Rich Dlin – Reader Beware

Husband, Father, Math Teacher, Weightlifter

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Creating a Home Gym (aka The Gym That Math Built)

I lift weights, and I love it. I haven’t always been consistent with it though. I started a few times. First when I was a teenager, and then again when I was a newlywed, and then again when I was in my early 30’s. It was that last time that stuck, and here I am at 43 still lifting (currently recovering from an injury 4 weeks ago, but I am still a lifter). At first, I would go to a commercial gym, and I learned a lot there about what the different machines are for, what movements to do, and how to lift with good form. I loved going to the gym, but after a while I wanted the convenience of being able to train at home. I didn’t want just any home gym though. I wanted a home gym that would totally replace the commercial gym. I have one now, and this is the story of how it came to be. It started in June, 2006.

Rich’s Home Gym, aka “The Dlingeon” Version 1.0 (June, 2006)

First things first, I needed a space. We had recently moved into a new home (brand new that we chose from architectural plans), and a big criterion was that there be a good space in the basement for a gym. Our basement has just that. When you go down the stairs and turn right there is a big open area with a walkout to the backyard which is great for a family/games room, but if you turn left there is a smaller perfectly rectangular area that my wife and I knew from the get-go would eventually be the home gym. Check “space requirement” off the list.

Next on the list – flooring. It’s just not a good idea to put a home gym down without the proper kind of flooring. In a basement, you are probably dealing with concrete as I was. This is good because it’s hard to seriously compromise concrete, but if you don’t cover it with something you’re asking for dust, concrete chipping when you drop weights (and you will if you’re doing it right!), and cold feet. Ideally you’d want some heavy-duty rubber mats like they have in commercial gyms, and initially that was my plan. Then I found out how much that costs. To cover the whole floor would have cost more than the gym equipment I planned to buy! So I scaled the 1-inch thick rubber down to two 4X6 mats, for deadlifting, and for the rest I bought the children’s play-area interlocking foam. One side is colorful, the other is black. I opted to have the black side facing up. Check flooring off the list.

Next – equipment! My goal was to spend as little as possible to get as much as possible. That’s usually the case. I did a lot of research and initially wanted to get a smith machine since it’s safe for training alone, and provides a lot of options, especially since you can add options with pulleys etc. But smith machines are quite expensive and when I went shopping I discovered the leverage PowerLift system by BodySolid. It had a pressing station, a curling and pulldown station, and a hack squat station. Plate loaded and extemely well-designed. And the best news was that I could come in under-budget and buy a power rack. I bought the PowerLift, power rack, a bunch of weight plates (2X2.5, 2X5, 4X25, 6X45) and I was set. This was to be the last time I would make a major gym purchase retail. If I had known then what I know now I never would have gone to a store. But more on that later. Check equipment off the list.

The PowerLift still in the boxes. This was an exciting moment!

Sept. 2006. Rich’s Home Gym v1.0

In the pictures you can see where I set up the power rack and the heavy duty mats. It’s the perfect spot for it as there is just enough width and depth to be able to train in the rack and load/unload weights comfortably, with literally not an inch to spare. “Not an inch to spare” is a key characteristic of a good home gym. I don’t remember what the total cost was, however I have a vague memory of having done all this for around $1600. Not bad.

Here’s a quick video of me using the PowerLift in 2007. I used to time my rest between sets, so you’ll see me hit the button on my high class Casio after the set.

This is a good time for a detour into how I paid for all the rest of the evolution of the gym.

How Math Built My Gym

From a budgeting perspective, the money I spent on the gym at this stage was money my wife and I had allocated for a home gym for me, and I had a pretty complete gym. From that time on, any money I wanted to spend had to come from “non-family” funds. I do a lot of math tutoring so there’s a source of income that is “extra”. When I tutor though, my wife and kids have to stay quiet, because I tutor in our home in the dining room. Our house is not very big. Any noise in the house is heard in the dining room, no matter where the noise originates. I have to tutor in the dining room because it is in plain sight of the front door, and it’s important to me that parents of the students I tutor know that at any time they could walk up to the door and see us. Teachers will understand that sadly, these are things we have to consider whenever we know we are going to be alone with a kid who is not ours. A long time ago my wife and I sat down to discuss tutoring funds, and we decided that the whole family contributes in their own way to my being able to earn that extra money. So we decided that what made the most sense to us is that whatever I earn, 50% goes right into family money. Of the remaining 50%, half goes to my own discretionary pile and the other half goes into my wife’s discretionary pile. This is money that either of us can spend on whatever we want without having to consult or feel guilty that a frivolous purchase was made at the expense of something the family may have needed or wanted. I use it for things like casino trips, electronic toys that only I care about, and gifts for my wife (she uses hers on gifts for me among other things). This stash of money was to become my source for the rest of the improvements to my gym.

