Rich Dlin – Reader Beware

Husband, Father, Math Teacher, Weightlifter

Customer Service Goodness

These days any time I have an encounter where I don’t receive crappy customer service I celebrate. Anyone I talk to generally agrees with this. Before entering teaching I worked in a software company, often supporting clients with questions or issues with our product. They would sometimes call feeling angry, frustrated and looking for someone’s head to rip off. Even though the problem was generally something they did, I always made sure to treat them with respect, absorb the negativity, and channel it into a solution. I never engaged in arguments or accusations, and I always made sure that if I said I was going to get something done for them I did, and right away. After all it wasn’t my reputation on the line but that of the company I worked for. But this attitude in customer service seems to be almost extinct.

Take Rogers for example (if you’re not from Eastern Canada, that’s one of the big telecommunications companies we have little choice but to deal with in these parts). Any time there is any issue we have to call about, my wife and I end up putting it off because we know, from experience, that it will be at least an hour on the phone, after which whatever we thought we had settled on would be incorrectly implemented and billed, so that upon receiving the next statement we would have another minimum one hour phone call to make.

So in the face of this dearth of good customer service, I decided to write today about a few extremely positive experiences I have had. People should definitely know about these, and hopefully bring their business to these companies. I also encourage you to share your own examples of excellent customer service in the comments. I’d love to read about them and reward them with my business when possible.

 

Example 1: Ontario Gas BBQ (http://www.bbqs.com)

A few years ago I had a Weber gas barbecue that I used all year round and I never covered it in the winter (so I wouldn’t have to clean ice and snow off a cover to use it). Because of this, the burners had quite a bit of rust on them, something for which I blamed nobody but myself. It got to the point where the flame was so uneven I couldn’t use the barbecue properly. So I figured I needed to buy new burners. To make sure I got the right ones, I took out the existing burners and brought them to Ontario Gas BBQ to buy replacements. The owner happened to serve me. He took my burners, went to the back and got the replacements and brought them to the cash. I had my credit card out ready to pay – it was about $120. Then he looked at the burners I had brought in and asked me why I was replacing them. I told him they were blocked and unusable from rust. He said

“Nonsense. They just need to be cleaned.” and then proceeded to clean them for me. Took him about 20 minutes. He charged me nothing. The man could have easily made a $120 sale and I would have been happy. He would not have lost my business because I love that place. I never would have known I’d wasted my money, but he would have. So that’s what he did. What I did was turn around and buy a $100 barbecue cover that I didn’t really intend to buy, because I wanted him to make some money from me that day.

(Epilogue: I used that cover but one day it blew off in a windstorm and I never found it. I suspect it is now being used as a tent in some Costa Rican honeymoon resort)

 

Example 2: Longo’s (http://www.longos.com/Home/Home.aspx)

Longo’s is a chain of grocery stores in my area. I don’t know how far out of the Greater Toronto Area they have stores, but if you have one near you, shop there. Longo’s has one of those loyalty programs that everyone seems to have these days. At the beginning, you could redeem earned points for merchandise from their website. My wife and I needed a new cookware set and they had one on their site that we really liked. Lagostina set, retails for about $320.

 

lagostina

Lagostina cookware set. Currently $320 at The Bay.

So we were saving our points for that. Then one day when I was cashing out at Longo’s the cashier told me that they were phasing out their merchandise rewards in favour of cash rewards in the store. I was sad about that, because we were still about 3000 points short for the set and we really wanted it. To earn 3000 points we’d need to spend another $1500 in groceries in a few weeks, which was obviously not going to happen. I emailed Longo’s and asked if there was any way to pay the difference between the points we had earned thus far and what we needed for the cookware set. If they had given me a dollar amount I needed to pay I would have been very happy with the service. Instead they immediately credited my points account with the 3000 extra points I needed (at no charge), and I ordered the set (it’s awesome, by the way). This was far beyond anything I had expected them to do, even in the best case.

 

Example 3: Mophie (http://www.mophie.com)

I have an iPhone 5 that I use intensely. I find that the battery life for me is only good for about 2/3 of a day. I decided I wanted a battery case for the phone and Mophie cases are a great (but expensive) choice. I had a case that I liked, the juice pack helium, but it only added about 80% more battery life to the phone and after about a year I decided to upgrade to the case that adds 120%. It’s the juice pack plus. That case also comes in red (part of the (Red) campaign), but it’s a little extra.

mophie_plus_red

Mophie juice pack plus, (Red)

For my birthday my brother and some good friends chipped in and bought me that case. With tax that’s about $150, which was certainly very nice of them. After a couple of months I started to suspect that there was something wrong with the battery in the case. It’s hard to be sure, but it seemed to me that I was consistently getting less battery life with the new case than I was with the old one, which makes no sense. The old one would take me from 20% battery to full charge and then some. The new case would often only get me to around 95%. I contacted Mophie through their website and explained the potential problem. Their response came the next morning, asking me to submit the serial number of the case and a scanned receipt. I responded telling them I had no receipt because it was a gift, but of course I did have the serial number. The next morning their response to that was to confirm my shipping address and they shipped me a new case, indicating that it was not necessary for me to return the old one. Wow. I received the new case 3 days later. When I plugged it in to charge it charged, but when I connected it to my phone the phone did not charge immediately, though it eventually did. I emailed them to let them know about that and their response was once again immediate. They shipped me another new one – no need to return the old one. In both cases I would have fully expected to have to return the old case, and not seen that as a problem. I received the second new one 3 days later. I posted about this excellent service on Facebook but the story doesn’t end there. A few days after receiving the second case I got an invoice from FedEx for customs charges for the first case. The phone cases were shipped from Michigan and I guess when they go through customs FedEx covers any charges at the border then bills the recipient. I figured I’d get a second bill from FedEx for the second case, which I did. Once I had both bills I contacted Mophie and without any argument (in fact, with an apology!) they asked me to send they scanned copies of the invoices so that they could pay them.

 

There you have it. These are three examples of beyond excellent customer service I have received. The sad part is that it’s the only three examples I can think of, but I know you have more. Please share your good ones in the comments section, so that more people can know about them, and please give your business to the three I’ve listed!

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Grief vs. Misery

During a conversation with a friend today I had occasion to think about the grief and misery I felt when my mother passed away almost five years ago, and also when the very young son of a close friend of mine passed away about two years before that. Grief. Misery. Two highly emotional words. I never really thought about them separately before, but they are quite different.

