stage, you can read the story from the above perspective, see how we rise to adversity, how we play the hand that life has dealt us. But Disease is also a love story, romantic even (yeah I know, I’m a sappy romantic even when I kill my main character in the end), showing how two people love each other, stand by each other, no matter what (and I mean this literally). Or you could read the story to understand, to fathom how and why Alzheimer’s Disease is such a wretched thing to happen. I’ve been told by many reviewers just how cathartic a read it is:
“As I medical professional, I have encountered this illness. I have been caregiver to one particular patient and it is heartwrenching and not the best feeling. It makes one exam their own mortality and question: How brave will I be if this were me?”
My gratitude to Hunter, Ethan, and Amy for sharing it with me, allowing me to tell you their story. But now it’s time for me to let them go. They are yours now, and I shed a few tears as I take my leave from them and place them in your care, and I ask you: “how brave are you?”
Hans M Hirschi
The end is the start to something new…
It’s over… I don’t think I’ve quite grasped that fact yet. Yet as much as it may be a cliché, the end is always the beginning of something new, the undiscovered country, the future. And I for one am looking forward to it. I sit here at Denver’s airport, overlooking the Rocky Mountains towering tall in the distant background, colorful planes coming and going. I’m on my way to Tucson for a couple of days, to see my dear sister, having just taken leave from my tribe, my beloved crowd of readers and authors of GRL. Four intensive days, climaxing – as always – last night – with the annual costume party. And yes, that is over, too.
A costume party and a goal
A slow but steady increase in weight around my waist had me look like this in March of 2017. Not what you want to show off in public…
The road to Denver began in early March when we were finally able to register. Just days later I learned of the theme for the costume party, and after my exploit in 2015, the pressure on me to pull another queen out of my hat has been high, from attendees as well as myself. And it’s always a tricky endeavor, as last year proved. My emperor Hadrian, champion of marriage equality, as amazing as the costume was, fell flat after the theme of the party was morphed from “over the rainbow” to a more specific “The Wizard of Oz”. Yeah, no Roman emperors in the emerald city, but I had already invested so much money in the costume design that it was too late to morph it into a munchkin or another twister. Instead, everyone marveled at a naked Tin Man, amazingly performed by vocal artist Joel Leslie Froomkin, with the body paint applied by his equally artistic husband. Hat off…
When the organizers told me that this year’s theme would revolve around the Wild West, I had a flashback to last year and Joel’s costume, and I’ll be honest (as always) and admit that I had felt a tinge of envy at Joel’s beautifully sculpted body. Yes, and my friend Meghan Maslow confirmed as much in a discussion we had, if you want to show skin, you can’t do so in a flabby dad bod. Nobody wants to see that. There is a fine line between being sexy and being embarrassing. I agreed. Yet oddly, the “wild, wild west” had me think of a slutty cowboy (because just going in chaps wasn’t very original). I have never been ashamed of my body, and I had people cat-calling and whistling after me in France way back in 1983 when I dressed up as a prostitute (female, mind you) for a costume party thrown by my language school EF. I was named Miss EF St. Malo for that mini skirt and t-shirt, wearing my madame’s bra underneath it. No shoes, because we couldn’t find any my size. Madame was petite. I was sixteen at the time, and I had the body for it: hairless, slim and no visible muscles. I had never worked out in my life.
My personal trainer, coach and nutrition expert, Markus Jielin from STC Training in Sweden. I got really lucky with him, and his gentle way was exactly what I needed to push myself harder and harder to reach my goal.
So being un-dressed didn’t scare me. What did scare me was my body. I had let myself go over the past twenty-five years, increasing in weight from the 75 kg (165 lbs) at my 6’1” to almost 90 kb (195 lbs), note that my skeleton only weighs 3.7 kg (8.1 lbs). The slope had been gentle and slow, but steadily downward, and while I don’t remember my clothing sizes as a kid, my upper body had always been a medium, but my jeans sizes began to increase from a 31 to a 34 two years ago. And it was a tight fit. At my age, other complications arose: I have a herniated disk in my neck, which had been giving me trouble ever since it ruptured in 2012, and I have a shot disk in my lower back which had my sciatica in turmoil for the past three years. There were many a day when I could barely get out of bed, and when my physical therapists prescribed me exercises to strengthen my core to help steady my spine, I couldn’t do them because of the pain. Or I didn’t do them because I wasn’t in pain that day, the latter a huge mental problem, more than anything else. I was badly out of shape, and mentally nowhere near ready to tackle the lapses of twenty-five years. I started gaining weight shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday. So it’s been a long time building. To be able to show off my naked torso and a six pack was a dream, a crazy, really crazy dream, but somehow it rooted itself in my mind and I decided to try and do something about it. Nothing but a challenge for me to rise to. I contacted a local gym, five tram stops from our port and hired a personal trainer.
