Friday, October 31, 2008

New deadlift- and spooooky abs

My apparent body double, Andy inspired me with his nice comment to the last post: I went for the glory, six plates, 315# deadlift!

Also an abs exercise that some might find amusing. I sort of made it up as I went.

Started doing situps on the steepest incline bench with a 20 lb kettlebell in each hand, held near my shoulder. I found I could not do very many with that weight static.

Then I had an idea: I threw the 'bells up and did the situp with the momentum- then put them back on my shoulders for a S L O W negative incline situp. Two sets, insane burn. Also did windmills with the 35# 'bell to work obliques. Squats and clean and jerks rounded out my terrifying Halloween workout.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Process Check: BMI

Sometimes where I work, an argument will go around in circles for a while until somebody says, "Process check!" and then asks a very simple question that either cuts to the heart of the matter, or at least gets at how the group is going to come to a conclusion.

I saw a reference to BMI in a post that Jeff referenced. So here's a quick process check on that stat, using my own body as reference.

I am 5' 10.5 inches tall (and I insist on that half an inch, thank you.) With a current weight of 149 lb, my BMI is 21.1 which is considered "Normal weight" by the Obesity Education Initiative. My body fat, as measured by skinfold caliper, is 8.2% which is considered "freaking awesome" and "a sick result" by Jeffrey D. Erno.

Playing with the BMI calculator I find that the Normal Weight range of 18.5-24.9 BMI would allow me, at my height, to weigh anywhere from 134 to 176 lb. Sounds reasonable - lots of people at 5' 10.5" would be doing great at 176lb.

Now let's look at that 176lb as an extrapolation of skinfold measurement, for my body. My first ever skinfold measurement was in March 2008, and I was at 12.7% and a total weight of 154 lb. That makes my lean body mass at that time 134.4 lb, with 19.6 lb of fat. I could get to 176 lb from that point by adding 22lb of fat, and BMI would say I have normal weight, right?

Lean Fat Total Percent
134.4 19.6 154 12.7%
134.4 41.6 176 23.6%

Wow. Other paleo types have said it before, but I wanted to do the process check anyway - BMI stinks as a measure of fitness. I should note as a further point that at 160 lb (estimated body fat 16%, BMI=22.6) I had stage I hypertension: now I am 110/70.

BMI calculator
skinfold calculator

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Following up on Ray's comments to the last post - I have found an English version of the story he references online.

"During the schism which burst between the Copts and the Melkites, the first kept the head while the body remained with the latter. On 644 A.D., a soldier sneaked into the church where the head was buried. He took it away to his ship under the impression that it was a treasure. Later, when Amro-Ebn-El-Aas (leader of the Arab troops) ordered the ships to sail off Alexandria, that particular ship could not move. Eventually the soldier had to confess and Amro handed it back toPope Benjamin. The saint''s body did not remain in Egypt, for it was stolen and taken to Venice by some Italian merchants. They built a huge cathedral in St. Mark''s name, believing that St. mark was their patron Saint. In 1968, part of his relics which is now kept in the new Cathedral in Cairo, was offered to the Egyptian Pope Cyril (Kyrillos VI) from Pope Paul VI)."

Oh, my. Imagine that you've spent 2 years writing a book about a body being taken from one place, and then be told that it was never there at all! Well, there are a few ways out of this. First, not every source says that the body was with the Melkites. Second, authors use composites all the time. Whether this story of the Melkites having the body is true or not, I think I need to composite the two churches of Egypt into one, and have the action take place there. Perhaps I can include an authors' note explaining this, and my reasons for it.

As an aside, there are those who beleive that the Venetians did not get Saint Mark's body at all: that instead, they took Alexander the Great, who was secretly buried in Alexandria. Does it matter exactly which body they took? For my purposes, no. All that matters is that the Venetians thought they had Mark, and so did everyone else.

The edits are coming along nicely!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Visiting the Copts - Part III

Habib poured me a big, black cup of coffee.

"It's not cappuchino," he admitted, "For that you have to come to my place."