In both experiences the grief of the loss was immediate and profound. And in both cases the misery was painfully intense. In my conversation today I realized how separate these two emotions are when it comes to loss. Grief is a natural emotion stemming from losing someone you love. It’s that feeling of having something critical to your existence removed, violently and without your permission. It’s a feeling that combines powerlessness, loss and anger. It’s natural and even essential for continued survival. It paves the way for acceptance and growth.

When I think of my mother these days, I think of her beautiful soul, her love, and all that she gave me that makes me who I am now, and who I am now is someone I like. I owe her that, and my grief over her loss provided an intensification of my understanding of that.

When I think of my friend’s son, I remember how happy he was, how much joy he brought with him into a room, and the way he played with my kids when he visited from out of town, as if they’d been friends forever. I remember the way his passing brought so many people together – people who unquestioningly put aside any issues they may have had with each other so that they could be there to support the family and show that in times of extreme despair there is a community whose arms you can fall into when tragedy buckles your knees. To him I owe my ability to see past the petty sheen of casual interaction through to the deeper beauty of humanity. My grief over his loss brought me there.

Both losses still make me sad. That does not make me angry. I accept the sadness as part of my understanding of myself and others around me. The sadness is completely intertwined with my gratitude for having known them. When it surfaces, I feel the gratitude and joy right there with the sadness and I smile. The emotions coexist, as they should.

But then there’s misery. Misery doesn’t teach you anything and it doesn’t help you grow. Misery is a manifestation of your desire to punish yourself as a way of dealing with grief. When you lose someone, your helplessness can overwhelm you. It makes you want to hurt yourself as punishment, and misery is the device your brain will use to that purpose. When you let your grief bring misery, especially prolonged misery, what you are doing is enabling a self-induced torture to atone for your inability to recover the loss, and/or for your guilt at survival. Because you can neither bring a lost loved one back, nor justify emotionally your survival over theirs, you invoke misery as a way of evening the cosmic scale. But it’s a false need and it blocks your grief. Your loved one does not want you to suffer the misery. They want you to absorb their legacy and use it to be bigger and better than you were.

So accept your grief and let it wash over you, but resist the temptation to fall into misery. Nobody can control whether an emotion surfaces or not, but you can use your rational brain to evaluate the source. Experience the grief, and it will pass into something more. Reject the misery.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Choose Your Memories

Short blog today based on a conversation I had recently.

I was talking to a graduating student about how he is going to choose a university. He has been accepted into his two top choices and he doesn’t know how he will decide which one to attend. One university is more widely recognized but would mean moving far from home, where none of his friends will go, and has a more difficult program. The other university is closer to home and has a slightly easier program. Both offer the same degree. After discussing that this was a nice problem to have, I gave him the advice I always give myself. Choose your memories.

Choose your memories

The simple truth is that all you are is your memories. The present is a fleeting instant, and the future is unknowable, so your whole life experience – and how you view yourself – is based on your memories of the past. In fact, there is an interesting perspective that points out that since it takes a small amount of time to process what your senses are perceiving, our “present” is in fact already past, which is pretty weird to think about. But that aside, too often people think about a choice like the one my student must make in terms of how the choice will affect their future. The truth is it’s much better to think about how it will affect your past. I asked him which memory he wants.

Which memory do you want?

He didn’t know what I meant by that. I said, picture yourself 10 years down the road. Right now I know that whichever university you attend you will finish the program. So 10 years from now, looking back at your decision, which one will you want to be glad you made? Who would you rather be? The dude with the memory of university A or the one with the memory of university B?

Choices are an opportunity to build the memory you want, which ultimately means to build the person you want. In this way they are very exciting. Every choice is your chance to be more awesome. Take control of your character and choose the memories you’ll be glad to have, so that you can be the person you want to be.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Politicians Don’t Win Elections

Last night the Liberal party got elected to a majority government in the province of Ontario. This means Kathleen Wynne remains the Premier of Ontario. I am disgusted. To be fair, there was no outcome that would not have resulted in my disgust so no need for Liberal party freaks to go all ballistic on me – unless you think it will make you feel better in which case go ahead. It’s a free internet.

Anyway … today I’ve seen countless pictures of Wynne doing the fist pump victory pose.

 

Kathleen Wynne after being elected Premier in 2014

Kathleen Wynne after being elected Premier in 2014

 

Each time I see one of these photos I get more and more irritated, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why that is. Contrary to the obvious reason, it is not because I wanted someone else to get elected, because I really don’t think anyone who was running was going to be worse than anyone else. It is also not because I feel let down in general, although I do.

No, I’ve come to realize that I am irritated by what it represents. It represents victory, and getting elected is not a victory. At least that’s not what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an assignment.

It is absolutely disgusting that politicians celebrate an election as though they won a lottery, or some kind of major sports championship. In sports, skill, long hours of practice, unwavering dedication to excellence and gritty determination in competition lead to victory. In sports you have to best your opponent and the championship is the reward for doing so. It is meaningful because it represents the culmination of all the work that went into winning, and it warrants celebration as a way of saying “Yes! Look at what we have accomplished!”

In politics getting elected does not mean you have accomplished anything of significance. It means you managed to convince a population that you are the right leader, who, in theory, intends to accomplish a great deal. These days that means you were the best liar with the most effective propaganda campaign, who most successfully demonized the other candidates, along with a mainstream media that shoveled your lies for you. How admirable.

 

Dalton McGuinty after being elected Premier in 2011

Dalton McGuinty after being elected Premier in 2011

The big celebrations politicians have make me wonder – really, deeply wonder – if they realize that what they have “won” is the burden to lead responsibly and to follow through on the promises to their constituents, as opposed to advancing their own personal goals of fame, power and money. It means they have been given a chance to accomplish great things. Getting elected to public office is the beginning of a long season. It is not a championship. But politicians sure act like it is. They prance around and accept the praise of the minions as though they have earned some great personal victory. As though they have WON.

See how victorious they are? See how they accept the love and praise of the crazed masses?

A political victory is not a trophy. It’s a gigantic group of people saying “You said you could make this world better for us. We believe you. we trust you. Please do it.”

I can hear the arguments now. People will say “They are celebrating the opportunity to follow through on campaign promises and to make positive change. They are celebrating with the constituents because they believe, more fervently than anyone else, that their getting elected is the best thing that could happen for the population and they only want what’s best.”

