The Office Workout: Stairwell Therapy

There’s a guy I know who works in my building who has cut caffeine out of his diet, resorting to green tea as an alternative to coffee which he used to drink quite frequently. While I find green tea as appealing of an alternative to coffee as chicken noodle soup to steak (only preferring these if I am really ill), I suppose since he is in excellent physical shape there’s not much else he can do to improve on his Greek-god like body. When my doctor regards my pathetic tabernacle and finds out that I drink coffee with my stable of Blizzards, Dilly Bars, and Buster Bars, he tells me to lay off the ice cream then leaves the examining room with a whoosh of his lab coat; nothing about cutting down on cafe. So you see caffeine is the least of my worries. Anyway, I don’t really drink that much – less than three cups a day. It is the mass consumption of Dairy Queen Products, not to mention, bread, rice, potatoes, and second helpings of all the above and more that I need to declare a moratorium on.

But there’s change in the air, my dear two readers! A couple of weeks ago my old friend Monique came down to the dungeon where I work and asked if I would like to walk to the seventh floor with her. “Why, are the elevators out?” She looked at me the way my wife does when I’ve reloaded too many times at the Indian casino buffet. “Oh, you want me to exercise with you; got it!” I said figuring out her glare. I didn’t really get a chance to think over the offer when she ducked in the stairwell and motioned me in – like she was going to dish some delicious dirt.

Leading the way, I started yakking about how our old manager “used to take these stairs everywhere – never using the elevator unless he was accompanying the director and that it was probably bad news for who ever they were going to visit and definitely bad news for our old manag,” “Be quiet!,” she said cutting me off. “Preserve your energy,” she gasped half-way between the basement and the first floor. It was too late my weight, my atrophied legs, and my jacking jaw did me in already. By the time we made it to Floor Seven I could feel my pulse through my eyeballs and my legs were quaking like an extended arm balancing a cane in the palm of the hand. When we walked all the way down the stairs Monique said we should do this once a day. I don’t know what evil spirit was in me at the time, but before I could scream “Are you out of your flippin’ mind?” a voice from somewhere in my throbbing melon said “Sure Monique, let’s do it.”

The next morning I was so sore I could barely stand up. I felt I needed a day or two to, as I told my wife “let the muscles relax and grow.” My wife, the nurse, did not side with me, “No, you need to continue.” We argued, but it was no use. My wife has the license and the big medical terms – all I have is the pleading lingo that has never worked with her.

After two weeks of this routine my legs stopped being sore, but I was still winded every time we did the walk. Besides these walks I also started taking the stairs whenever when I move about the building from floor to floor. This also included scheduled trips like going to an 8:30 meeting on the Sixth Floor every morning. When I walk into these meetings I can’t help but wonder if anyone can tell I am attempting to catch my breath and, at the same time, attempting to cover it up. I don’t know how dangerous this is – trying to breath regularly when you want to gasp. When scaling the six floor to the morning meeting a seemingly insignificant item as a planner becomes a boat anchor after Floor Four and by the time I reach my destination, before I open the stairwell door stagger out into the lobby, I am thankful that I never write in the damn thing – ink is just more weight.

I also, have scheduled trips every Monday, Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons. On these trips I carry out-of-date two-pound data collectors and extra batteries to stations on the fifth and second floors. Not one trip to the fifth floor passes where I don’t have the urge to test the drop specifications of these “bricks-on-sticks.”

As an exercising tool you can’t make the stairwell stepping experience sexy. “It’s like the StairMaster, but more dangerous!” See what I mean. I suppose you could dress down, put a towel around your neck and work out in the stairwell during lunch, but who would want to smell B.O. in a confined place like a staircase?

