The Art of the (Im)Possible
What is The Possible?
Hoo boy, heavy one. I suppose everybody’s gotta think about something heavy sometime. Me, I think I’ll have another coffee.
What is Possible?
Bumped into an old Welsh friend a year ago, and we got chatting about the current state of British politics. Politics is the Art of The Possible, he told me. I wonder if that’s why politics is so bloody frustrating to those of us who content ourselves with bread and circuses.
Today my aching muscles are reminding me of what I did yesterday, which was a Black Belt Physical Baseline test. It’s mandated by the school where I train in Tae Kwon Do. I have to do it if I want to pass the grading for my next black belt level.
Eight hard, punishing exercises, all intended to measure The Possible. What I’m physically capable of right now.
Two minutes of running, wall-to-wall. How many lengths? (Answer: 22. Pleased with myself, I figured I could do 16, but 22? Happy with that.)
One minute of pushups. How many? (Answer: 26. Annoyed with myself. I’d done 31 the day before.)
Wall-sit. Sitting upright with your back against a wall, holding yourself up with your legs, nothing under your backside. That’s a killer. My legs were spasming Richter 7.2. How long? (Answer: 1 minute, 45 seconds, but that was 15 seconds better than the day before, so I was pleased. The ladies outperformed the guys on this one, by quite a margin. Interesting.)
And so on. Eight of ‘em.
By the end, I was reasonably happy. I biked home, thighs still screaming. And went out for anothe bike ride with the family in the evening. The bod is reminding me of how I abused it yesterday.
What is The Possible?
Answer: How much pain can you stand before you quit?
(Key technique there: Answer the question with a better question. Always a good move.)
I was never a jock as a kid. I come from a family of geeks, not jocks. We do black boxes, not black belts.
This was partly exacerbated by Crohn’s Disease. All through high school, I was plagued by recurring gut cramps. I was painfully thin, and easily outclassed in any physical activity. This included anything approaching physical violence, so I was easily bullied and pushed around. I learned to avoid certain people, and to diffuse conflict before it threatened to become more than verbal.
My weight problem was keeping my it UP. Even as a university student, just a hair under 6 feet tall, I weighed around 135 lbs. By then, the Crohn’s had been diagnosed, and I was seriously ill. In the spring semester of my final year of mechanical engineering, I wound up in Toronto General Hospital for 7 weeks. Nearly didn’t graduate.
So for most of my life, the idea of defending myself, or of excelling at any physical exercise . . . was beyond the realm of the possible. It was The Impossible.
It wasn’t helped by something in the soul.
Hard to articulate this. Not because I don’t wanna, but because the words are missing.
There was something running through my head, 24/7, that said, Don’t get too big for your britches, little fella.
Don’t make us have to take you down a peg or two. See that box you’re living in? It’s a nice little box we’ve made for you. You stay in it. Don’t ask for too much. Don’t try to rise above your station. Nothing but trouble will result if you do that.
Don’t know where that thread came from. But it was running through my brain all the time growing up. And it ran through my parents’ heads as well, and probably theirs.
I was never taught to think that way. But I learned it nevertheless.
Why did I allow this nasty little monster into my head?
My great-grandfather knew about his own nasty little monster.
He had an early setback in life. Born in Northamptonshire, he was age two when his mother was pregnant and his father died of tuberculosis.
Not good. This was the Victorian era. Women depended on a father or a husband to provide for them, and there was no Plan B. She was now left with a terrible decision to make.
My great-grandfather was put into an orphanage, while she “went into service” for the rest of her life, generating just enough money to keep her and her unborn child alive.
Family records are sketchy. He was educated in Dover, where the school practice was to dip in the English Channel every morning, winter and summer. OUCH. Graduating from school, the headmaster gave him a Bible, handwriting in it that he had “a first-class education and a thoroughly good character”.
A few years later, he’s in Cuckfield, Sussex, where he’s been apprenticed as a carpenter, married to a woman ten years his senior (!!!!) and having to tip his cap to every “gennelman or lady” who passes. Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, maam.
And it’s around this point that something in him snaps. TWANG.
In 1910, with two small boys, and the promise of free land in Canada, they board a boat for Montreal. Goodbye green and pleasant land. Pity you weren’t greener and pleasanter to me.
A train west, and he spends the rest of his life in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. First as a carpenter, and then real estate. Does well enough to buy and rent out several houses, buy a summer cottage on Manitou Lake, and put my grandfather through university. Not too shabby for an orphaned carpenter from Sussex. He’d not have managed that if he’d stayed put.
I was raised on stories of his funny antics and one-liners, particularly his recipe for preparing cucumbers for dinner. The details vary depending on the story-teller, but the finale was always the same. He threw the cucumbers, which he despised, out the window.
Dad always affectionately referred to him as Old Pop, saying that he was a great friend to a young boy. Well, go figure. Determined to give his grandson what he himself never had.
But for some reason, one now-obvious fact about him was never emphasized to me:
He was a maverick.
He refused to just accept the hand he was dealt. Don’t tell me what’s Possible. Your definition stinks. I’m gonna find out for myself. I deserve better than the hand I’ve been dealt.
When I hit my forties, two things happened to me:
(1) I turned forty.
Funny how that focuses the mind. Bummer. This might be the second half I’m playing in now. Hmmmm.
(2) I lost my dad.
Literally on my fortieth birthday, I bid him farewell, and boarded the plane back to England. Worst birthday I’ve ever had. A month later, I was back to bury him.
My dad was not a maverick. There were lots of things he wanted to do, to study, to try, that he Never. Went. After.
And then the ref blew his whistle. With the party in full swing, the star of the party checked out with half his presents unopened. What a tragedy.
A few years later, while waiting for my daughters to finish their dance classes one night, I looked through the window into the gym and watched Master Ray Gayle train his Tae Kwon Do students, as I had many times before. Memories of my dad and of my own schoolday bullying experiences came a-flooding.
What if. What if.
What if the Possible isn’t where I think it is?
What if the universe actually extends beyond the limits of our solar system? (Hint: It does. Google it. The answer will make your head hurt, but google it anyway.)
What if a pencil-necked geek could actually become a black belt?
Fast forward ten years, and two things are clear:
(1) The answer is yes. (And as of yesterday, I’m working towards my 2nd Dan.)
(2) The Possible is way, way bigger than I thought it was. But you don’t get to find that out until you reach your hand out. And then reach further, and still further . . .
What I thought was the outer edge of the universe, was only Saturn.
‘Impossible’ isn’t a fact, says Tony Robbins. It’s an opinion.
Forget the Art of The Possible. Practice the Art of The Impossible.