Besides the coffee, there was cake and pastry - and big, big trays piled up high with hamburgers and hot dogs in buns. It made sense. In reading up on Coptic traditions beforehand, I learned that they strictly fast before eucharist. Many other Christians do this as well - but their services are three hours shorter.

The other men came in shortly afterwards. I sat down with the cafe owner, a young physician, an FBI translator of Arabic and a professor of finance. They all insisted that I eat something with my coffee, so I got a small piece of nutcake.

Everyone was very interested in the book. I explained that it was not a history, but a historical fiction.

"I know there are a million ways it could have happened," I said, "I just want to write down the most interesting one that's possible."

So I asked the men at the table what they knew about the theft of Saint Mark: what stories and legends had been passed down in their culture? What could possible have persuaded Coptic Priests to give up the body of their first pope?

No one had a good idea of it. I did find that for these modern Copts, thoughts of that time are heavily colored by the history of the Islamic conquest, and the recent history of radicalism in Egypt which many beleive the government turns a blind eye to. (I'm not touching that one.)

They did agree on one thing. "A lot of people say the priests were bribed," the translator said, "There's no way they would take money for a thing like that."

"I agree with you," I told him, "The way I wrote it, they were offered money and refused."

Everyone liked that. By now, Father Demetrios had sat down with us. All the men kissed the cross in his hand, and he blessed them. I shook his hand and introduced myself. He said Habib had told him all about me.

"Why don't you eat something?" he asked me.

"I'm sorry, I just didn't fast like all of you," I admitted, "I've had breakfast."

"Ha! At least he confesses it!" the professor said. I got the impression that breakfasting was often done, but rarely admitted.

By now I could see that the how and why of the theft wasn't something they thought about much. It had just happened to them, the same way foreigners had invaded and ruled their country since the time of the Greeks... and the Romans... and the Byzantines... and the Caliphate... Ottomans... Napoleon... the British...

"Let me tell you how I wrote it," I said, "And you can tell me if it sounds all right."

I told the story of Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello entering Saint Mark's church: what they said to the priests, what was happening in the city outside the church, the body leaving the church and what happened after that. (If you weren't in that room, then you'll have to wait until I finish the book, and you buy it, to hear the rest.)

A long silence.

"That's it," the translator said, "That's exactly the way it must have happened."

I left with a good list of contacts in my notebook, as several of my new friends offered to help with translations or future research. Also Father Demetrios took me up to his study and let me copy some pages (in English, thankfully) from a book he had. I also left with a very touching story.

"I would like to make a comment," the physician's elderly father said, "I was there in the Cairo airport when the Pope brought Saint Mark's Body to us from Rome."

I had heard of this. The Roman Pope, Paul gave to the Coptic Pope Cyril with his own hands relics of Saint Mark. The old man told me all this with a misty eye, how he was there and saw it himself, and how the Copts rejoiced to have their saint back home after 1,140 years. I could tell that the image was still vivid in his mind, a rare moment of joy and victory for his people in a long history of increasing marginalization.

There was more. His son, the physician told me that there was not enough money to build a proper cathedral to house the relics, but that Nasser's government came through with the funds. That made Saint Mark a symbol of Egypt, and acknowledged the Coptic religion as integral to Egyptian nationalism - even if the nation itself was Muslim. I didn't know about that part. I found it very touching.

After this visit I feel like I have the last piece of the puzzle. The edits are coming along - the story as I've written it seems to be a good one - and from the contacts I made there, (and now here in this blog- thanks Ray!) I'm confident that I can give the parts of the tale that happen in old Alexandria the right feel.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Visiting the Copts - Part II

The Coptic liturgy is like opera - an expression of the greatest human suffering, with the hopeful spark of divinity that is man's greatest joy. It is also like opera in that it is entirely sung, and is four hours long. Fortunately Habib told me that, like many of the men, he only attended the final hour.

That sounded good to me. I set out on foot from my house at a quarter to eleven. I had driven by the church many times before, sometimes pointing it out to Emjay and saying, "I really need to talk to those guys about my book."