Every once in a while we’ll run into someone who appears to be doing the same thing we are – they aren’t carrying anything and have that deep breathing in concert with a look of purpose on their faces as if this ugly, puke-yellow staircase is where they want to be, instead of the best cardio workout-while-you-work routine. Then there are the annoying guys who are just moving from one floor down to the next because it’s faster than the elevators. These are the guys who like to gallop down the stairs, staying airborne for too long at times, as if the laws of physics don’t apply to them. I swing wide on the landings to let them pass, but the gallop turns into a steady pace as I proceed down the next traverse only for them to start up with that gallop again. I feel a little like Ichabod Crane, afraid to turn around and face my pursuer who is in such a hurry, but refuses to overtake me.

The stairwell is a place where you find out just what kind of people these fellow stairwell travelers are. I suppose you could say the same thing about elevator sojourners. One of my more sophomoric, not to mention dangerous, elevator tricks when I worked as an evening proof reader in a near-vacant thirteen-floor building was to attempt to pry open the elevator doors when the car was in full motion. Boom! The elevator would perform an emergency stop, making the passengers feel their weight displace with a light, but significant thud. I stopped performing this little squealer when the car stopped between floors and stuck there. I was trying to impress the two female proofers I was with at the time. We were stuck there for three hours where I learned a lot about those elevator travelers.

Another trick I learned – this one from my high school sociology teacher – is that people will always balance out the spaces between fellow elevator travelers as more people leave a full elevator on a long trip. I would not move – occasionally pining someone to a corner of the cab as it continued its move up (or down) the empty out. My victim would finally get out in a huff before their appointed stop or would ask if I would move over.

I don’t know of any tricks for the stairwell and I don’t think I want to learn any. It has become a necessary evil until I get in shape; that and trying to lay off the Dilly Bars, but there’s no way I’m going to exchange coffee for green tea!

Fair Trade Coffee and My Dirty Little Secret


It’s about a quarter to eight on a Thursday morning and I am sitting alone in Temple, a coffee house about a block from where I work. I’ve been to this place only a couple times before and though the location, atmosphere, and coffee is good, I have no really pressing reason to patronize this place for my daily sacrament of java. The fact is there are two other places I can get my coffee that are next door to my office and another that is directly on the way to work – no detour required.

Ambience is not that important since I usually get the coffee to go, but this place is very comfortable – it used to be a bookstore about 15 years ago and hasn’t lost the feeling one gets in an old bookstore — like you don’t want to leave. I can’t help but feel a little envious though – there’s always a large group of friends or coworkers occupying two or three pulled-together tables nearly every morning, talking about work or play – I’m always alone with nothing to keep me company but this tablet or whatever magazine or book I may have in my bag at the time.

There’s another reason I patronize this specific coffee house: they sell only fair trade coffee. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to buy exclusively from farmer’s markets, co-ops, and boycott products that are owned by companies that have been bought out by belligerent corporations; I don’t have the energy to keep that up. The fact is many nights of the week you’ll find me at the local Starbucks ordering lattes for my family. There – I said it, I feel a lot better now. No longer will I have to wonder if one of my old radical left-wing college buddies will recognize me when I am ordering a Frappuccino.

Since the Seattle-based chain started planting stores in locations near my house I’ve been choosing Starbucks nearly three out of every four times I get coffee in the evenings. Some of the guys at work complain that Starbucks is running independent coffee houses, like this one I’m sitting in, out of business. Though I like individuality and uniqueness of places like Temple, I also enjoy the uniformity, convenience, not to mention the wide selection of espresso drinks Starbucks offers.

Behind the warm tones, selves of shiny travel mugs, and tasteful jazz, folk, and rock music CD racks of the corporate coffee houses of North America lies the dirty back-end of the coffee business most middle-class Americans would rather not know about: the Free-Trade Zones. For that matter they probably wouldn’t want to know that the problem is pervasive – covering hundreds of goods and services North Americans buy everyday. The shirt on your back could have very well been made in some Guatemalan sweat shop. Most of us know about the Kathy Lee Gifford incident and, at times, feel a little self-righteous pointing our finger at the annoying “celebrity” and Wal-Mart icon, but it is pretty hard for just about anyone in North America to escape supporting, in one way or another, the institution of Free-Trade Zones.