To those people I say “Do you really believe that? Do you really believe the celebration is not a great big self-congratulation on how awesome the person is?”

Our society and our politicians have forgotten what it means to elect a leader in a democracy. We’ve forgotten that it means we just hired someone to do an important job. That they work for us. What other job has the bosses throwing giant adoration parties for the new hire? It’s absurd. In any company a boss celebrates an employee only after they have made good on the promise they showed in the interview process. They don’t attend parties thrown by the new employee and cheer rabidly as the person they just hired raises their arms in victory.

If it were me having been elected I would not be celebrating. I would be scared to death in much the same way I was when my kids were born, or the first time I had to go into a classroom and be an educator and mentor to a room full of other people’s children. I would be looking forward to celebrating the successes of my tenure in much the same way I celebrate my kids’ successes as they grow, or my students’ successes as they learn. I would be standing in front of my constituents, humbled, acknowledging that I understand the burden of the trust they have placed in me, and then I would get to work. I would save celebrations for times when something was accomplished that made their lives better. I would not have a party to kick it all off, simply so political junkies could hoist me on a pedestal and proclaim my greatness. Maybe that’s a character flaw of mine, but I don’t think so.

And I would not pump my fists.

My fist pumps would come later. After I had actually accomplished something people could celebrate.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Arithmophobia (Fear of Math): My Thoughts

I’ve been a high school math teacher for 11 years now, and I’ve also been tutoring students privately for even longer than that. Consequently I’ve seen the whole spectrum of math students. Everything from the freakishly gifted to the astonishingly weak, For the most part I think this is fine. Some people are wired for certain things and some are not. I am not wired to be a sprinter. I could train my butt off for years and still not qualify for a track team. I’ve made peace with that.

What I don’t think is fine however, is the growing number of math-phobic students I am seeing. Students whose deep fear of math is so intense that it is almost impossible to determine where their strengths and weaknesses in the subject are. To understand what I mean think of a person who suffers from stage fright so severely that every time they sing in front of even a small group of people their throat closes up and all they can manage is a pathetic croak. Anyone listening would conclude this person is a terrible singer. Yet it may not be true. The neurosis camouflages the talent and it’s impossible to know what the person’s singing ability really is. What makes it worse is that it is extremely difficult to evaluate the cause of poor performance. After all, some people just can’t sing.

In math these students whose fear interferes with their performance very often conclude that they have no ability in the subject, which further feeds the phobia. A seriously vicious cycle that is difficult to break, even after it’s been recognized. So my question as of late has been, what’s causing the increase in math-phobic students?

I don’t have research to back my conclusions. It’s all purely anecdotal. However these observations have been made from the trenches. I see these students every day, in a classroom setting and one-on-one, for over 11 years. Here are my thoughts.

Poor Evaluation Criteria
More and more I am becoming convinced that this may be one of the single biggest causes of arithmophobia. I am talking about the alarming tendency for students’ grades to not reflect their ability, due to poor evaluation criteria. I’ll give you an example.

A simple linear equation to solve.

A simple linear equation to solve.

here is one student’s work, graded:
A flawed solution to the simple equation.

A flawed solution to the simple equation.

and here is another student’s work, also graded:

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The first student received a mark of 2/3, which rounds to 67%. What are we to take from this? Imagine the student coming home with a report card that says 67% in math. What would the parents conclude? What would an independent observer (like a university) conclude about a grade of 67% in math? The easiest and most likely answer is that this is a student who grasps roughly 67% of the concepts covered in math. With respect to this question and the topic it tests, it means the student grasps only 67% of the concept of solving linear equations. Now based on their work, do you believe that is a true assessment? What would we have this student believe? It’s disturbing to say the least.

But significantly more disturbing is the grade of 0/3 assigned to the second student. This student answered the question correctly, however the traditional approach is to assign one mark per step in the question, and since the student did not show any of the expected work, he lost all marks. Now he has 0%. What would that say to parents and universities? Most disturbingly, what does it say to the child?

Stop and ask yourself what it means to solve an equation. The above equation, translated to English, states that

“There is a number which is multiplied by 4 and then the product is reduced by 3, for a result of 29.”

The instruction “Solve for x” means

“Tell me what the number is.”

Student 2 has successfully done just that. Period. End of discussion. Not only has he correctly answered the question, but in doing so has demonstrated that he understands the question and has the higher level thinking skills to answer it without employing any traditional algorithms. And we work in an educational system which has evolved to tell this student that he is so bad at math he gets a zero. Shame on us. Shame on us all.

So what happens to this student? Well from my experience he either dismisses the subject as “a stupid bunch of rules” (and who can blame him? When the answer is so obvious what value is there in writing down a bunch of steps that do nothing more than add tedium?), or he “learns” that to be good at math you have to suppress your instincts and replace them with the all-important STEPS. And let me tell you something. By the time you get to senior math in high school, there are a lot of steps! There’s no way most of us – myself very much included – could memorize all those steps, know precisely when to apply them, and do so with complete accuracy and precision every time.

Enter fear.

Imagine for a second you are a dog. A puppy. You mean no harm to anyone and in fact are a bouncing bundle of happiness and joy. Unfortunately you have an owner who has anger issues. You’ve discovered that your owner hates it when there is pee on the carpet in the house. The reason you know this is because every time he discovers any he loses his temper and yells. So in order to help, you begin peeing in hiding places around the house. To a dog this makes a lot of sense and is very considerate. Unfortunately all this does is make your owner even more angry, to the point where he smacks you every time he discovers the hidden pee. Result? You are now afraid of the owner, and afraid of peeing. Nothing productive comes of this because despite your best efforts, and despite the fact that you are doing what you think is right, you are still getting in trouble. That is a recipe for fear. And that is what happens to students who do what they think/know is right, but get rewarded with marks like 0/3 for their efforts. How can a person continue with a positive attitude under those kinds of circumstances?

What also happens to a large number of students is that over the years, as they fail more and more to memorize the right “rules”, they become more and more disillusioned with themselves. The mathematics becomes totally obscured by the algorithms, to the point where students believe that the algorithms are the mathematics, and can hardly be convinced otherwise.

I tutor a student named Randy and she is in grade 7. Here is a question from a test she wrote recently.