When I got there, I wasn't quite sure how to enter. The obvious big front door was locked. I went to a side door. I could already hear voices singing, and smell incense. It didn't seem right. I waited outside, and soon a family drove up.

"Good morning," I said, "I was hoping I could visit today. Can I go in with you?"

"Sure," the dad said, "Wait- are you Christian?"

I don't think anyone had ever asked me that before. I copped to it, and followed him in.

Orthodox churches traditionally have an entry hall called a narthex, the main room for worship which is the nave, and the sanctuary where the priests manage the sacred objects and Body and Blood of Christ. The three areas are laid out like a Manhattan "railroad" apartment, so one enters the narthex to get to the nave, and reaches the sanctuary from there. St. Mary's and St. George's did not begin life as an orthodox church. That explained the locked main doors. The side entrance and rooms served as the narthex.

I followed my host through a couple of rooms used as Sunday schools and nurseries. We entered the nave very near the front of the nave - so far to the front that we were behind the deacons, who at the moment were prostrating themselves on the floor. I stepped gingerly past them and found a pew in the back.

A crowd of altar boys, acolytes and deacons led the chants and hymns from the front. Men had the left side pews and women the right. Kids hopped freely from one side to the other and no one seemed to mind. The priest wore long white robes and a white satin hat with tails. He had his back to us, praying at the altar in a cloud of incense.

Once when I was church-shopping I went to a Methodist church that completely turned me off. They used Powerpoint and an LCD projector to help people follow the service. In this church, though, the projector seemed essential. The liturgy was part English, part Coptic (which is itself part Greek), and part Arabic. All the words in all three languages were projected side by side.

I sat quietly, joining in a "Kyrie eleison" or two. I tried to sort out who was depicted in all the icons. Saint Mark was the first on the left - Mary and Saint George, of course, Christ, and then a few particular to the Coptic church. I could turn enough of the Coptic letters into Greek in my head to be able to sound out half of the names. Other than the icons, the rest of the decor was very Prodestant, down to the stained glass windows with decidedly non-Coptic names of benefactors.

If I closed my eyes, and I did, I could feel immersed in an ancient Christian tradition. Other than some updating of language the liturgy is just as it has always been. This was a decidedly non-European, non-Americanized, Middle Eastern feel. No pipe organ, but cymbals and triangle. No four-part harmony, but chanting from the roots of voice. This was the Christianity of Mark, coming from Palestine to Egypt. A Christianity that never had a Crusade, a Henry VIII, a Cotton Mather or a Jerry Fallwell.

Habib arrived about ten minutes after me. He was just in time for the Eucharist, which in Orthodox churches is a bit different from the Catholicism of my youth or Anglicanism of my now. The priest finally turned around to face the congregation, holding a basket of bread up for everyone to see - take joy! The sacrifice is here for us!

The men all lined up first, and then the women. I did not participate, being an outsider. Also I knew that it is Coptic tradition to fast before Eucharist, and I had had a good paleolithic breakfast. Since the Orthodox bread is leavened and made into loaves, they had to finish it. (the unleavened bread I'm used to can be stored intact. I never thought of that.) This meant that, among other things, the altar boys had to go round and round the altar taking more bread until it was gone. Then they had to wash all the serving plates, rinsing them with water and drinking the dross- you cannot just throw out the Body of Christ. Fortunately they got to do the same with the wine.

Afterwards, Habib invited me to come up and sit with him and his friends. I was introduced to them quickly, while the priest blessed us and sprinkled us with holy water. A baby had been baptized that morning: he was paraded through the church in a wicker basket, dressed identically to the priest down to the satin hat. A grandmotherly-looking woman in the procession ululated.

Then, the sermon. In Arabic, of which I understood two words: Allah, and if I head correctly, "aasif", which means "forgiveness". I only know the latter because I named a character Aasif in my book.

Finally, some time after noon, it was over. Habib's friends were excited that I was writing a book about Saint Mark, and they pointed out the icon to me. Then it was time to go downstairs for coffee. I got out my notebook.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Visiting the Copts - Part I

At the high point of my book, my Italian protagonists manage to bluff their way into St. Mark's Church in Alexandria, and make off with the saint's relics. (How? Well, I have to finish the book, and then you have to buy it.)