The alternative to free trade – at least as far as coffee, tea, and chocolate goes – is fair trade, where producers receive a fair price for their product and work under safer conditions. Also, buyers and producers trade under direct long-term relationships – there’s no middle men to cut into the producers’ profit.

Fair trade coffees are not that easy to find and cost about two dollars more a bag. The fact is fair-trade coffee only represents one to two percent of the specialty coffee market. So if brands like Cloudforest, Peace, and Thanksgiving coffees don’t ring a bell you’re not alone. After a lot of bad press, Starbucks finally came out with a line of fair trade coffees.

Starbucks’ free trade coffees have identical packaging to the fair trade coffees, but without the Fair-Trade Certification seal; in other words: you have to look beyond the text about how Starbucks is giving back to the growers yada, yada, yada and find the seal to get the fair trade coffee. Also, as of this post, the few fair trade coffees they have are in whole-bean form only and good luck trying to get a latte or macchiato using fair trade coffee.

This fair trade verses free trade business hasn’t soured my appetite for Starbucks – only sobered me on the politics of coffee and just about everything else I buy, for that matter. In fact, since I discovered this little coffee house on the way to work I have discovered that nearly half of the independent coffee houses I visit either at work or during off hours use fair trade coffees.

It’s another Thursday morning and I am sitting alone, as usual; this time where the old book store’s windowed display case used to be. I feel better now that I drink fair trade coffee and almost want to stand up, like a model, beckoning pedestrians to come in and try this fair trade coffee. The humiliation I would surely feel would be my penance for my post-meridian excursions into corporate coffee country.

Cracking a Smile

I was walking to work the other day when I ran into one of the women who work in my building. “Smile, it can’t be all that bad.” I give her a perfunctory grin to make her happy. I thought “Man, do I look that serious? I’m not in a bad mood – I haven’t looked at my desk yet.” I run into another fellow employee about fifty feet up the mall who tells me one of her funny one-liners as we pass each other. This time I crack a genuine smile. Then, for the first time ever, for reasons I still don’t know, I attempt to hold that expression. I hold it for a quarter of a mile, passing other fellow workers who smile back at me. I smile all the way into my office building. At the elevator a woman who rarely addresses me smiles and says hello. She addresses me by name and asks how I am doing.

“Hmm, maybe this smiling thing is something I should work on,” I say to myself. But by this time my facial muscles begin to ache, you know, like your legs do on the day after the first ski trip of the season. I have always been told I look too serious. In family pictures there are two faces of me: the candid ones where I look like I belong in a Bergman film and the staged ones where my mom, her arms akimbo, says “Smile, this is [Insert name of any festive occasion].”

Most of the people who know me think I’m a nice guy; maybe a little too self-absorbed at times, but not enough to warrant them thinking that I’m nursing a hemorrhoid or plotting their bloody demise. Then again, I can remember these guys telling people I am a “nice guy” – as if my friends don’t think I did a good enough job conveying that message directly.

I once interviewed for a job I just knew I was going to get. Looking back on the experience now and considering the other applicants, I am not so sure I had this one cinched up. Still, the guy who got the job – someone who worked under me – said he thought he got position because he’s an “easy-going guy.” I should have read into that, but I was too pissed about not getting the position and humiliated that someone under me was chosen. I didn’t smile for weeks. If someone would have told me back then “Smile, it can’t be all that bad” I would have broken a window!