Markus from STC probably (no, most certainly) thought I was nuts, out of my mind, when we first met for our first work-out on March 20th this year. I mean who hires a personal trainer just to get undressed at a costume party in the states, right? But I guess he thought “his money to waste…” and we began to work. One of the first things we looked at was my nutrition. I don’t use the word “diet”, because we all know that dieting doesn’t work, because the second you stop, you’ll gain that weight right back, and then some. You have to change your nutrition permanently in order to achieve results. Markus suggested going slow, making tiny changes, one at a time, not to overdo it, in order not to lose faith in the process. He was spot on. I always thought I was eating healthy. No bad fats, no cheap processed food and yada, yada. However, I quickly noticed two things: there was too much fat in my food (still), way too much sugar and, worst of all, we simply ate too much, drank too much, the casual glass of wine pretty much every evening for instance. Empty calories…
“Remember, nutrition is 80% of your success, working out only 20%”
Progress was fast, and by June, my jeans felt super loose. I had already lost two inches around my waist. Now I’m back at my 31” jeans waist.
This is Markus’s mantra, and he (and all scientific research in the area) are of course right. But we did work out, once a week together, him showing me new exercises, pushing me to lift more weight, me alone, twice every week. I remember how frustrated I was, not remembering them, not knowing what to do, how to do it, but I began to spend many hours at the gym, every week, with three hours of weightlifting and two to three hours on the treadmill, walking off calories. Progress was swift. By the end of June, that excess flab I had built up in the past four to five years was mostly gone, my body fat count had dropped from 15.6% (which is pretty average in Sweden for men my age) to 10.7%, but I had also lost muscle tissue, even though I was feeling stronger.
We increased the tempo and made more nutritional changes, which also included to pretty much forego alcohol. We increased my protein intake to help build my muscle strength, and my first real mental challenge was the cruise and vacation this summer: all this amazing food, free drinks on the ship, and I could barely partake, because I realized that every mojito meant less food left to be eaten. I could not, I would not, exceed my daily calorie targets. It paid off. By the end of the summer, my body fat count was down to 9.9% and I began to see muscles in my upper body. As a former runner, I’ve always had muscular strength in my legs, and even though I’ve increased my leg press results from 350 lbs in March to 750 lbs (!) in September, it wasn’t a priority. My arms, chest and shoulders were (re herniated disk). At the beginning, I could barely do a bench press with the 20 kg (44 lbs) empty bar. These days I press 70 kg (154 lbs) and I’m sure I have room for improvement. To do a pull-up was a dream for me, but to lift that chin and the 89 kg of my body over the bar just was not in the cards. These days I can easily do ten, and one with 30 kg (66 lbs) attached to my body, totalling 244 lbs. More than any other of Markus’s clients, and by a fifty year-old? I’m proud of myself…
I don’t care about the costume party any more…
The slutty cowboy or “unique”, as I’ve called him last night… The end of the road, or?
Not entirely true, but as I learned about my body, my nutrition, and when I saw the changes in my physical appearance, I also began noticing the effects of it on my general health: I began to sleep better, my bathroom visits less complicated (no need for details), my mood improved, there was a ‘spring’ in my walk and my mood. It’s really hard to explain, but I began to feel happier, and proud of what I had achieved, the fact that I had achieved it. But I wasn’t quite there yet. Not for Denver, not for GRL, not for that six pack. For many men, body fat first gathers around the belly, and I quickly learned how hard it is to realize that “the first place you gain it will be the last place you lose it…” After the weigh-in in August, I realized that if I really wanted for people (and myself) to see the growing six pack, I needed to push myself even harder and decrease the fat content of my body even further.
Last Monday, the day before I flew to Denver, at my final weigh-in, I had it pushed all the way down to 6.4%, lower than Markus’s own, and he’s been working out regularly for decades, a former elite athlete. Mission accomplished. But that wasn’t important any more, as much as it was a mile stone worth celebrating. I am healthy as a horse, and while my sciatica still hurts regularly, it’s not debilitating. I’m not having trouble getting out of bed, I move freely. I am happy.
And as weird as this may sound, at the age of 50, I look better than I ever have in my entire life, sexy – if I may say so – not embarrassing, beach 2018, where art thou?. The six kilo that I’m heavier than I was when I was sixteen are all muscle, and these days, my t-shirts aren’t tight around the waist, they’re tight around the shoulders. An amazing feeling. I’m healthy (as certified by two doctors), I’m happy, and I’m stronger than ever before.