Sam has answered the question “7 – 3 ½” with “4 ½”. Sam says this is because seven minus three is four, and then there’s an extra half to make four and a half. Is Sam correct? Explain.

Here is what Randy wrote:

Sam is not correct. To answer the question you have to convert 7 and 3 ½ to improper fractions, then subtract the numerators, then convert your answer back to a mixed number. This is what Sam should have done:
7 – 3 ½ = 14/2 – 7/2
= 7/2
= 3 ½
So the correct answer is 3 ½

For this answer Randy received a “2+” which is a mark out of 4, with these comments from the teacher: “What was wrong with Sam’s thinking? How could he modify his strategy so that it would work? Expand on your answer.”

Hmmmmmmm. My thoughts as a teacher were immediately “Those comments would have made good questions for students to answer on the test instead of criticisms of Randy’s answer”. In any case let’s have a look at how this result impacted Randy.

So marks out of 4 like this one can be roughly converted to percentages, which they ultimately will be for reporting purposes. A mark of “2+” converts to around 65%-70%. I implore you, dear reader, to tell me just exactly how Randy has shown her capabilities in subtracting mixed numbers from whole numbers to be 30% less than perfect. The message to Randy?

Because you were unable to extrapolate from the word “explain” that I, your teacher, was expecting you to delve into the mind of a person who, unlike yourself, can not subtract mixed numbers from whole numbers, I conclude that you, Randy are a mediocre math student, at best. Despite the fact that the question was in two parts (“Is Sam correct?” and “Explain”), and that you addressed both correctly, you should have known that what I was really looking for was for you to help Sam understand why his thinking was wrong, despite the fact that it did not say this anywhere in the question and despite the fact that Sam is a fictitious person. Please work harder from now on so that you may become a better math student.

Randy was in tears over her results. She said she was sure she understood the material going into the test but she’s just bad at math and she hates it and she is never going to be good at it. It took quite an effort on my part to show Randy that she completely and perfectly understands subtraction of mixed numbers from whole numbers and that the real flaw is the question. I’m not sure she is totally convinced and her grade in math will certainly not reflect what I know to be true so it will be a difficult pill for her to swallow. Randy is developing a serious case of arithmophobia based on experiences like this. She is not wired to “know what the teacher means”. She reads instructions and takes them literally, and then answers them as best she can, usually correctly. But since there is more wrapped up in the evaluation criteria than is revealed in the question itself, Randy is rewarded for her efforts with marks like “2+”. To her this makes math incomprehensible, and who can blame her? To her math is now a mysterious subject with weird expectations that you have to “just know”, and what hope does she have of being able to do that?

So what can we do? The answer is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement in today’s education environment:

Let’s start teaching MATH again. And when we grade a student’s work let’s stop comparing what they did to some sort of “template of perfection” and instead evaluate what the work we see says about the student’s fundamental understanding of the mathematical concepts. Solving an equation means finding the values of the variable that make the equation true. The fact that we have algorithms for solving equations is wonderful and essential for very difficult equations, but let’s not punish students who are able to understand and solve without the algorithm! Let’s celebrate those students because they are the ones who really get it. The algorithms can be introduced and reinforced later when the equations get harder, but it serves no purpose to tell a student like that they are bad at math, for they are truly not. And for students like Randy? Let’s throw away the rubrics and fancy words and assess what their work tells us about their abilities. If we want Randy to extend her knowledge to be able to help Sam modify his strategy so that it will work let’s help her with that, but there is very little value in tying her grade in math to that ability, unless that ability is very specifically what we are trying to teach and assess, in which case we need to ask ultimately how much is that worth and how should it be reflected in the grade that she will use to determine her performance?

Arithmophobia is real and it is getting worse each year. We must change what we are doing if we want to reverse the trend.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

What the Gym Has Done For Me

Growing up I had a lot of strengths for sure. I did pretty well in school, had a good sense of humour, a loving family and was always blessed with good close friends. But one thing was definitely not a strength: athletics. There was never a team sport where I didn’t get picked last and I certainly never cut that dashing athletic figure that some kids seemed to me to have been born with.

(BIG side note here – the large majority of adults you see that have that dashing athletic physique were NOT born with it … but I learned that little tidbit much later)

As a young child I was sick with asthma, and so I was always very thin. When I hit puberty and my body started demanding more food I began to fill out, but not in any good way. I just got fat. And as I got older it got worse. When my son was a baby in the late 90’s I couldn’t carry him upstairs to his change table to change his diaper without stopping to catch my breath. I have a vivid picture embedded in my mind of him lying on the change table in a dirty diaper and me standing over him huffing and waiting to catch my breath before I could change his diaper. All from carrying a 15 lb baby up a flight of stairs.

I won’t bore you with too many more details. I just wanted to paint a picture of who I was – a smart, funny, happy, fat guy. I experimented with different diets with varying degrees of success. One which I did fairly well with was The Zone diet, which took me from a size 40 waist to a size 32. And that was the beginning of my interest in the gym.

At first, my goals were all about looks. After losing all the weight on The Zone I found I was just skinny. I wanted pecs, shoulders, and abs. I joined a little gym near my house and applied the same dedication to working out that I had applied to adhering to the diet. The owner was a former competitive bodybuilder and a bodybuilding judge at the time. I knew nothing about working out and I was happy to let him design workouts for me. With his background he naturally designed workouts with bodybuilding in mind. Being a tech nerd I typed them into excel and shrank it down so I could tape it to the inside of my logbook. It’s still there though I’ve long since moved on to other plans.

These are the workouts the owner designed for me. I taped them to the inside of my journal so I'd know what to do.

These are the workouts the owner designed for me. I taped them to the inside of my journal so I’d know what to do.

I remember asking him how long it would take for me to actually see results. He said about 3-4 months. Great! I put my nose to the grindstone and did everything he said, and marked it on the calendar. I still have the log book I used when I started.

I did not see results after 3-4 months.

Now that’s not because the gym owner was lying. Most people should see results after that length of time. But I learned that my body is not “most people”. And that revelation may be the single most important thing the gym has done for me. I did not give up. I knew I was working hard and although maybe the mirror didn’t show much of anything, I was enjoying the workouts and loving the feeling of pushing myself past limits. Here are some entries from the very front of my logbook:

Here are some log entries from my first workouts. Back then I did not include the weight of the bar - I didn't know how much it weighed. Seriously!