I’ve heard from outside sources (the inside source being my mother) that smiling is good for you – both muscularly and emotionally. There have been scholarly studies done on this. Can you imagine getting a Masters in Smiling? There is even such a thing as “Laughter Yoga.” (Don’t laugh, here’s the URL: http://www.laughteryoga.org/.) Laughter Yoga is supposed to help people with their self-esteem, stress, depression, urges to kill someone, et al by making them laugh and smile. I can just see myself in organic cotton sweats, assuming a yoga pose on my mat surrounded by a bunch of old sour pusses, and requesting to the Master Laugher to put in my Dave Chappell DVD: “Hey fast-forward to the skit about the crack whore. Damn that’s a riot!”

On those rare occasions that I smile or laugh I can also feel a little foolish. I was eating orange chicken at the local Panda Express and reading an article in The New Yorker by David Sedaris. Try attempting to suppress laughter while reading and eating orange chicken and fried rice – it can get messy. I don’t know how many people saw me. I must have looked kind of crazy with the orange sauce dribbling down my chin and the tears rolling down my cheeks. My wife tells me I have a great laugh, if not a tad too loud at times; a rather eccentric friend tells me he hates viewing comedies with me because my cackle drowns-out the actors’ following lines. He says he prefers to watch comedies like “Airplane!,” “Young Frankenstein,” and Marx Brothers films in absolute silence. He says he laughs hours later when he is at home.

I think I’m going to work on my smile. Currently, I’m wearing a stress-induced mask like the local undertaker. It will take some practice to crack the ice. Perhaps I’ll rip some Dave Chappell, Chris Rock, and vintage Firesign Theatre on my MP3 player and walk around the office, earbuds in place, laughing my rear end off.

Tango and Altoids

I’m standing in a circle in one of the studios normally used for aerobic or step exercises. With my tongue I jockey an Altoid around my mouth – the last of many I’ve been popping since I got off work and made my way to the health club. I look around the circle, checking out my fellow classmates – mostly couples.

In the middle of the circle is Rebecca, a tall, dark-haired woman with a black beaded cocktail dress and three-inch stiletto heels. Her partner, Aaron, is also in black with black suede dancing shoes with Cuban heels – cool.

This is the first night of Argentine Tango lessons sponsored by the athletic club I belong to. I love Argentine Tango, but my self-consciousness makes dancing – even with my wife of 18 years – a mixed bag of emotions. I continue because I believe I will ultimately overcome these feelings and be able to fully appreciate this wonderful dance and the absolute hypnotic music we dance to.

After doing some warm-up exercises Rebecca tells us to find a partner. Immediately, all the women who came with men clutch on to their partners as if they had just been told the floor may drop out from under them. I can’t help but take this personal – like all these women checked me out when I walked in the studio and ran to their partners spitting “Please don’t make me dance with the short, bald guy!” I go counterclockwise past all the white knuckled women until I find a wallflower – usually an older woman who was told tango lessons would be much more fun than bingo.

Dancing is a strange activity. Its roots have a lot to do with the mating process, which makes the experience with a stranger all the more awkward. Argentine Tango pushes this awkwardness far beyond what I felt when I took waltz lessons from an ex-Arthur Murray teacher at work. When the few of us loners find partners and introduce ourselves, Rebecca and Aaron illustrate just how awkward this is going to be – they show us the close embrace: Rebecca leans into Aaron almost as if she tripped and crashed into Aaron’s chest; her face so close to his neck she could be whispering “Hey Aaron, check out the short guy who swallowed a whole tin of Altoids. Someone must have tipped him off about his breath.” They back off and show us the much more conservative “salon embrace.” Okay, that makes me feel a little better.

I check to see if the Altoids did their job by breathing in sharply through the mouth. Ooh, that almost hurts! My wife tells me I have bad breath when I get home from work, but when I go from work to the club and ultimately get real close to a stranger in a salon embrace I don’t have a bottle of mouthwash or a bagel to tame the acids raging in my empty stomach.

Tonight my wife is not with me – she has a college class, but even if she was present Rebecca suggests that switching partners is good so couples don’t end up “complementing each others’ mistakes.” My wife supports Rebecca’s suggestion so I’m out of luck whether she’s here or not.