I'm a partial beleiver in "method" writing, and I'm part Italian - so last week, I bluffed my way into St. Mary and St. George's Coptic Orthodox Church in Albany... and made off with a delicious piece of cake! Ok, technically I was invited.

Here's how it went down: last Saturday I was shopping antiques in Troy with the family and our friend, whom we refer to as Lord Skeeter. We stopped for coffee. The cafe was filled with Egyptian art- pharaoh busts, hierloglyphics, that sort of thing. So I wondered to myself, as I watched a robust man with a bald head and a mustache make my cappuchino... is this guy a Copt?

Lord Skeeter knew exactly what I was thinking. He'd been in on the book almost since I started writing it. I picked up a takeout menu.

"He sells ham!" I said, excited. Lord Skeeter knew what it meant: the man was Egyptian, but not a Muslim.

"What are you talking about?" Emjay asked.

I looked behind the counter and saw an icon - Madonna and Child. "It's a lock!" I said, pointing to the icon.

"Oh, God, it's the book," Emjay realized.

We brought the cappuchinos outside. They were too cold. Skeeter and I went back in to ask for a warmup. The kids stayed outside with Emjay.

"So," I began innocently as he pumped live steam through my cup, "Would you happen to be from Alexandria?"

"Why, yes!"

"Oh, that's interesting. It happens I'm writing a book about how the Venetians stole St. Mark from the church there."

"Oh! You know about Saint Markos? Hey, I'm a Copt."

"Really? What a coincidence!"

I asked the man - his name is Habib - to tell me what he knew about the theft. What stories had he grown up with? How is it that the Coptic church let its first Pope, a Gospel writer, be taken away?

"I can't tell you anything about all that," Habib said, "I tell you what. You come to my church tomorrow. You meet our priest, he can tell you everything you want to know."

I came back outside with my warm cappuchino.

"Guess what?" I said.

"You didn't."

"Yep. Tell Reverend Mary I'm not coming to church tomorrow - I've gone Coptic."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Gaining weight, and strength

It's official - I can now bench 185# in single rep. I did it last week, but the spotter touched the bar. She swore she only stabilized it and that it was "all me", but it takes muscle control to stabilize so I wasn't quite ready to call the game yet. Monday I had a good clean lift.

Also I had gained 2 pounds. I was a bit concerned until I got the fat check yesterday: it's all muscle. New stats are updated at right. I think the benefit has come from the plan to increase bench and also from diet.

I roll a bit different on diet than Jeff: I do not fast, I eat when I'm hungry and I am hungry every few hours. I had two eggs, bacon and cheese on an english muffin (the high protein/fiber version) for breakfast - and I'm already hungry again. If I hadn't already eaten the 5lb jar of nuts from Target I'd be having almonds. Instead I might go lift, and then have a big lunch.

So, this is building up muscle and strength - the question is, is that what I want to do? Sure, my 20 year high school reunion is coming up and I want the muscles to show - but after that, really it's about lifetime fitness. I am wondering if I should reduce overall calories and scale back the workouts, try to maintain a 92% lean composition at 147-148 lb and ramp up aerobic fitness, endurance and quickness.

To answer that, I'll increase monitoring of my blood pressure in the coming weeks while I try to increase another max - maybe deadlifts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Did I mention the book?

One reason I haven't been that I've been writing. About seven years ago I visited Venice and first heard the story of St. Mark's body coming to Venice from Alexandria in 827. I was amazed that the details of this audacious body-snatch were lost to history. I resolved to write a book of historical fiction, filling in all the details. Then my wife and I had two kids.

Two years ago I started research for the book. Last year I began writing in earnest. A few months ago I finished the first complete draft: 99,000 words. Since then I've been doing very detailed red-line edits... making notes for fact-checks and improving the text.

And that's why I haven't been writing- been doing loads and loads of edits the old way, with a pen, so my writing time has not been at a computer.