Sergeant Tony's Blog

Archive for December, 2016

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road — Sgt. Tony Ludlow, blog post for 12/30/2016

Dec. 30th 2016




About two years ago, maybe longer, those three words started showing up. Regularly. They reappeared in my life like a letter I’d written to myself from a long time ago.

At first, the 3 appeared like extras in a movie. You know? You consciously see the extras but you only give them slight notice.

That’s the point. Extras appear, then disappear around a corner or fade into a crowd. Extras in movies aren’t supposed to stand out. They’re predictable. They’re patrons in a restaurant who pretend to talk and eat normally and predictably. They’re people standing around on a train station platform looking unremarkable. They’re average. They do average things and dress in nondescript clothes. They blend in.

Gradually, those 3 words quit blending in. They ceased being bit players in the stage play I call my life. Relevance, Significance, and Purpose quit being predictable. They required more of my notice. They went from panhandling extras I passed on the street and dismissed with a “not today,” to characters that required interaction and a thoughtful response.

Eventually, they turned into 3 major characters who stopped me in mid-stride on the street and demanded answers. I tried to ignore them. I tried to sidestep them. I tried to go around them. They blocked me. They got in my way. They wouldn’t let me by. It felt like facing Gandalf and hearing him yell, “YOU … SHALL … NOT … PASS!”

Relevance, Significance, and Purpose had questions, and they demanded answers.

Their questions resulted in soul-searching introspection, self-critical evaluation, and uncomfortable examination.

“As you start this chapter of your life, how will you remain or become relevant?” they asked.
“At this point, what are you doing that is significant?” they demanded.
“What is your purpose and how are you fulfilling that purpose?” they said.

Uncomfortable. Flagrantly uncomfortable.

It would be much easier to ignore all of that. Sidestep it. Move around it.

One of the great Greek philosophers of antiquity, either Plato or Socrates, depending on your view of history, said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” And in Woody Allen’s recent movie, “Cafe Society,” one of the characters adds to that line, “… but the examined one is no bargain.”

And that’s why we avoid the examination. It’s no bargain. It’s no picnic. It’s part of the reason we cringe at physical exams, dental check-ups, and our vehicle’s annual maintenance check: fear of what we might discover. We’re afraid there’s a problem or a deficiency that needs fixing. A shortcoming that requires an intervention.

Or worse.

My examinations made me start paying attention to my life in an uncomfortably deliberate way. I took notice of things, like how I spoke. And not just how, but what I spoke about.

Too much of my conversation, and too many of my references were to things in the past … past tense. The Past Tense dominated my conversation. I talked about when I was growing up, or on active duty in the Marine Corps; I talked about when I was in college or graduate school; I talked about when I lived in Japan or taught school.

The Future Tense was missing. There was too much talk of the past.

Stories we tell and references we make are, by nature, in the past. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all do it. I love telling stories. (Perhaps you’ve noticed.) And I know a little about the nature of the past. Or as William Faulkner famously said in “Requiem for a Nun,” that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

But I was forced to ask, “where is my bucket list?”
Have I checked off all of the major things on the list I drew up in my youth?
Was there no place for ambition and future thinking or planning? Had I reached the limit of my contributions?
Were there new stories to tell?
Where was Relevance?
Where were Significance and Purpose?

Was I at ease in Zion? Was I lounging on the hillside with the other lotos-eaters? You could pick any literary metaphor of similar deficiency and inactivity, and I appealed to it.

I decided to strike the tent. I decided I needed a swim … upstream. I decided my comfort zone had become uncomfortable. I decided I’d been held in reserve long enough. My mind required the whetstone.

I needed a counseling session with the Future Tense.

I always have physical goals and training plans. Regular exercise, running, backpacking, triathlons, and whatever else I might find, are an ingrained part of my life. I would scarcely be me to myself without them.

But what I lacked were mental and intellectual goals, pursuits, and aspirations. Outside of the books I intended to read, I didn’t have much more beyond that. Surely nothing concrete. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that or with those plans. Indeed, reading 2 or 3 books a month is a lovely idea and a worthy plan.

But I needed to sit down at the conference table with my three old friends, Relevance, Significance, and Purpose and think about the Future.