Here are some log entries from my first workouts. Back then I did not include the weight of the bar – I didn’t know how much it weighed. Seriously!

If you’re having trouble deciphering my handwriting join the club. My students love it. Here’s what it says (I’ll add the weight of the bar in, now that I have that capability)

Deadlift: 95 X 5, 115 X 5, 135 X 5
Leg Press: 90 X 8, 180 X 8, 270 X 8, 320 X 6
Close Grip Bench Press: 65 X 8, 95 X 8, 95 X 7, 95 X 6
Squats: 115 X 12
Bench Press: 95 X 8, 115 X 6, 155 X 8
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 40 X 5, 40 X 5, 45 X 5

These were big lifts for me, although looking at other lifters I knew they weren’t big lifts. I had to make a choice pretty quickly: keep comparing myself to others, let the depression set in and give up, or compete with myself and celebrate my victories. It wasn’t an obvious choice, despite what all the self-help and life coaches will tell you. I had gotten through life to that point without being a lifter and I could certainly rejoin the masses and be happy and healthy. Maybe take up running.

But that was not the choice I made. I wanted to get better. I had to get better. Better and best are two very different words. Better is a journey. Best is a destination. And since living is a journey, I’ve always chosen better. I don’t need to be the best, though I can’t say I mind when it happens. But I always need to be better. I despise stagnation. So I accepted that my body is mine, and I kept at it. I also took lots of progress pics, for which I am very grateful. Here is a comparison of just before I started lifting to how I looked 3 years later:

The difference 3 years of dedicated lifting and good eating made to my physique.

The difference 3 years of dedicated lifting and good eating made to my physique.

There are changes, but they’re not drastic. If we are being honest most of the difference between the two pictures is how I’m standing and the fact that I shaved my little patch of fur. However there is some delt and tricep development noticeable, although it’s very slight.

I’ve been immersed in the lifting culture for 13 years now. I know that some the people reading this are thinking Dude, if that’s all 3 years got you then you were not doing it right. But here’s the thing, and you can take it or leave it. I was “doing it right”. I was lifting consistently 5 days a week, improving my lifts constantly, eating 5-7 meals a day, making sure to eat 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, and all those other things one is “supposed” to do. And that’s what I got. Because that is my body. It resists change. But it changes.

Fast forward to today. I’ve had lots of victories and lots of defeats. I’ve been injured a few times, had my motivation ebb and flow, and of course I’m 13 years older. I’ve changed careers, pursued passions and experienced lots of joys and sadness. But this whole time I have been a lifter. And here are some lessons I’ve learned. I like lists so I’ll give you my thoughts in list form.

  • Compete with yourself
    In all areas of my life, I never compete with others anymore. I always compete with myself. When I do something I’ve done before, I always work my hardest to make sure I do it better. Whether it’s academics (I just completed a Masters degree), my career (every time I teach a lesson I use what I learned from previous ones to make it better), my singing, or pretty much anything. I don’t always beat the old me, but I always try to. And when I fail, I learn.
  • Think long term
    It’s very easy to get bogged down in daily routine and get stuck in status quo. But each day should be about advancing yourself in some small way. Make a plan. Stick to the plan. You may not see changes or progress from one day to the next but if your plan is solid you will see progress in the long run. Never forget your plan. When you suffer setbacks acknowledge them as setbacks. There are peaks and valleys but if you zoom out you will see the steady rise.
  • Don’t set artificial boundaries
    You can always decide that you are fated to remain a certain way. But what a shame that is. Always aim high. If you set boundaries on what you can do you’ll live within them. It’s not necessary.

All of these things are things I learned in the gym, and apply to my life. They are not the result of a seminar I went to (or a blog I read…), they are the result of my results in the gym, so I don’t have to convince myself to believe them because I live them. I am so grateful for this.

So now, although I certainly don’t complain about changes to my physique and I do want them, I don’t lift for looks. I stopped lifting for looks a very, very long time ago. I lift because of what it teaches me and how it affects my mindset in life.

Oh, I almost forgot (no I didn’t! ;)). Planning long-term and acting on that plan works. It’s the zoom-out that proves it. After 13 years of lifting, I can zoom out a bit. I have gotten results in my lifts and my physique! Incremental at the time, they sure do add up.

Here are some updated lifts from workouts over the last few months. For most I chose lifts I have video of:

Deadlift: 405 X 4 (here’s video)
Leg Press: 900 X 10 (I don’t have video of this)
Close Grip Bench Press: 265 X 5 (here’s video)
Squats: 365 X 4 (here’s video)
Bench Press: 295 X 4, 315 X 1 (here’s video of the 315 X 1, it’s a personal best)
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 140 X 5 (here’s video)

And here’s a progress comparison picture after 10 years of lifting:

What 10 years of lifting has done for my body.

What 10 years of lifting has done for my body.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

The Death of the Mistake

(Disclaimer: NOT ALL PARENTS are guilty of what I describe in this blog, so please don’t take it personally. But many are. Far too many.)

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I imagine you have too. Some of mine are pretty indelible for me.

Like the time my friend and I were playing with fire (literally) and almost burned down a hotel. We were scared to death and actually grateful we got caught.

Like the time I decided I could get through that intersection before the car coming from the left got there. Result? One totaled car that wasn’t even mine. It was my girlfriend’s car.

Like the time I thought I could get away without studying for my final exam in STAT 331 and still scrape a credit in the course. I earned a 42. I asked the prof to remark the exam which he did. The mark went down.

I didn’t like any of these or the countless others when they happened. Actually they felt pretty miserable. Yet each one has had an impact on decisions I made later in life and each one of those failures thus resulted in bigger successes. This is not a revolutionary concept. The phrase “we learn from our mistakes” is not new. But have you ever considered exactly how true it is? We aren’t born with an abundance of knowledge. In fact we are born with almost none. We know how to do things like breathe and cry and fill diapers, but we can’t even control those actions much. At first, all the knowledge we accrue comes from our innate curiosity and willingness to take risks. What’s funny is that as babies we don’t even know we are risking anything. We’re just really curious. Watch all the stuff a baby is willing to put in his mouth. You’ll know exactly what I mean. So babies try things and sometimes the result is pleasant or satisfying and other times its not. Each experience whether success or failure goes into the data bank and both guides subsequent experiments and imbues us with confidence regarding our ability to reproduce successes. In this way it is completely correct to categorize both “success” and “failure” as positive outcomes. And yet we have attached so much negativity to the word failure that it has become a thing to be reviled and feared … avoided at all costs. Which is a true tragedy, because success in the absence of failure is yin without yang.