Dlingeon Version 1.01 (June, 2006)

At some point early on I realized I wanted to be able to do what I call corner rows. Easy enough. Using money I make tutoring math, I bought a v-grip cable handle (still retail), and put a piece of foam in the corner to protect the barbell and the wall. Many people say you need to anchor the barbell for this movement, and I suppose that would be safe, but I have never done so and never had a problem. Because of the way I lean back when I start, it gets jammed into the corner pretty good and I have never had it drift up, even with as much as 5 plates loaded on the business end. Here’s an early vid from the same day as the other video of me performing this movement.

Dlingeon Version 1.1 (July, 2007)

I loved that PowerLift a lot, but I began to really miss a few items. First and foremost, dumbbells. Secondly, a dip stand. My first solution to the dumbbell dilemma was to buy two spin-lock dumbbell handles and enough 10 lb plates to load them both up to the hilt. I also bought four 5’s and four 2.5’s for maximum flexibility. These were standard handles, not Olympic, since Olympic dumbbells are actually kind of annoying. But it meant that I had to buy standard weight plates. I did get these retail, but it was not very expensive. Maybe $100 total. Plus side: I could now create dumbbells from 5 lbs to 85 lbs (85 was a tight squeeze). Minus: I had to load them manually and no matter what the handle always sticks out so if you’re doing presses that start on your thighs it can get awkward and painful.

Weight plates, PowerLift attachments, and spin-lock dumbbells

As for the dip stand, I did end up buying retail. I bought a basic Northern Lights dip stand which as I recall was $125 at the time. I put it in the corner where I do corner rows. You can see the foam piece I use to protect the wall. Only a minor inconvenience to have to move the dip stand to do corner rows.

Northern Lights Basic Dip Stand

My mother also bought me a cool clock for the gym. It was shaping up. So was I!

Gym Clock – “I KNOW IT HURTS”

Dlingeon Version 1.2 (April, 2008)

One of the fairly predictable side effects of lifting weights is that you get stronger. When I first started lifting in my 30’s I used to look at guys that could press the 70 lb dumbbells and think they were monsters. The dumbbells in the gym I joined at the time went all the way up to 100 lbs. I remember how those 100’s looked like caricatures – gigantic. I also remember that when the owner gave me a tour of the gym prior to joining he told me the dumbbells “only went up to 100 to keep out the goons.”

Well there were only two guys I ever saw pick up and use those 100’s and they seemed like goons to me. I guessed if you could use bigger dumbbells than that you were an übergoon. I never dreamed I’d get to that stratum of goondom but working out regularly for years will get you there if you do it right, and the time came when my 85 lbs worth of dumbbell flexibility was not enough. I needed heavier dumbbells. I was a goon.

Here’s the thing about dumbbells though. They really cost a fortune. They’re generally sold by the pound, and when you’re looking for 90 lbs and up that adds up in a hurry (side note, if you want to find out how much a set of dumbbells from 90 lbs-120 lbs in 5 lb increments will cost at $1.50 a pound you could add it up one at a time or you can use an arithmetic series to simplify the calculations – you can guess which method I use). There was clearly no way I would pay retail. Thus began my love affair with craigslist and kijiji. Not many people are selling heavy dumbbells, and of the people who are they are often still asking quite a bit of money, but with patience and diligence you will eventually find what you need at a price you can afford. And I did. I found a guy who was selling a set of 95 lb – 120 lbs in increments of 5 lbs for under 50 cents/lb. At the time retail was over $1.50. I drove to his house, loaded them up into my wife’s Honda Pilot, and brought them home. I was so excited to use them! I was not strong enough to use the 120’s for anything but one-arm dumbbell rows yet, but I could press the 95’s and fairly quickly got up past the 100’s.

Übergoon! Heavy Dumbbells, 95 lbs – 120 lbs

Dlingeon Version 1.21 (July, 2008)

Anyone who has ever lifted heavy dumbbells will tell you that it’s not the most fun when they all live on the floor. So began my quest for a dumbbell rack. When you’re trying to build something of quality on a tight budget you really start to think carefully about maximizing the utility of each dollar you spend (keep in mind, every dollar I spend on the gym is a dollar I can’t spend on an iPad or Dolby Digital Surround System). One of the things that I really started to realize was that there would be items I’d need or want in the gym that were not directly used for exercise. I didn’t want to have to pay a lot of money for those. I looked at retail dumbbell racks that could hold heavy dumbbells and they just cost way too much for me to justify the expense. I once again used patience and craigslist to stumble upon a guy who was selling a custom job that was seriously heavy duty, and also had a shallow footprint, which is key in a home gym with limited space. He was asking $150 and I bought it for $100. As a plus, when I got there he had a pair of 140 lb dumbbells that he had no use for and offered them to me for $25!! Easy decision, even though to this day I’ve never pressed them. I have used them many times for rows though. They look so hardcore too sitting on the rack.

The icing on the cake was when he offered to let me use his truck to bring it all home. He and his brother helped me disassemble it, then load it up, and they followed me back to my place where they helped me carry it in. I reassembled it myself. It’s not hard to do but when you have a home gym you start to learn quickly there are a few tools you want to make sure you have. A ratchet set, a wrench set and a set of Allen keys found their way into my toolbox that day! I can’t even count the times I’ve used them since.