My first partner is a woman who must be in her late 50’s/early 60’s and can’t be over five feet tall. This may not seem too bad if you know that I am only 5’6, but it is. Tango is all about intrusions – the leader placing his feet deep inside of the follower’s space. This lady’s little legs can’t create the space required to execute the proper steps — at least for a rookie like me. We trip and almost fall. She gets the idea that this is her fault, and while it really isn’t I’m frustrated enough to give the impression that it is. I look at all the previously white knuckled, 5’6ish women, now laughing and feeling good that they are with their dates and not with a stranger like me.

After we stumble through an otherwise wonderful tango by Astor Piazzolla it is time for the leaders (men) to move to the next follower (women). After I travel over half the entire distance of the circle, past all the white knuckled women I find Julie, a young woman at least five inches taller than me.

Tango is not meant for this kind of height difference – at least not where the woman would easily win the tip off in a basketball game against the man. When the music begins I realize I can’t even see over her shoulder to direct us around other couples; navigation must be done by dead reckoning. At least I don’t have to worry about stepping on her feet.

Time to change up; I finish the circle only to find I am back with the five foot lady. I finish the lesson with my two partners, check out of the club, and go to my car where I put in my Tango Nuevo CD and crank it up. Perhaps next week I can talk my wife into skipping class and going dancing with me, and then I’ll be the one with the white knuckles.

Faith, Liberals, and Biscuits

I had just sat down with my second-helping of eggs and sausage and a really good biscuit when I heard one of my brothers in Christos exclaim “God bless President Bush! We are so fortunate to have a godly man in the White House. Can you imagine how bad off we would be if Hillary becomes our next president?” Suddenly, the eggs and sausage didn’t look so good. The biscuit was still wonderful. I’m not one to lose my appetite for biscuits over something someone has said across the dinner table.

Every January I make the pilgrimage to Santa Nella, California for the annual Faithful Men’s Conference. Since 2001 we have been meeting here at “The Oasis of I-5” for speeches, prayers, hymns, fellowship, not to mention breaking bread. Faithful Men is sponsored by the IFCA International, which stands for Independent Fundamental Churches of America. Since I placed my trust in Jesus Christ I would never go back to the lukewarm churches I attended when I was a child and later when I was courting my wife and attended church with her because she wanted to go and I didn’t want to be without her.

The thing is I have been a liberal far longer than I have been a Christian. Now there are plenty of churches out there where the pews, as well as pulpits, are filled with liberals, but I have found that most churches do not believe in the literal interpretation of the Word of God. I think whenever man says “Well the books of Job and Jonah are only allegories and shouldn’t be taken literally” then you’ve got flawed humans telling other flawed humans what God really meant: a faith based on human interpretation – scary.
Since a true fundamentalist will leave politics out of sermons, theology, Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc., I can attends these functions, like Faithful Men, and worship my God without feeling like I am at a Republican Party fund raiser – which has as much appeal to me as being cast into the Lake of Fire.
It’s the road trip conversations – where there’s nowhere to go but out the door into a tuck and roll on the Interstate; the comments in the dinning area, and the discussions between speakers when we are not studying God’s word where I wonder if anyone will see my ACLU membership card when I open my wallet to leave a tip; those are the trying times for this left-winger. “Hey, you know that Berkeley church group that made it out here? Did you know many of them belong to a Young Republican’s group right on campus? Praise the Lord, there’s some straight arrows at ‘Bezerkeley’ after all.” Or “Bill’s son died in Iraq. You know, it really gets my dander up to see all those Democrat congressmen criticizing President Bush.” [One nice thing about these men is that they never cuss, even if their choice of words seems hopelessly corny.]
Of course there are some political subjects that are so deeply woven into Christian theology that they cannot be avoided even in serious study: abortion rights and Gay/Lesbian rights, to name only two. Nobody here has asked me how I feel about Rowe vs. Wade; I quietly eat my biscuit.