3 Lessons In Life and Economics: When Things Crack

The first time I lived in Europe I didn’t have much money. The second time I lived in Europe I did. And, really, not that much was different between the two stints.

Except the second time around I joined a way nicer gym.

The gym from Europe 1 was close by and crazy cheap. Like the rough equivalent of 5 Euros a month.

(Note: This was before Euros, but all the EU currencies were pegged and so it was a pretty interesting time to be there from an international trade theory perspective. But that’s maybe boring stuff, unless you’re a giant fan of Ricardo. But you’re probably not. So it’s probably boring.)

Anyway, I think I paid three months at a time in advance, cash only, directly to the owner, who smoked more than an old diesel Mercedes-Benz and had juiced so much his neck looked like a tree stump stuffed inside a frozen turkey.

He seemed to like me, which turned out to be a good thing.

The gym was pretty much built underneath railroad tracks. Technically, it was built into an embankment beside the tracks. But the structure – all 1,000 square feet or so – was partially subterranean, and every time cargo or commuters would chug by, the light bulbs blinked out and the smaller dumbbells jumped around like they were on a vibrating bed. So it at least felt like it was under the tracks. And it was dark and dank and smelled like a chain smoker’s basement.

What to do when things crack.
What to do when things crack.

In back there was a gang shower setup I never used that had all the luxurious finishes of something you’d find in Chernobyl. And some of the weight equipment also might have been secondhand Soviet iron.

But whatever. Weight’s weight. Kilos, pounds, American iron, Soviet stuff, doesn’t matter. Usually.

Except it turns out that cheap Soviet dumbbells can break. More easily than you might think.

Now, I’ve never been one of those douchebags who pounds out a set of four reps and then throws down the iron like I just broke a world record. That’s a great way to crush a foot or blow out a shoulder or generally flaunt what a novice you are in the weight room.

Which is to say I’m reasonably careful with equipment. Especially someone else’s. Especially a guy with a neck like a sycamore and an IV hooked up to horse testosterone. Especially when his gym’s usually only got two people in it at a time, and the only hobby he’s got other than chain smoking is watching what they do.

But there are times when it really doesn’t matter how careful you are. There’s just gonna be an unlucky break now and then.

I was winding down a workout. Chest and triceps that day. And I’d already done all the hard stuff, so I was finishing up with some reps of French Dips aka French Press. Which have nothing to do with coffee or sandwiches served au jus, and aren’t anything like the Belgian Dip popularized by Dr. Evil.

With the French Dip, you clasp the end of a dumbbell in both hands and extend your arms straight over your head. You work your tris by bending at the elbows and lowering the weight behind your head until your arms hit around 90 degrees and then you reverse the motion. You can do it seated or standing, but I prefer standing because sitting around in the gym feels lazy.

It’s not an awesome exercise really. I mean, it’s got “French” in the name. But it’s a good burnout move and you can do some pretty good weight and it hits both arms at the same time, so it gets things over with quickly.

I had what I think was a 45 kilo (99 lbs.) dumbbell suspended in my hands and I was partway through a set, midway through a rep, with the weight hanging over the back of my neck. When it felt wobbly. My first thought was that my hands were tired and the weight was shifting in them.

Then the thing broke in two.

It was one of those welded hex-weight jobs. And the bar and one of the hex pieces just detached from the other end.

The part with the bar bounced off the back of my neck and then hit around my tailbone and then cratered the floor.

The other part suddenly weighed less than half of what it should’ve. And it didn’t have a bar anymore. And I almost dropped it on my head.

The first thought that crossed my mind was that the gym owner was gonna kill me. Second thought was that the tailbone impact hurt way more than the neck impact. Third thought was back to the gym owner.

He was looking my way. The cigarette kinda hung on his lower lip. We must’ve stared at each other for close to a minute. Then he said something indecipherable. Or, it was probably fully decipherable, just not by me since I can barely function in English, let alone non-English.

And then he lost it. The cigarette got chucked into a crowded ashtray, the sycamore neck went all veiny and red and he started sucking down big gulps of air in between spasms of convulsive laughter.

Dude thought it was hilarious.

And then next thing I knew I was cracking up. Relief mostly. And also seeing this giant bro cracking up was a genuinely funny sight.