Custom dumbbell rack, along with new 140 lb dumbbells the guy I bought the rack from threw in for $25.

Dlingeon Version 1.22 (August, 2008)

One exercise I absolutely love to do is the deadlift. Anyone who has done it for any length of time will tell you how great it is for building all around strength and size. However they will also tell you that it takes its toll. One way around this is to not deadlift every week. When I was in a commercial gym I would alternate deadlift weeks with weighted hyperextensions. This both alleviated the stress of deadlifting too often and also had the bonus of strengthening my lower back so I could deadlift heavier weight! In my home gym I had no good replacement for hypers. So I needed a hyperextension bench. But again these are tough to find used, and to get a commercial quality one retail was out of the question. Once more patience and diligence worked in my favour and I eventually found one for $40. A Lamar. Lamar is a fitness equipment company that made great quality stuff for home gyms, but unfortunately went under (from what I’ve read it had nothing to do with their product and everything to do with a crooked accountant). If you can find Lamar equipment that hasn’t been abused, buy it! It’ll usually be for a great price because it’s not a well-known name thanks to the company’s quick demise and so it’s priced well under comparable stuff from companies like Hoist, Precor, BodySolid, etc. This bench has adjustable everything, including the angle which adjusts from 45 degrees all the way to horizontal.

Lamar Fitness Multi-Position Hyperextension/Roman Chair

Dlingeon Version 1.23 (October, 2008)

The dumbbell handles with screw-lock were an okay solution for the price, but they have their drawbacks. First and foremost, the bar sticks out way past the weights, and it digs into your thighs if you want to do dumbbell presses with them starting with the weights on your knees, which is really the only way to do it when you train alone. Even if you offset the dumbbell so the bar isn’t digging into your thigh the screw-lock still does. So I had been trolling the internet for a used set for a long time, waiting for the right set at the right price. It finally came in the form of a guy who had a set custom made for himself in the 80’s by a friend who had a body shop. The guy had stopped lifting years before, and had stored the set in his basement. There was quite a bit of rust on them so he knew he couldn’t get much and was asking 50 cents/lb for his set which went from 25 lbs – 105 lbs in increments of 5 lbs, but for some reason was missing the 75’s. I offered him 30 cents/lb and he took it. My friend drove over to the guys house with me and we loaded up the dumbbells into my wife’s van and his station wagon, and once again when I got home I had the pleasure of multiple sets of farmer’s walk from my porch through the living/dining room and down the stairs into the basement. Note to anyone who ever does this – start with the heaviest ones! Otherwise by the time you get to them you won’t be able to move. Also, warm up. It’s a serious workout.

Once they were down my rack was finally put to full use. Here’s a pic. I had originally intended to restore the dumbbells by removing the rust and repainting, but to date I have not had the time or inclination, and the dumbbells work just fine anyway.

Full Dumbbell Set – 25 lbs – 140 lbs. Rust is free of charge.

another pic – the set was too big now to fit in one frame!

Full Dumbbell Set – 25 lbs – 140 lbs. Rust is free of charge.

At first I had decided to put the heavy dumbbells on top, since it’s actually a bit difficult to get them out of the vertically oriented rack from the bottom. That is what you see in the picture. However I did eventually move the heavy ones to the bottom because I worried (probably unnecessarily) about the centre of gravity of the full rack. Note those awesome 140’s at the top right! I do use them. Here’s a video of me rowing those bad boys.

Dlingeon Version 2.0 (November, 2008)

The PowerLift was a great gym, but it had some issues which over time I realized were becoming more than I wanted to deal with. For one, when you’re doing chest presses using a leverage system, every set always begins with a rep at the bottom of the range of motion. Imagine starting a bench press with the bar at your chest instead of at arm’s length. This is not technically a terrible thing, but I found as I got stronger that the weight I had to use so that I could start the set was significantly lighter than the weight I would use if I could make it heavier once I finished the positive portion of the first rep. I started to load heavier weights on and struggle to get the first rep but then the rest of the reps would be smooth. I injured my shoulder doing this, and it was quite a significant injury that kept me out of the gym for a couple of months.

Another issue I had with the PowerLift was there was no good way to do a flye movment. There were bands you could attach to the arms of the pull station, but you weren’t pulling in the direction of the resistance. A flye is supposed to be from the outside in (or the inside out) and the resistance should be in the opposite direction of the pull. With bands attached to fixed arms the movement could be done but the resistance doesn’t work against the flye. In other words, I really missed the cable systems at the commercial gym where you could do crossovers. It wasn’t terrible since I had dumbbells and those are great for flyes, but there are times when you’d like to use a machine.

I also looked at the footprint of the PowerLift and decided that in the long run I would regret how much space it takes up. There was equipment I knew I’d eventually want to get and there wasn’t room for it as long as the PowerLift was there. So I made the decision to sell the PowerLift, which I did for about $200 less than I paid, and I bought a Nautilus Smith machine used for significantly less than I made selling my PowerLift. This was the beginning of me using my existing equipment to upgrade to new equipment, usually without being out of pocket and often at a profit!