The statistics behind my physical change. We never did a weigh in at the start so those figures aren’t complete. I guess Markus didn’t really believe I would stick to it in the beginning… I’m surprised myself that I did. Then again not. I tend to rise to a challenge, particularly when people say “you can’t” or “you won’t”…
So when I finally got ready for the party last night, having duped people for over seven months, wearing a fake santa belly for the entire conference, I was ready to show off my new body. Oddly, I wasn’t excited though, or nervous. Had I not spent so much time, I might as well have just attending in jeans and a t-shirt. It was almost anti-climactic, because I had already reached my real goal. The goal that had begun to take over as I began to enjoy the endorphin kick of a good work-out, as I was able to walk and hike again without being out of breath after a half-hour, as I was able to admire myself in the mirror after the shower every morning…
I did dress up (or down), and I did go to the party. I did have a great time, and nobody recognized me, some not even after I’d removed the mask, which had been a sort of sub-goal of the whole process with the little white lies (of not even going to the party) and the santa belly I’d worn all week (which was hellish btw, killing my posture and impeding my mobility, which was an odd reminder of what it meant when I was carrying around the worthless weight of the 8.8 kg (19.4 lbs) fat I’ve lost.
The end of the road?
In order to maximize the “look” of my muscles, Markus set up a brutal body-builder competition regimen, something I don’t care to repeat, but yeah, one of those things you do for maximum results. I wasn’t allowed to work out the last three days before the costume party. I couldn’t abstain entirely, and did walk quite a bit, even sneaking into the gym at the hotel in the middle of the night for a walk on the treadmill. This morning, when I woke up, my body ached to work out and break out a sweat. 45′ in the gym did the trick. Some arms, legs and stomach exercises and a few minutes on the treadmill were exactly what the doctor prescribed. Weird, because I had never had that urge before. I do now, and I can’t wait to see Markus again and discuss new goals, to further strengthen my back, to alleviate my back pain some more, and to continue to work on my upper body strength and particularly my shoulders. But I’ll be honest and I can’t wait to actually drink the champagne on my flight home, not just sip it, and to drink a good glass of wine with a great dinner again, not that I’ve felt the urge to drink alcohol tbh. But to be able to…
I’ve changed my entire life-style to a healthier one, both for me and my family, and the only way to keep this body is to keep working out, because I know what happens when you stop, and I don’t want to lose that amazing feeling of feeling great.
How to read this post and what it isn’t…
This week I’ve also come to accept that I’ll never be able to repeat San Diego. Her Majesty is a GRL legend, and no other costume idea will ever top her accomplishment. What I did this year may be amazing for me on a personal level, but in terms of costume, it was nothing out of the ordinary. That is quite alright.
We talk a lot about fat shaming in my community and amongst my friends, and I do have friends society would consider “obese”, and who are called “fat”. Some even call themselves those words. There are a gazillion reasons why people’s bodies act and react differently to things. And we, as a society, tend to go for the physical look and judge a book by the cover. Trust me, as an author, I know that to be true. I didn’t talk to many people, and particularly avoided friends who feel self-conscious about their bodies. Progress for me, as hard as it was (in terms of labor), was easy. I have a lean physique, genetically, and I had the means, in terms of finance and time, to spend up to eight hours per week at the gym, slaving with weights, treadmills and bikes. Many do not. No blame, no finger pointing. We are all very different, and while it took a silly costume party to finally get my butt out of the house, someone else’s motivation may be different. I don’t want to hand out advice. Medical science knows exactly what can be done and how in order to achieve a healthier life-style. Yes, perseverance and hard-work, alongside lasting, permanent changes to your nutrition are at the core. No free lunch, no quick fixes. I need to remind myself that while I may have lost a lot of fat in my body, the fat cells remain, ever ready to be re-filled.
But as I enjoy my now regular breakfast with eggs, quark, fresh fruit and berries, I also realize and smile at the fact that eating well and healthy can actually mean to eat more, and tastier. I do hope that my journey might show that it’s never too late to aspire to change, that a 50-year old can have a ship-shape body, and if you do want to change, I hope you find the motivation, that first goal, you need to get started, as well as the help of someone like Markus to guide you professionally. I wish you the best of luck on those first baby steps (no leaps!) into your undiscovered country, your future. I see a lot of very old people at the gym, and I’ve met some amazing and strong people, whose much bigger muscles aren’t visible, so just because you have a roundish figure doesn’t mean you can’t be super healthy and strong. The two just aren’t totally correlated. Will I stay as lean as I am now? Probably for a while, but it’s not even healthy in the long run. There is a biological need for fat to e.g. grease joints, so I’ll try to gently increase to a more sustainable level, with Markus’s help. I’m not getting younger and over time, as my skeleton weakens and the clock ticks, my body will change naturally. I’ll need to adapt. And that is fine. The one thing I want to retain though is my happiness, and that spring in my walk. It’s made me a better person.