As time passes the culture we grow up in imposes a formalized education, mainly because there is value placed on certain nuggets of knowledge. This happens in the form of school. And that’s where I come in.

Sort of. I teach high school so I guess I come in about 10 years later. After 10 years of a system which has sadly killed the mistake. Kids are no longer encouraged or allowed to experiment. They have to “get it right” the first time. Many parents spend insane amounts of energy making sure their children never experience failure, defeat or mistakes. A friend of mine calls this phenomenon “the snowplow parenting” model. The parents walk ahead of the child, plowing all obstacles out of the way, frantically making sure that no failure is ever experienced. As the child grows and the potential obstacles increase, parents run themselves ragged continuing to pave a smooth way. The effect this has on the kids is incredibly frightening. The child grows up not ever really experiencing a failure, but watching parents become more and more neurotic making sure this “failure monster” never has a chance to get near their kid. It’s a doubly-bad edged sword. First, no failure is ever experienced so there is no chance for the best kind of learning and second, the children pick up on this deep fear of failure and when they find themselves faced with the potential for a mistake they freeze in terror at the possibility. In short, they are simply not equipped to deal with anything but a smooth road, and lack the understanding and confidence that comes from having failed.

So what I see in my math class is kids who are petrified of assessment. I have seen kids cry when they earn a mark in the 90’s on a test. Worse, I’ve seen kids with marks in the 90’s crying when they come in to write a test because of how afraid they are that they might make a mistake. And I’ve had to defend marks to parents who insist to me not that their child earned a higher mark, but that their child needs the higher mark. In grade 9. A grade that no university or college even remotely cares about. A grade for which no scholarships are awarded. Yet the child needs the higher mark. Lest they experience failure.

This phenomenon may actually be the single biggest threat to our culture. Thanks to Snowplow Parents we are raising a generation of kids who have never had a chance to experiment and fail. Never a chance to pursue curiosity, which is the spark for innovation. So what we get is anxiety-ridden underperformers with huge self-esteem issues, fostered by parents who have made it clear that the child is not capable of fending for themselves and thus needs the parents’ involvement every step of the way.

Parents, please. Take a step back. Watch them do it themselves. Watch them fail and celebrate the failure. Mistakes are critical for evolution. Let’s bring them back. Let’s start the Mistake Revival.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Cell Phones and Independence

The other day my wife and I were doing some grocery shopping when her phone rang.

Side note: Before I continue with my post, I had to stop and read that first sentence over again. Read it again yourself. Now if you’re old enough, imagine it was 1988 and read it again. In 1988 language that sentence is pretty much a total non-sequitur. Today it is perfectly sensible. Funny how time-dependent the reasonableness of some assertions are.

Ok. So I was talking about my wife’s phone. She picked it up and saw that the call was coming from home. Conclusion – it’s one of the kids. She answered it of course. You don’t ignore calls from your kids who are home alone. Right? It was our 11-year old daughter on the phone. She was calling because our 15-year old son was on his computer Skyping (a verb that didn’t exist in 1988) with a friend and was unwilling to help her get something down from a tall shelf. He’s 6 feet tall, she’s 5’4 or so. In our house things on tall shelves are retrieved using my son or myself (I’m 5’11). In her mind, he was failing to uphold a sacred duty and as such, she was unable to continue with whatever plan she had that required the thing on the tall shelf. Crisis.

While my wife was dealing with the situation, I pulled out my phone to check Facebook. Naturally. I mean, you don’t just check Facebook while you’re on a grocery date with your wife but if she’s otherwise occupied go ahead, right? Of course. Everyone knows this. It’s smartphone etiquette 101 (try that one in 1988). So I pull out my phone and lo and behold, 2 missed calls from home. Guess I didn’t feel it vibrating over the hum of the freezer section while I was selecting a bag of frozen perogies (ok, that one works in 1988, but back up to 1903! Hmmm …). After my wife hung up, she noted 2 missed calls from home on her phone as well.

In case you’re wondering, the solution she offered was for my daughter to climb up on the counter and get the thing on the tall shelf, which is precisely what happened and everyone survived.

So my first instinct was to be mildly irritated that my daughter would need to bother us in the middle of a romantic stroll through the produce section with this issue. There was a simple solution and there’s really no reason why she should not have just done it without 5 phone calls. I had a plan to go home and have a chat with her about independence. She’s 11 and old enough to know better. I was laying the blame for this admittedly minor situation completely at my daughter’s feet. Then I realized what you may realize already. It’s not her fault. It’s ours. But maybe not in the way that you would think.

See, my kids have grown up with cell phones as a thing. When my wife and I go out we are always reachable. Now if we were home and some similar crisis were to arise, one of us would resolve it as parents tend to do. We resolve a million little things every day without really thinking about it: “I can’t find my shirt”, “There’s a spider on the wall in the bathroom”, “The dog threw up on the carpet”,  … the list goes on. It’s a natural knee-jerk reaction for a kid to notify/defer to a parent with these things. Then at some point we either realize the kid is old enough to handle it on their own and let them know, or preferably the kid realizes that on their own and we never even find out the crisis arose and was subsequently averted.

And you know what occurred to me? That as I was growing up, I most often realized it on my own. And you know what kind of situations made me realize it? Situations when there was no adult around. Situations that needed to be dealt with and my only option was to deal with them on my own. I didn’t always deal with them the same way my parents might have, and I didn’t always deal with them very well the first time around, but deal with them I did. Because if my parents were out of reach I had no other choice.

And that’s it right there. With cell phones we are a generation of parents that are never out of reach. Like never. So that same instinctive reaction to turn to a parent for help is easily satisfied even when the parent is not present. And as parents we don’t always think about it. It takes a second to say “climb up and get it yourself”. It seems like no crime has occurred. But it has. The child has been robbed of the opportunity to solve a problem independently. And those opportunities are critical. Critical.