The Nautilus system I bought was actually very clever, as it combined a smith machine with a plate-loaded cable system with multiple positions for the handles. Here’s a picture of it just after I put it together:

Nautilus NT-CC1

And here’s a picture of the bench it came with. One downside to selling the PowerLift was I had to sell the FID (Flat-Incline-Decline) bench it came with. The bench that came with the Nautilus was not as good.

Nautilus FID Bench

The main problem with the bench is the fact that it widens at the seat. This becomes quite irritating when doing movements where you’re lying down because I have been gifted with legs of a man 6 inches shorter than I am, and unless you have super long legs you have to separate your legs to let your feet touch the floor. A minor irritation but an irritation nonetheless. The Nautilus system also came with Nautilus Olympic plates, which was nice because I was starting to need more weight plates!

Dlingeon Version 2.1 (February, 2009)

One of the main pieces I had been missing from a commercial gym was a leg press. They take up quite a bit of space and they are really only good for a few movements, so it was hard to justify the purchase, but I had created space selling the PowerLift and had saved up enough that I could finally pull the trigger. Originally I wanted to buy the BodySolid leg press/hack squat combo but I found someone selling a Northern Lights unit that also converted from leg press to hack squat and they were asking about half of the retail price. Decision made. Here’s a pic:

Northern Lights Leg Press/Hack Squat, configured for hack squats. To switch to leg press the back pad can be moved to the foot plate and there’s a metal foot plate that can be lifted up behind where the back pad is in the picture.

Dlingeon Version 2.11 (April, 2009)

I had been looking for a seated calf machine for some time. Once again it has very limited use so I wasn’t interested in spending a ton of money on it. I kept my eye on kijiji and craigslist and one finally came up, listed for $150. I offered $125 and they agreed. It doesn’t take up much space so it was no problem fitting it in. It comes fitted for standard weight plates so I did have to buy an Olympic adapter retail – $15.

One issue with it that I live with to this day is that there is no safety stop position, so if you get in trouble and can’t re-rack the weight you have to let it fall to the ground and get your legs out of the way.

Northern Lights Seated Calf

Around this time, a friend of mine called me to tell me that his neighbour was selling a VKR – that’s home gym speak for a Vertical Knee Raise station and it really means one of those contraptions that you can use for dips, pull-ups and that also has a back pad and handles with armrests for hanging knee raises. They’re really versatile and a great addition to your gym. Since I already had a dip station though I wasn’t going to bite, but then my friend told me his neighbour only wanted $75 for it, and he would bargain down to $50 for me. That was too good to pass up so I listed my dip station for $125, sold it for $100, and bought the VKR for $50.

Standard Home Gym VKR

Sadly, I only used this for a few workouts. A friend of mine was over for a workout and watched me doing weighted dips on this unit. I weighed about 220 lbs at the time and was hanging 90 lbs from a belt around my waist, and my friend noticed that the handles were bending and the main posts were as well. That was when I learned that not all VKR’s are created equally. I sold it almost right away for … wait for it … $275! Then I replaced it with a Hoist VKR of significantly sturdier construction, which I bought from a guy who had been a silent partner in a gym that had gone under and had all the equipment in a storage unit that he didn’t want to keep paying rent for. I paid $150 for the Hoist VKR. It retails for over $1000.

Hoist VKR

This was a significant improvement over the previous two dip stations. First, it’s rated for weights heavy enough for me and my weight plates, and second, the back pad actually comes off and can be attached at the back for incline ab exercises. It also turns out this unit was a big attraction and here’s a picture of my friend, IFBB Pro Carrie Simmons, demonstrating dips in my gym.

IFBB Pro Carrie Simmons graces the Dlingeon and demonstrates proper dip form!

Dlingeon Version 3.0 (June, 2009)

Well the Nautilus Smith was fun for a while, but I didn’t like the bench it came with and I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t do pulldowns on it. I also felt it was taking up too much space. So in June ’09 I decided to sell it and replace it with a multi-gym cable system. I sold the Smith for $700 and bought a Northern Lights multi-gym for $520.

Northern Lights Multi-Gym – dog butt not included as standard equipment.

I also used the proceeds from the Smith to buy a Northern Lights preacher bench for $75. Because I sold the FID bench with the Smith, I had to buy another FID bench, along with leg extension attachment. I found these used for $200 and $40, respectively. Northern Lights makes all their plate loaded stuff for standard plates, so once again I had to buy an Olympic adapter – $15.

Northern Lights FID Bench

Northern Lights Preacher Bench

The multi-gym was good for a lot of things, but I noticed immediately that it was built for people with different proportions than me. So for example I never could get the pec-dec to fit my arms properly, and when I did pull-downs my legs were always pretty squished under the anchors, even with them set at the highest position. Strange when you consider that I have freakishly short legs. All that said though, it was usable, and I used it for a long time.

