The Best Kept Secret at the YMCA

At 6:30 AM this morning, I headed over to the Airport Road YMCA to do something I've been wanting to for years: I had an official YMCA Fitness Assessment scheduled with trainer Kathy Renard. I'm going to skip right to it: a YMCA Fitness Assessment is a wonderful thing, and you should totally do it. It's surprisingly unpublicized -- Kathy knows all about it, and there's a BIG rack of white binders in the YMCA fitness office all about it. But there's not all that much on the Internet about it, and most folks at the Y were fuzzy on the subject. "Er… what kind of fitness… test… were you interested in?" But that all changed after some minimal persistence. Here's what Kathy measured on me, in a 90-minute session (my numbers from this morning in parentheses):
  • Resting heart rate (55bpm) and blood pressure (125/90)
  • Height (5'10.5"), weight (237lbs) and percentage body fat, measured both with an electric doodad and also with skinfold calipers (31.4%)
  • Circumference of chest (45.5"), biceps (13.5"), forerarm (11"), waist (42.5"), hips (45.5"), thigh (24"), and calf (17").
  • Sit-and-reach flexibility, where you reach down with legs straight and push a little indicator thingy on a steel box (26")
  • Aerobic Endurance, where you step onto and off of a box to a metronome beat for three minutes, then measure your heart rate immediately following (152bpm)
  • Core endurance, where you do as many sit-ups as you can in one minute, and then measure heart rate (36 completed, HR 125 bpm)
  • Upper body endurance, where you do as many pushups as you can in one minute (I failed after 7!)
  • Lower body strength, where you do as many one-legged leg presses as you can in one minute, then measure heart rate (I did 28, HR 137bpm)
  • Upper body strength, where you do as many bench presses as you can in one minute, then measure heart right afterwards (I did 27, HR 115bpm)
This is already really informative and awesome, and confirms some things that I had hoped (I'm in decent cardio shape), some things I had feared (seven pushups? sheesh!) and some things I have gotten good at ignoring in the mirror (hips three inches bigger than waist? aw, hell no.) So now I have goals that are more finely-tuned than a single integer number on a scale. The best part is that I'll go back in a month and do it again. A month after THAT, I'll do it AGAIN, and then six months after that. This is fantastic. It's not just weight (weight is important, but it's not a great motivator for me), and it's not just exercise level (ditto.) But being able to see changes in my hip measurement? Huge. Being able to do EIGHT pushups next time? I sure hope so. Getting quantitative proof that my daily Ba Duan Jin is actually improving my hamstring flexibility? SHIT yeah! So, if you're reading this, I completely 100% totally recommend getting on board the best-kept secret at the YMCA. Call up your local Y and ask for the "YMCA Fitness Assessment." It's worth a whole stack of fit bits! Plus, it makes you feel a little bit like Ivan Drago, sitting there on the decline press rack with a trainer taking your pulse. I can't pretend that isn't a little bit of the fun.

Mad Quakers and History Monks

In the days of daft adventurers, of fortune-seeking world-travelers and empire-founders — of "mad dogs and Englishmen" — one of the daftest was actually not English, but American. From Chester County. In fact, a Quaker born and raised just a couple of miles from my house in West Chester. To this day, he's the only American to ever become monarch of a foreign country by right of conquest. (Some Quaker, huh?)

JosiahHarlan I first learned the story of Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor, at a West Chester Friends book sale. "Trust me, you want to read this", teacher Ruth told me, and so I started reading the amazing story of a clasically-educated kid from a Philadelphia Quaker family who went to find his fortune in the Orient -- and found it, alright.

Harlan had an amazing gift for talking his way into trouble. And out of it again, apparently — time after time, he would raise small, motley armies, march right into a valley where he should have been clobbered, and somehow manage to parlay his desperate situation into a sweet new caliphate. Or job. From Dost Mohammad Khan, he gained the title "Prince of Ghor", a title that is (theoretically) still held by his descendants.

Not only was Harlan a fearless adventurer, he was apparently an amazing marketer. You can read all about it in the book Ben Macintyre wrote, available on Amazon.

Josiah Harlan was probably Rudyard Kipling's inspiration to write his story "The Man who Would Be King", which was in turn made into the epic movie by John Huston:

A story so amazing, so incredible, it took Rudyard Kipling, John Huston, Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer, AND Michael Caine to tell it all!

All this is astonishing. It became even more so when I read, in Ben Macintyre's prologue, the source that uncovered this amazing story:

"In a tiny museum in Chester County, Pennsylania, I finally discovered Harlan's Lost voice: an old box, buried and forgotten among the files, was a tattered manuscript handwritten in curling copperplate… unnoticed and unread since his death."
Good heavens! Could Macintyre be talking about our very own Chester County Historical Society, the same place where I discovered a cannon manufacturer a few weeks ago? Yes, he was indeed. To what torch-lit depths had this intrepid biographer descended in order to find these forgotten dusty tomes? What ancient, crumbling chests had he pried open in search of these abandoned treasures?