I have lots of stories but I’ll tell you only one more. It happened a year ago during a parent-teacher interview. At the time the student was in the tenth grade. 15 years old. She was going downtown to meet someone to job shadow for the day since there was no school for her. During the interview with her parents she called twice. They took the call of course. How do you not take a call from your 15-year old daughter when you know she’s downtown alone? So what did she want? Well both times she wasn’t sure which direction to go. The first time was when she got off the subway and didn’t know which street exit to take. The second was when she got to the street and didn’t know which direction she wanted to go so she didn’t know which bus to wait for. She’s a very bright girl. I’ve taught her for two years in a row now. She could have figured it out. What’s more, if her dad had not answered the phone she would have figured it out. Because her only other choice would be to curl up in a fetal position on the subway platform and wait for doom. And I have to tell you, she would not have made that choice. The smart money is on her asking someone in the subway. Like someone who works there. Imagine such a thing.

So what am I saying? Throw away the cell phone? Stop taking calls from the kids? Buy a step-stool?

Actually, none of those things. Cell phones are good for a lot of things (and step-stools around my house just end up being something for me to bark my shin on). But like any tool they can be used for evil too. So here’s my proposition, and we’ve already told our kids about it. I don’t expect them (especially my daughter) to know right away which things they need to consult us on and which they don’t. Some are obvious. If a Mongolian horde is descending on the house then yeah, give us a call. If there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom then maybe that’s one they can field on their own. Somewhere between running to the laundry room (where we store the big Costco package of toilet paper) with your pants around your ankles and positioning soldiers on the parapets with cauldrons of hot oil lies a range of solutions, some of which need a consult and most of which do not. So I’ve told them to think before they call. If they’re not sure, call. But if my wife or I know they can handle it on their own our only response will be “Handle it on your own. Love you. See you later. The oil is under the sink.”

In this way I hope to speed up the independence-gaining process which really seems to have been delayed by years in the younger generations.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Les Miserables Movie … My Thoughts

First off, I must tell you I am a Les Mis purist, though not necessarily a fanatic. I’ve read the book. I’ve seen the play on stage three times and performed in it for two separate productions (though neither time a lead … curse you, more talented people!). I’ve been listening to the soundtrack since the late 1980’s, and can literally sing every word from beginning to end, thanks to the release of the Complete Symphonic Recording album in 1989. I am a fan of live theatre, a bigger fan of musical theatre and to me Les Mis is the pinnacle. It’s hard to imagine a musical production that could even come close.

What drew me in at first was the score, shortly followed by the story. I know I’m not alone. So when the movie was announced I was extremely excited about it, but also a little reserved – what if they blew it? It wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood let me down. Clan of the Cave Bear comes to mind. Then the cast was announced, and I was pretty happy. I asked the same question everyone asks:

“Can Russell Crowe sing?” And received the answer everyone seems to give:

“Well, he has a band.”

As if being in a band automatically qualifies a person to sing. Perhaps these folks never heard Keith Richards croon?

In any event, I wasn’t really worried about Russell Crowe. I’m a big fan and could easily imagine Maximus as Javert. As for Wolverine … I mean Hugh Jackman, I was quite pleased. He’s one of those actors you just love to watch in different roles. From X-Men to hosting the Oscars, I figured he’d do just fine. No, for me the only person I was legitimately worried about was Sacha Baron Cohen, who I can only see as Borat, a movie I despised from about 10 minutes in, owing largely to the gigantically unfunny ego of Cohen. People told me not to worry though, and assured me that if I had seen Hugo (I have not) I would reconsider.

All in all though, I couldn’t wait. And when the trailers were released I watched and rewatched them, getting chills each time. When the long trailer with the actors talking about how it was to do a movie that was sung live was released I watched it and I got chills again, and when the 5 clips were released it was Chillzville once more.

Because all my friends know I am such a fan, they all kept asking me if I’d seen the movie yet. Today was finally the day. Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I won’t comment at all on the story. It needs no comment since the story and the score are the reasons for the huge success of the play.

To begin, I call it a success. The 2.5 hours or so seemed to fly by and if it weren’t for the old dude hacking up a lung next to me I would for the most part not have known I was in a theatre full of people. I was completely absorbed. It is well worth the watch and I will be seeing it again for sure. It had all the things I thought it would have, and more. When you consider that I know the story and the score so well, it was not like watching a normal movie for me. It was more like watching a best friend trying something new and exciting and rooting them on. And them kicking ass. But was it perfect? Not really. Then again, perfection is an ideal impossible to achieve by definition. Here are some detailed observations.

First off, if you’re a Les Mis purist like me, I advise you to do what I realized I had to do about 15 minutes in. Don’t expect a recycled version of the play. This is not Les Miserables, the play. It’s a movie. So forgive the inverted lyrics, the parts they removed, and the added songs. And don’t expect big belting Broadway voices in every song. You won’t get them. That’s not a bad thing, because you can still get those by watching the play, or the concert DVD’s or by listening to the soundtrack. It is what it is. A new movie about an old story. It does what movies can do that stage can’t. Like close-ups for example. Lots and lots of close-ups.

The director clearly made a decision that we should become deeply familiar with the complexion of each of the actors. There were so many close close-ups I think they must have saved money on sets in a lot of scenes because all they needed was about 25% of the screen since the rest was taken up by face. We get lots of great shots of Valjean’s drool and Marius’ freckles, not to mention lots and lots of yellow teeth. Except for the leads that is – they all had nice white teeth. Which leads to my next observation:

Beyond yellowed teeth, if there was makeup used I couldn’t see it. Well that’s not exactly true. There was lots of makeup used to make people look in character, dirty or bloody (or shitty – literally), but none to make people look better. And with all those close-ups this was clearly a choice made to lend realism and honesty to the film, which it did. It added to the emotion and also was refreshing.

Then there were the sets and backdrops. They were, to use a seriously overused word these days, Epic. I mean, the movie starts with the convicts hauling a freaking ship into drydock. Are you kidding me! Extremely powerful and sweeping. I did notice that the director has a slight love affair with the Dutch Angle, which to me is unnecessary and injects a bit of cheese into an otherwise visual home run — when Valjean confesses who he is to Marius the Dutch Angle is so severe I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene in My Cousin Vinny when Ralph Macchio is being interrogated by the sheriff. That aside though the choices for setting were amazing. Javert’s suicide is actually breathtaking. Both majestic and violent. As it should be.