For a while afterwards – like weeks – I didn’t really understand exactly what happened that day. Maybe I still don’t. But the gym owner became a lot friendlier after that. And before I moved on, he gave me a t-shirt of his that I’ve still got tucked away in my closet – more than 15 years and a couple continents later.

He’d evidently gotten it at a bench press competition. Which he’d evidently won. At least according to what I gleaned from the shirt and what he said when he gave it to me.

A few years ago I managed to swing a visit to my old gym. The train tracks were still there. The embankment was still there. The building was still wedged into the earth, half-subterranean. The door was shuttered. The hand-painted sign was gone.

I asked around. Which, more than a decade removed from when I could kinda sorta barely get by in that place’s particular brand of non-English, wasn’t real easy.

Lots of the answers I got were indecipherable. At least to me. But I got the impression dude wasn’t benching anymore or juicing or chain smoking.

1. Cracks Happen

Lifting weights is a hobby. And I wouldn’t do it if there weren’t health benefits. Which is to say it’s gotta be fun and provide positive returns. Which is to say if there were undue risks to offset the health benis, I wouldn’t do it.

Having the better part of 100 pounds cartwheel down your spine isn’t real fun. And if that’s the kind of thing that happened every time I flipped on the lights in the gym each morning, I’d probably find another hobby.

But if you’re reasonably careful, the risks attendant to weight training are minute, and they’re vastly outweighed (pun) by the upside.

Just like investing.

There’ll be market corrections. There’ll be crap days where the Dow sheds more digits than a Biggest Loser contestant. There’ll be times when keeping your Eurobucks or whatever in the market seems like a waste when there’s so much great other stuff you could be doing with them.

But over the long haul, the best way to build muscle’s in the gym, and the best way to build wealth’s in the market, and that includes taking into account freak cisne negro-type events such as a dumbbell randomly falling apart in your hands or a mortgage meltdown.

2. Show Them Pearlies

When that kind of stuff happens, you might as well laugh about it.

Ain’t nothing you can do to make it un-happen. You already knew there were risks. You took the prudent precautions. This is all just part of the ride.

If you get all bent out of shape, you only make things worse. Yeah, dude could’ve gotten pissed I’d broken his weight. Or I could’ve gotten pissed his broken weight nearly killed me.

But nobody would’ve been better off with that response.

And besides, when you’re upset you stem the flow of creative juices and problem solving and beneficial thought that can help make the best out of an unexpected scenario.

It turns out there was a guy a couple blocks away I happened to kind of know with lots of metalworking equipment in the back of his shop. Dude and I got the dumbbell onto a little cart, and he wheeled it down. Quick introduction. Funny story I partially understood. Laughter. Two cigarettes. (I was the only one who didn’t smoke.) And a couple days later the weight was back in the gym with big welding seams reinforcing both halves of the dumbbell onto the bar.

And I ended up with a couple cool bruises to tell people about. Not as good as scars, but still fun for a story at the bar.

Similarly, when markets go belly-up, you can swing deals on stocks or stuff to run your biz on deep discount. Or you can identify the problems everyone’s fretting about and profit by coming up with solutions. Or you can build profitable relationships by being the calm in a storm. Can’t do that stuff if you’re one of the peeps fretting.

3. Tempus Fugit

Things have a way of seeming permanent when they’re really fleeting. This truth works both for better and worse.

Bad market performance or an unmotivated day in the weight stacks can seem eternal. But they go away faster than a bruise.

And good stuff, like dude’s gym, goes away too.

Which suggests that looking ahead has its place in planning. And looking back has its place in learning. But really being here and now is the place for getting the most out of our plans and lessons.

Which suggests we might as well enjoy the ride. Focusing too much on the future risks missing the present. Fixating on the past risks marring the future. Being in the moment means we’re getting the most of each minute – and sucking down that sweet marrow by being in the here and now is something we can control amid a slurry of things we can’t.

‘Cuz the ride’ll change. And we’ll change. And the world’ll change. And then, before we know it, the ride’ll be over. And the gym’ll shutter. And the lights won’t flicker off anymore when a train rolls by because nobody will have turned them on in the first place. And all that stuff we worried about that we couldn’t control will have either happened or not. And so we might as well be good with it all because it’ll be done before we know it.

Luchadores, how do you deal with the unexpected and make the most of life along the way? What are your strategies for being here and now?

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