If you’re paying close attention to the pictures, you’ll see the foam piece still in the corner. No problem, except now I have to move a preacher bench to do corner rows. Big deal. You’ll also notice a weird-looking curl bar on the preacher bench. That’s a purchase I regretted almost immediately and sold it right away for $35, then bought an EZ-Curl bar retail for $55 to replace it.

Dlingeon Version 3.01 (December, 2009)

Turns out I didn’t like the Northern Lights FID bench too much. I found the back pad to be too narrow and I was benching in the neighbourhood of 275 lbs at this point, with my bodyweight of 220 lbs or so, and I never quite trusted the tiny hinge at the bottom which becomes the focus of all that weight. So I looked around until I found a used Body Solid FID. Body Solid makes three of these, each one sturdier than the previous. I wanted the sturdiest one they make. I found someone selling one for $250 and bought it, then sold my Northern Lights FID and leg extension attachment for $350. I did have to buy the Body Solid leg extension attachment retail, for $112, so I was down $12 on the exchange. I could live with that for the much higher quality bench! I don’t have any pictures of it alone, but it will show up in pictures later on.

Dlingeon Version 4.0 (July, 2011)

The multi-gym configuration lasted me quite some time, but in July of 2011 I decided that I was ready for a change. I’d been looking at functional trainers and liked the idea of the flexibility they provide. I kept my eye out for a used one that was priced well as they’re seriously expensive, and finally found a trainer who had a gym but was shifting his focus from weights to TRX, and he had a Tuff-Stuff functional trainer that was gathering dust. So I sold my multi-gym and bought his functional trainer. And for a bonus, he’d paid extra for the Smith attachment to the trainer, so now I had a full functional trainer and a Smith machine!

Tuff Stuff Functional Trainer/Smith

With some moving around of equipment I was able to fit it all in.

Full gym except for functional trainer

Dlingeon Version 4.0 (July, 2012)

I love the functional trainer/Smith machine, but one serious drawback is that there is no good way to anchor yourself for pulldowns. This started to annoy me, so I decided to sacrifice the space my seated calf machine was taking up, and I bought a used Lamar lat tower. The guy that sold it to me had a lot of attachments that I didn’t need, and a lot of weight I didn’t need either. By the time I was done selling the stuff I didn’t need, as well as my seated calf machine, I was $100 and one lat tower richer than before. This is the current state of my gym, and here’s a virtual tour video I took a little while ago. I used a Samsung Tablet to take the video, and apparently the proportions aren’t ideal for YouTube, but you can see everything.

In Conclusion (finally!)

I have to say that I absolutely love having a home gym. My workouts are better here, without the distractions of the commercial gym. Nobody but me ever sweats on the equipment, and all the gym members always put away their weights and dumbbells. I have some computer speakers set up and I plug my iPhone into them when I train, so the music is always exactly what I want to hear. I’ve made huge gains in size and strength. Here are a few videos of my favourite lifts, to finish off this blog, which according to the editor I’m typing in, has just reached 5122 words!

Personal best deadlift:

High rep deadlift:

Low Flyes in the trainer:

Personal best 1-rep bench:

Reverse flyes in the trainer:

Lat pulls in lat tower:

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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Practice Makes …

So imagine someone comes up to you and says “practice makes …” and gives you that annoying lilty tone at the end that suggests you’re supposed to finish the sentence for them. If you’re in the mood and want this imaginary person to be extra irritating, imagine they are raising one eyebrow when they do it. Got the picture? Good. Now assuming you decide not to punch them in the throat, the word that comes to mind is most likely “perfect”. Practice makes perfect. That’s the saying and that’s what we’ve always been told. Math teachers assign homework to exploit this principle. Gymnasts spend hours doing handsprings for the same reason. Orators rehearse speeches. Singers croon in the shower. The list goes on and is lengthy indeed. There’s only one problem though, and it’s a big one. Practice does not make perfect.

Practice makes permanent.

And there’s a gigantic difference between the two concepts. Now I wish I could take credit for the saying “practice makes permanent” but I can’t. I first heard it at a PD day seminar, and if you Google the phrase (go ahead, open a new tab and try it – I just did), you’ll find tons of bloggers and videos discussing it. I guess I’m just one more in the sea of philosophers on this. But it’s my blog so I have no compunctions about sharing my take, especially as I was very recently stung by this concept, and I should know better. Here is the sordid tale:

3 years ago at the age of 40 I performed in my first ever play, and it happened to be my favorite play – Les Miserables. It was an amateur production, and I was overjoyed just to be a part of it. I had many different roles in the ensemble and the experience was unforgettable. I forged many friendships and have been performing in musicals ever since. The day we finished our last performance of Les Mis, I vowed that if I got the chance to do the play again I wanted to get a lead role – Valjean or Javert. I committed to improving my singing so that when the time came, I would nail the audition. I began singing every day, every chance I got. In the shower, in the car – even just hanging around the house. I do have some natural talent which I credit my paternal grandfather with, since he was a world-famous Cantor. He used to coach me when I was young, before my voice changed. However I had no real formal training and had let my voice decay in my adult years. So I had a long way to go but a foundation on which to build.