Well. Diane Rofini, head librarian at the Chester County Historical Society, would like you to know that the manuscript is NOT "buried and forgotten", thank you very much, it is carefully and neatly preserved in the stacks right under "H" where it belongs. In a clean, acid-free box, labeled and indexed. Here it is, right here:

I can't fault Macintyre much for telling an Indiana Jones-style story when researching an Indiana Jones character, but it was a great opportunity for me to learn about the travails of the historical archivist. The archivist a person with an important job who is always having this same old story told about them. Journalists never write "archives", they always seem to write "dusty archives." Nobody ever says "preserved and protected in the files", they always write "forgotten in the files". Sheesh!

My wife Kate, who is a Museum Person herself, explains to me that archivists don't really work for you -- they work for the future. An archivist's sworn mission is to keep items in the same state, so that they'll always be available to study. They're like the history monks in the Discworld series, whose most important job is to make sure that history continues to exist.

Publicizing, educating, entertaining — the other parts of a museum's mission are important and wonderful. But those things are not, like, the entire sacred duty of an archive. It's also OUR job to get interested, to go in, to ask questions, and to be curious. Today was a wonderful example, for me. I emailed over and asked if I could see the Actual Manuscripts. "Yes indeed!" was the prompt answer. I had a GREAT time looking at Josiah Harlan's stuff. It's available at a moment's notice -- I'm not kidding when I tell you that Diane can put her hands on Josiah Harlan's Persian manuscripts faster than I can find a stapler in my office. So my advice to you is -- do you have tiny museum in your town? Go start asking questions -- there's no telling what mind-blowing things are carefully, neatly preserved, and yours to look at for the asking!

Reddit Portraits of Randy and Me

Randy has gotten me hooked on Reddit, which is a big community of talented, creative, and anarchic Internet citizens entertaining each other.

One of the funniest things I saw recently was Adam Ellis' portraits, where folks would send pictures to him, and he would sketch them. Never flattering, the portraits are hilarious: everyone looks incredibly seedy. You can see a bunch of his stuff here. Also here, here, and here!

Anyhow, Adam takes requests. You send him a link to a picture and some money, and he sends back a portrait that captures your soul and makes it look TERRIBLE. So I commissioned a portrait of both Randy and myself. Here's the result.

Here's me:
John's Reddit Portrait

And here's the piece de resistance. Ladies and gentlemen, RANDY SCHMIDT!
Randy's Reddit Portrait

Just a few minutes ago, Kate, Randy, and I were walking down High street to get some lunch at Salad Stop. "Whoa", said Randy, and we saw a big cannon set up in front of the Chester County Historical Society. In front of the cannon was a white-haired man in civil-war galluses, looking every inch the seasoned historical reenactor. "Say, wow, what kind of cannon is this?" we asked him. He smiled, turned, and pointed to a man in grease-stained blue jeans smoking a cigarette behind him.

Turns out, the guy in the blue jeans is Jeff Stafford -- a local fellow who is also THE world's go-to guy for taking your hundred-and-fifty-year-old locally-cast piece of ordnance, putting it on a new, correct, rolling mount, and restoring it to the point where you can repeatedly hit a four-inch target at two hundred yards.

The cannon Jeff was standing in front of was cast right here in Phoenixville, PA in 1862. Jeff showed us the markings on the barrel: Cannon number 379, cast by the Phoenix Iron Works in 1862. Weight: 816 pounds. Inspected by TTSL: Theodore Thaddeus Sablinsky Ladlie!

Jeff fabricated the wheels and carriage for this particular gun, including all the staves and coopering, from white oak, all to the original specifications. It's not just his hobby, it's his job! He told us that he restores (and fabricates) cannons for museums and private collectors all over the world. "I bet you have some stories!" I say, and he smiles and says "Yeah, there's some pretty colorful characters." Of course, I assume this means that he has furnished more that one evil genius's volcano lair with lovingly-recreated operational field pieces.

The three-inch ordnance rifle, in front of the Historical Society for a special event, fires a nine-inch, eleven-pound projectile. The grooves in the projectile match grooves in the barrel, spinning it for accuracy. I had never seen a cannon with functional iron sights before -- only pirate cannons and rusty curios in the park that look like they only shoot, you know… thataway.

If you happen to be reading this on Thursday, September 22nd, 2011, you can run down to downtown West Chester and meet Jeff until 6PM today, before he loads his two-thousand-pound cannon up on his trailer (by himself, with the help of a hand winch.) He's in Embreeville, and invited us over for a tour. I can't wait! More about Jeff on his website: staffordwheelandcarriage.com.

Yarn Bombing in West Chester, by Jim Breslin

Jim Breslin is a local artist, writer, and founder of the West Chester Story Slam. He just made this short documentary about the Insomiknitac — the shadowy, mysterious figure behind West Chester's yarn bombing! You can see both Kate and me in the movie. (And no, neither of us is the Insomiknitac!)


Seeking Insomiknitac - Yarn Bombing Documentary from Jim Breslin on Vimeo.