Denver, October 22nd, 2017
Hans M Hirschi
author and 7 month fitness convert
PS: I know that I’ve been consciously telling a ton of little white lies to a bunch of people over the past seven months, about me never working out, about not knowing what to do for the costume party, not going etc., culminating with the Santa belly this entire past week. If anyone has taken offense, please accept my sincere apologies. I never meant to hurt anyone, and I doubt I did, but these days you never know what people are hurt by, so better sorry and safe, to paraphrase the old saying. I’m not a liar, and it wasn’t easy to keep the charade alive for such a long time, particularly not around some of my closest friends.
When my mother in law had a heart attack, we were facing impossible life-altering choices
When this post goes live, I’ll be in Switzerland, buying sweets and chocolates for my trip to the U.S. next week. I’ll be enjoying the company of family and relatives, amazing food and hopefully glorious fall weather. St. Gallen, my home town, can be glorious this time of year. However, this year our trip is overshadowed by my mother in law’s health. After suffering a heart attack, she was rushed to the hospital where the professionals quickly surmised that she needed major open heart surgery to replace a heart valve and to undergo a triple bypass. Yeah, imagine. Life…
Disease, my highly praised coming novel, isn’t ‘really’ about Alzheimer’s, it’s a story about celebrating life, creating memories that outlive our physical existence. You can pre-order it here.
Open heart surgery is never easy. Recovery times are three months for healthy people. Well, healthy for someone who needs that sort of major op. But for someone who’d suffered a major stroke, whose general health is on a slow downward slope? Yeah. Luckily, we didn’t have to make the choice between surgery and no-surgery. In Sweden, when someone isn’t of sound mind, that decision lies with the healthcare professionals.
Today the hospital informed us that they wouldn’t perform any surgery on my husband’s mom. I should say I’m relieved, but on the other hand I also know that this means that she could suffer another heart attack at pretty much any given time. Tomorrow. Or a year from now. But like Hunter in my coming novel, a best before date has been place on my MIL’s life, and unlike the date we all have to face at some point, it’s not in the too distant future.
The death of Casper is the start of the story, not the end. A story of life and one hell of a relationship.
Luckily for her, she’s not aware of all this, never will be. Not consciously. But we, her kids, and her grandchildren, are. And we have to deal with it, somehow. Carpe diem comes to mind, and we’ve already decided to travel the three and a half hours north to see her more regularly. Quality of life. And if seeing her grandson and her two “boys” (as she refers to us) gives her joy then so be it. Least we can do. Meanwhile we get to form some final and lasting memories of our mother, mother-in-law and grandma.
Needless to say it’s hardest on my husband. He lost his dad twelve years ago, and is now facing the harsh reality of losing his second parent any day. For me, it’s going to be rough. I’ll be reminded of my own mother’s passing, I’ll think of the day when my dad joins her and that I, too, will be all alone. No more calling “home” for advice or that friendly, non-judgemental ear. You know? That unconditional love? For our son, he’s only four and a half years old, it’s difficult to say how he’ll react. He was only nine months old when his Nona passed. Nothing to remember. But he knows his grandma, and he even left her one of his plush animals at the hospital so she wouldn’t be alone. It’s hard to tell whether he loves her and how that manifests in terms of loss. We’ll see. Maybe, just maybe we’ll get to practice this with our oldest feline family member first. He’s been getting weaker and weaker and at almost nineteen, he’s way past his prime. But yeah, loss we’ll experience. Part of life, the ultimate consequence of it, actually.
Alex (my husband) lamented the other day that being middle-aged meant having more and more death around you. Hopefully we’re better equipped to handle it than when we were kids. But I understand how he feels. Pretty soon, our generation will be the “oldest” one, the one at the frontier so to speak, the next one in line to… kick the bucket? Pick out the good suit? People sometimes ask me why I chose to write two books in a row about death, first Nilas’s story, the loss of Casper, and now Hunter’s, and Ethan’s coping with that. Sometimes I think people misunderstand. Neither of those books are about death, or dying. They’re about living, Nilas’s is about the memories he holds of Casper and their life together and how he can best celebrate that memory by living his life to the fullest. For Hunter it’s all about maximizing the quality of life, rather than the quantity, to bestow as many good memories on his little daughter Amy as humanly possible. Quality over quantity.
So if you pick up any of those two books, by all means, shed tears, but make sure they are cathartic, because those stories celebrate life, and for as long as we have memories of our loved ones, they live on, forever, through us.
Have a wonderful weekend,
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PS2: I was recently invited to a great podcast called The Wrote Podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.