Fast forward to June 2012. I performed in Jesus Christ Superstar and, owing largely to a paucity of male talent in the cast, I got the role of Jesus. I was elated but also scared to death. That is a ridiculously difficult role vocally, and would never have gone to me if there had been a tenor around (I’m really a baritone). Preparing for and performing Jesus did things for my technique and range that I had only dreamed of. Working with the director, who is an extremely talented vocalist and teacher, I brought my voice forward light years. My performance wasn’t perfect for sure, and Ted Neely certainly has nothing to fear, but I was pleased. Now skip to the present. Les Mis is back! This is my chance. I am a significantly improved singer and I’m ready to nail the audition. The circle has come full. I will redeem myself and fulfill the dream.

Here’s the thing about Les Mis. It’s been my favorite play since I was 20 years old. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for 23 years. 23 years! I know every word of every song from beginning to end. I can sing the play – all the parts – from memory from beginning to end. And I do. Often. With the car windows down and my kids in the back. They love it. I think.

The thing is though, I mostly do it a capella. Because I can’t play any instruments and my iPhone objects to being used in the shower. So for over 23 years I’ve practiced every song, mostly without any accompaniment. That’s a lot of practice!

OK. So the audition comes. The director asks me to sing a song of my choice and I sang Stars. Then he asked me to sing parts of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Bring Him Home, Master of the House, and Do You Hear the People Sing. I sang them all getting happier each moment at how well my Jesus-trained voice was holding up. I really thought I sounded amazing. This director takes a few days to cast the show after auditions. Unlike Jesus, there is a lot of serious male talent in the cast, so even though I thought I did the best I could, I was prepared to not get the fairy tale of a lead role.

I did not. And the men that did beat me fair and square. They are truly amazing. But I still wanted feedback from the director, who knows me very well. I went to see him the following week and told him I thought it was my best singing to date. He disagreed. He told me my pitch was off in quite a few places.

My pitch? Off? I did not see that one coming.

I’ve had and continue to have pitch problems for sure. It plagues me. But I can always hear it. That’s a good thing, because if you’re going to have pitch issues at least if you can hear it you can take steps to repair it. But I honestly did not hear a single bad note this audition. What the hell? I really had to think about that one. And then it occurred to me. Practice makes permanent. I’ve been singing Les Mis for so many years a capella that I’ve grooved notes into my subconscious that sound right to me without an orchestra, but that are a half-tone off in certain places. And when I was singing at the audition, I didn’t even hear the piano, because I’ve sung these songs so many times it’s like putting on an old baseball glove. I practiced the wrong notes. A lot. And they became permanent.

Lesson learned. The only consolation is even had I been pitch-perfect I still would not have landed a lead, because the male leads are completely out of my league. But it hurt to hear I was off.

Well that’s the story that I wanted to start off with, and as it turns out it tells the tale pretty well. What it all boils down to is that practice is invaluable, but it is imperative that we be sure we are practicing perfect. The saying should not be “practice makes perfect”. It really should be “perfect practice makes perfect”. And the key is to make sure we are practicing correctly. It’s not a trivial thing. How can we know? Some easy tips:

  • Check regularly with an expert (your teacher, your coach, a trainer etc), even if you are an expert. For example, in the gym I’ve often seen experienced lifters consistently lifting with bad form and they don’t even know it.
  • If it’s singing or something physical, record yourself and listen/watch often. Seeing or hearing yourself from the outside is a whole different experience than what you feel when it’s happening. Using mirrors is good, but mirrors lie. Everything you see there is from the level of your own eyes. Most people won’t be seeing you from that angle. Plus, when the person watching you is not you, you don’t have the same constant feedback you use instinctively to correct things when you are looking into a mirror.
  • Don’t get complacent. Sometimes a slight deviation can creep in to something that was on track and though you think you’re still practicing perfect, you’re not.

For me, I’ll continue to practice. But no more singing a capella! It’s a trap and I fell for it. I won’t anymore. Now if only I could learn to play the piano …

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Switch the Side, Switch the Sign?!!?

You can always judge my level of incredulity by my combination of punctuation. Two exclamation marks bookended by two question marks is a high level indeed. It’s the DEFCON 1 of incredulity. It comes from the way I’ve seen a lot of my students conditioned in algebra. It’s extremely sad. I’ll explain, but I have to start with a story about something that happened last week.

Thursday night I came home from play rehearsal and got the debrief about the household goings-on from my wife. Turns out my daughter, my 11-year old angel of happiness, was crying for something like 2 hours while I was gone. Dads out there with daughters (and I guess daughters with dads?) will know that there’s a special thing going on between dads and their girls. I think the best quote I ever read to describe it was this one:

Certain is it that there is no kind of affection so purely angelic as of a father to a daughter. In love to our wives there is desire; to our sons, ambition; but to our daughters there is something which there are no words to express.
– Joseph Addison

So when I find out that my daughter was so miserable, a part of me curls up in the fetal position and cries too. But you want to know what made it worse? What made it even more upsetting? The source of her pain was … algebra. Algebra! Her first algebra. A person’s first exposure to algebra should be special. It should be life-defining. It should be a cherished memory that warms you on command. A polished jewel of contentment forever residing at the center of your soul. And yet here’s my daughter, crying for 2 hours, and it was because of algebra. And I wasn’t home.