The big scenes were almost all beyond what I expected. Special nod goes to Lovely Ladies and Do You Hear the People Sing, as well as to One Day More (although One Day More kind of makes itself good). I was not as happy with Master of the House as I hoped I would be. I actually thought the best part of that scene was the young Eponine, who is very cute and funny in all the right places.

All in all from a production standpoint it is almost perfect. Take away the Dutch Angles and you’re there, in my opinion. Not that anyone asked me! Nor are they likely to any time soon …

So how about the performances? Well, I’ll take a look one by one, starting with the strongest, and then in no particular order because I can’t really rank them after that. Everyone is so good.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine. My goodness she is brilliant. Her voice, her acting, her presence. I could find no flaw. I’ve heard better versions of I Dreamed a Dream maybe (Idina Menzel comes to mind), but I can’t imagine seeing a better version. She doesn’t just sing it, she becomes it. It is riveting. I would watch it again and again, if only just to take notes on how to take an audience in using more than just your voice in a song.

Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne. He’s Colm Wilkinson for heaven’s sake! He’s perfect just by being him. I smiled all the way through his performance and when he showed up at the end for the harmonies after Valjean dies (nice touch by the way), I was struck through with chills. Colm is my homie. If he ever met me, I’m sure he’d agree. Maybe he’d recognize me from the 4 times I’ve seen him in concert? Or maybe not …

Hugh Jackman as Valjean. I totally love Hugh. He’s like the perfect dude (and there was only one time when I thought I saw some adamantium poking out). That said, he is not perfect. He is really, really good, but there are parts where I was disappointed. Only a few, and maybe they are minor, but they are there. For example, he has a habit of throwing words away while singing as though he can’t bear to say them. It works once or twice, but he does it way too often. As for his singing, it is very good, but he makes some choices, especially in Bring Him Home, which don’t need to be made. I get that he is acting first, singing second, but honestly some of those songs are the acting, and Bring Him Home is one of them. I would have loved to hear a more pure falsetto, which I began to suspect maybe he didn’t have, until I did hear him use it at the end of the movie when Valjean is dying.

Russell Crowe as Javert. Poor Russell. He had a lot to live up to. Javert is my favourite role and the one I would most like to play (damn you, more talented people!). Did he live all the way up? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that he definitely commands attention, as Javert should. Maximus didn’t win the hearts of Rome by accident. No, in that while he does have a pretty pleasant voice, and most certainly can carry a tune, he either lacks the power or someone told him not to use it. Javert is not supposed to be tender. I actually laughed a bit because at the end of Stars and again at the end of Soliloquiy (Javert’s Suicide) when he’s meant to hit the most powerful notes, the camera pulls up and away at dramatic speed so that his voice trails off when it is supposed to crescendo. It’s like the director thought he could trick us into thinking that since we could still hear him from far away that he must have been singing pretty powerfully. Still, I rank the performance very high. It just would have been nice if Crowe sounded a bit more Javerty (which is officially a new adjective).

Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier. Okay. I’m sure many will disagree with me (my wife and son, to name two), but I was really let down with this one. Perhaps it is my prejudice, but I really think that while he has his moments, he is far too egotistical for the role. Thenardier is supposed to be over the top it’s true. But he’s supposed to be part of the story, not above it. There are times when I definitely feel like Cohen is grinning at the camera, if only with his eyes. I also wonder why, in a movie set in France, Thenardier is the only one with a French accent? We all know that in the play everyone strangely has British accents, and so it is in the movie (a Scot or two for good measure) … except for Thenardier. What’s up with that? It’s weird.

Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier. So, as much as Cohen let me down Carter delivered. Holy smokes is she good! She is subtle when needed, and crass when she should be. My only small criticism is that there are times I find her too pretty to be a Thenardier. They do what they can with the makeup for her to make her look bad, but it is hopeless. Every Mme Thenardier I’ve seen on stage (except my good friend Deena! Who also suffers from being too pretty …) has been made out to be awful. Carter is amazing but not awful. If that makes sense?

Eddie Redmayne as Marius. My wife said he sounds like Kermit the Frog when he sings. I hear what she means but I don’t mind. He does have a tendency to get a bit nasal but he can sing the hell out of me so who am I to criticize? He is very well cast and there are two moments where he is exceptional. One is Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, which to me is almost as gripping as I Dreamed a Dream. The other is when he says/sings “I’m doing everything all wrong” in A Heart Full of Love, which, although brief, to me fully captures Marius and Cosette.

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Not many people can play the role. The vocals are ridiculous. She handles them with perfect grace and on top of that delivers a great performance. One standout moment is when Marius tells her that Valjean is the one who saved Marius at the barricade. Her reaction mid song, especially on her face, is one of many “chills” moments.

Aaron Tveit as Enjolras. Again I refer you to my wife, who said “That Enjolras is very pretty.” It’s true. He is. But don’t hold that against him. He is a very effective Enjolras. Perhaps his voice could use more power, but really many songs are undersung in the movie so that may be a directive not of his choosing.

Samantha Barks as Eponine. This woman is unbelievable. She is the Eponine in the 25th anniversary Les Mis concert (opposite Nick Jonas’ Marius and she still is willing to associate herself with Les Mis so that says a lot), and she is possibly my favourite Eponine, though it’s an admittedly tough pack to choose from! She’s beautiful and tortured, as she should be. Her voice is perfect and she made the transition to the screen perfectly, holding her own with seasoned screen vets like Jackman and Crowe. She also has an impossibly narrow waist. In one scene I was sure I could touch my thumb and forefinger around her belt. Her On My Own is probably the most true to Broadway piece in the movie, but does not suffer at all in it’s being well acted for all that. And when she gets shot and dies in Little Fall of Rain … I may have teared up. But only a little.

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Oh my god how cute is this kid! I loved him. He is the best Gavroche I’ve seen (apologies to my friends Michelle and Lisa). I only wish they’d let him sing Little People – even the reduced version. But alas that probably lies somewhere on the cutting floor. Too bad. He’d have killed it.

As for the rest of the cast, they are fantastic. Special nod to the foreman, who is deliciously slimy, and to the lady in the factory who ratted Fantine out, who is spectacularly vile.

So to sum it up I’ll say that it’s going to be a classic. Multiple nods at the Oscars no doubt, and a win for Anne Hathaway for sure. If you love the play, have no fear. If you’ve never seen the play, enjoy, and bring kleenex!

I welcome your comments. I am sure people disagree with some of my thoughts.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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