Talk about two ways to break my heart. Unacceptable!

So I dug a little deeper. My wife told me that my daughter was doing question after question, getting them right, and crying that she didn’t get it. My wife, no slouch in the math department for sure, was explaining the process, but for some reason it wasn’t getting through. My daughter just kept insisting she didn’t get it, all the while getting questions correct. How does this make sense? In what universe can a child keep getting questions right and through tears insist she doesn’t understand? The answer is because she was just following orders. The old “Switch the side, switch the sign” gambit. Consider this question she was working on:

x + 3 = 7

x = 7 – 3

x = 4

Correct, right? And easy too? So why was she so miserable?

It’s because she had no idea why she was doing what she was doing, or what any of it meant, and certainly no way to tell if her answer was right. She was right by accident, and because she was following a bunch of rules. In short, she wasn’t doing any math at all. She was, for all intents and purposes (or for all “intensive purposes” if you’re one of those people who hears sayings but never sees them written down) a trained monkey repeating a task. And nobody wants that … except for maybe the monkey because they get a lot of rewards for stuff like that … but no human wants that. And my daughter is exceedingly human.

You see, here’s what she was taught (or at the very least, to give her teacher the benefit of the doubt, it’s what she thought she was taught): To get the variable alone you have to move the number to the other side. If it’s plus you do minus and if it’s times you do divide. If it’s minus you do plus and if it’s divide you do times. Ouch. So much wrong with this I don’t even know how to start. But I do know that it’s taught this way so often that I have students who think that’s what algebra is. And I know of one teacher who used to have her students repeat the mantra “Switch the side, switch the sign.” I used to ask those students what they do if it’s multiplication or division. They said that’s when you don’t switch the sign. Ooooookay then.

So here’s the thing. When students are taught “rules” for solving equations they are not learning math. They are learning algorithms. An algorithm is a sequence of steps you follow to complete a specific task. You don’t need to know why, and in fact the reason algorithms are so powerful and so common is because you don’t need to know why. Long division is an excellent example. Many of us remember how to use long division to get the answer to 97654 divided by 7. But how many of us know why it works? The algorithm was designed to turn humans into calculators so that mathematicians didn’t have to do the tedious work. In WW1 there were literally rooms full of people – called calculators – who would do repetitive tedious calculations assigned to them by codebreakers. The codebreakers knew why the calculations were required, but the volume of work to do it was so vast that if the breakers themselves were to do the work they’d never decode a single message. So calculators were invented. They were people. A lot of them. And they were good at algorithms. But they didn’t know any math. Of course nowadays we have little computers that do the same job, but the concept is the same. A computer doesn’t think – it only follows instructions. It is excellent at executing algorithms. BUT THAT ISN’T MATH!!!

Ok. Back to the algebra, and my daughter. Saturday morning we were sitting in the family room, still in our pajamas, and Phineas and Ferb had just ended. The time was right. I told her I was going to help her with algebra but first she needed to forget everything she’d learned thus far. She happily agreed and put the misery in some invisible incinerator. Ahhh. Square one. Then we had this conversation:

Me: “Imagine I split your class up into groups of 2. Pick a partner.”
Her: “Alyssa!” (this was meant to be obvious to me)
Me: “Ok, now every pair has to pick one person for the blue team and one for the red.” (blue is her favourite colour – I’m not a rookie)
Her: “Blue!”
Me: “Ok, we’re going to play a game. Blue team goes first. Here’s the game. Pick a number but not a hard one. Don’t tell red team what it is. Now your job is to give Alyssa one hint, and if she gets it right you both get a point. Otherwise nobody scores.” (yeah, lame game, I know – but there are points and a blue team so she’s right on board)
Her: “Ok. My hint is it’s my favourite number.” (I saw this coming a mile away, and had a plan)
Me: “Right, Ok. But here’s the thing. You want to be SURE Alyssa will get it right. What if she can’t remember what your favourite number is? You want to give her a clue that will work for sure. And no using your number in the clue!”
Her: “It’s my birthday.” (Ha! I saw that coming too)
Me: “What if Alyssa forgot your birthday?”
Her: “How could she? She’s coming to my party!”
Me: “Good point. But what if she thinks your birthday is on a different day than the party? After all it is. You want to be sure she’ll guess your number, so make the hint foolproof.”
Her: “Ok, I get it. My hint is my number is 5 less than 10.”
Me: “Awesome! Ok, I’m Alyssa. Is it 5?”
Her: “You knew that already because you know my favourite number.”
Me: “Good point. Ok, here, it’s red team’s turn. If you increase my number by 7 you get 12.”
Her: “Hey you can’t pick the same number as me!” (Success!!!!)
Me: “Yes I can I can pick any number I want. Ok your turn.”
Her: “If you cut my number in half you get 10” (ooooh, nice one)
Me: “20?”
Her: “Yes! Ok, give me one now!”
Me: “If you multiply my number by 2 and then add 1, you get 13.”
Her: “6?”
Me: “6? Why 6?”
Her: “Because 6 x 2 is 12 and 12 + 1 is 13.”
Me: “Nice! Ok, you go.”
Her: “If you add 67354 to my number you get 90543.”
Me: “Ummm, are you going to know if I got it right?”
Her: “No. But you always get it right so I want to know the answer.” (Love her – I always get it right? She needs to talk to my wife!)
Me: “How am I supposed to get it? Those numbers are huge!”
Her: “Just do 90543 minus 67354!”
Me: “Right. I knew that. Ok it’s 23189.” (I rock at doing subtraction in my head – blows her away every time – she checked with a calculator)
Her: “Yes. Nice one Daddy.”

This went on for a long time. She really liked the game. At some point she realized that I was not keeping score and she got mad at me. Then she realized that it would always be a tie so she said it was not a good points system. We spent some time coming up with a better points system. She came up with something. It was fairly convoluted and had to do with blue team’s ability to do an aerial cartwheel so I lost, but I’m comfortable with that.

Then I told her a story about a dude from a long time ago named al-Khwarizmi, who wrote a book called “Al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa-l-muqābala (no, I don’t have the name of the book memorized – I always have to look it up – but I always know the al-Jabr part). I said the name of the book is a pain to say so a lot of people just called it al-Jabr. I told her that al-Khwarizmi’s book was all about ways to answer questions like the one in the game if you were not good enough to do it in your head. Take for example the clue

“If you increase my number by 7 you get 12”

al-K (that’s what his peeps called him I bet) would have said the clue slightly differently. He would have said

“Suppose thing, increased by 7 ducats, results in 12 ducats.” (take a moment to explain that ducats are kind of like dollars)

Then he would have said that you can solve it by reversing the increase, and conclude

“Therefore thing is 12 ducats reduced by 7 ducats, which is to say 5 ducats”

Then we did a few that way. I’d write “Thing, multiplied by 6, results in 18 ducats” and she’d write “Therefore thing is 18 divided by 6, which is to say 3 ducats.”

Now some people might not believe that you can ask and expect an 11-year old to use language like this, but I’ve never understood why people would think that. Speak to them this way and they will listen, understand, and respond in kind. It’s what we’re wired to do. It’s how we learn to communicate.

I should mention that at one point she asked me if al-K called his book al-Jabr because it sounds like algebra. I told her that algebra sounds like al-Jabr because of that book! That al-K invented algebra. She thought that was super cool but also wanted to know how I could know such a thing. She was amazed to find out that I studied some history in my life. Daddy points scored.

Ok. So this gets tedious right? My daughter agreed. It’s too much writing. So then I told her about a dude named Rene Descartes who really liked al-K’s methods, but was too lazy to write it all out that way. So he’d look at the sentence

“Suppose thing, increased by 7 ducats, results in 12 ducats.”

And he’d say for example that “thing” is too many letters to write, but it’s important since it’s the number we’re trying to get people to guess. So Descartes chose the minimum number of letters possible. One. I let her choose the letter. She chose “m”. She always chooses “m” when letter-choosing is the task at hand. Then I told her that “increased by” is a pain to write out also, and asked her what she thought Descartes would say instead. She wrote down “+”. Then I said what’s “results in”? She wrote “=”. And Voila! She had written

m + 7 = 12

Then without me saying anything else, she said “Oh, so then Descartes would write m = 12 – 7! Which is 5!”.

And honestly, with that the lesson was done. I gave her about 8 more equations to solve in the Descartes style, and she got them all. We never once discussed rules, and we never once switched a bloody sign.

And there were no tears.

Maybe I’ve rescued the algebra memory.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

So it begins…

I’ve read a lot of blogs by people who have some pretty intelligent and interesting things to say or share. Sometimes when I’m reading one of those I think,

“Hey, I should start a blog too. I’m interesting! I’m intelligent! I like sharing!”

Then I remember that I’m possibly the only person that thinks that. Okay my wife and kids too. But I’m not sure my kids count since I’ve conditioned them to believe it. And my wife well … she must be slightly off to have married me in the first place so …

And yet here it is. I started a blog. What to expect? Because I am a high school math teacher, here I’ll likely rant about education, and how math is too often taught in a way that scars people permanently from about grade 5 on. Because I am a father, you’ll probably catch a musing or two about how I think kids should come with a manual – or at least a YouTube tutorial. Because I am a husband there is a very real possibility you’ll encounter a thought here and there about what marriage means to me, and how I can’t get over how many guys mess it up. Because I lift weights, you will certainly read posts about workouts, inspiration, transformation and frustration. Finally, because I do a lot of amateur theatre, expect a bone here and there about how that goes.

That is, assuming anyone is reading. Which is really the mystery to me. Who reads these? (me, I guess) Why? (because people link to them on Facebook, to be honest). Who would read mine? Well I suppose I’ll find out.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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