In the 90s, I started a Ph.D. program in History but abandoned it after only two semesters. Other duties, responsibilities, and a family crisis made the study untenable. Giving up is a hard thing.

But about two years ago, spurred on by my 3 old friends, and encouraged by Ashley’s work toward her Master’s degree, I started researching Ph.D. programs again. About 18 months ago I found two that I really liked and applied to them. I got in! This past September I started doctoral studies in Leadership. Why? Almost exclusively for the journey, not the degree. I needed the journey.

The process of academic reading, discussion, research, and writing has had the desired effect: mental stimulation and the clearing out of cobwebs and dust in my brain. Discomfort? Sure. A steep learning curve? Absolutely. But exactly what my 3 old friends demanded of me. If the next chapter of my life, the next year of my life, the next moment of my life was to have relevance, significance, and purpose, I needed my mind to be active and open. I needed it stretched. I needed the challenge, the personal enrichment, and the intellectual house cleaning.

What do I intend to do with the degree? I’m not sure. I have no plans to change careers and no desire to do so. I love what I do.

There may be new opportunities that come with the degree, but there’s no desire nor plan to pursue another career path. The degree may open some consulting or freelance writing opportunities. Or it won’t. The degree isn’t the point. The journey is the point.

In Mark Manson’s provocative book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” he says, “The question is not whether we evaluate ourselves against others; rather, the question is by what standard do we measure ourselves?” I think this is true. Our values and priorities get twisted and hijacked by someone else’s. Or by society’s. I’m not motivated by money, but by a sense of satisfaction of having made a difference. It’s why I joined the Marine Corps and why I became a teacher. I think this is true of most service oriented professions. I never met a teacher who was expecting to get rich!

A friend of mine died of terminal cancer. He had spent his life as a successful HVAC business owner. He’d become fairly wealthy. But after he got sick, his perspectives changed. He realized he’d spent his life running a business and making money, but not much beyond that. Toward the end, he said, “I hope I’ve made a difference in the lives of the people whose heating and air conditioning I’ve installed and repaired through the years …” He got quiet, lost in thought. I could see he was grasping at straws, so I tried to assure him that he had made a difference. I tried to help; I offered up, “And your employees … you’ve given them a great company to work for. You’ve helped provide for those families and their children’s education.” But the look on his face said that he knew it wasn’t enough. And you don’t tell a dying man that he waited too long to make a difference. So I quit talking.

I love what the late Steve Jobs said in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford: “Your time is limited; so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

This is the traditional time of year when we think about resolutions and plans for the new year. Plans that usually fade by February.

But what if this time we actually follow through? What if we make real plans that make sense, make a difference, and improve our lives? What if we quit making pointless temporary indulgences in fad diets, fad fitness, fad finances, and fad running goals? How about S.M.A.R.T goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based.

Take a look at the areas of your life, in no particular order:
1) family & friends,
2) significant other,
3) career
4) intellectual/educational
5) hobbies
6) health: physical, mental, spiritual
7) fun
8) finances.
You could figure out ways to enhance each of those areas and relationships and make SMART plans, establish SMART goals, and take SMART action!

Elbert Hubbard said, “Many people fail at life, not for lack of ability or brains or even courage, but simply because they have never organized their energies around a goal.”

Stephen Covey challenged his readers to “begin with the end in mind.” This time NEXT year will bring us to a similar place. What would you like to look back on in 2017 with admiration and pride?

I hope your 2017 is full of relevance, significance, and purpose in whatever areas of your life you choose to pursue them. I hope you’ll join me in a year of challenge and discovery.

— 30 —


We’re back in session on Wednesday, Jan. 4th! All classes will meet as usual and INSIDE! ALL classes meet inside in January! More about that later!

Holiday Weight Loss Challenge weigh-in will be Wednesday as well!


Some have asked me if I’d taken them off the mailing list because they hadn’t received one of these in a while. The answer is, NO! I simply haven’t sent out a newsletter in several weeks … months, actually. But fear not. I’m planning on being better in the new year!


See you all on the Quarterdeck on the 4th!

Here’s to an awesome YOU in 2017!

Sgt. Tony

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Let’s Eat Pancakes!

Dec. 19th 2016

“Pick up one dumbbell with your right hand, we’re going to start up Jim Steiner’s wood-chipper!”

If you’ve been on the Quarterdeck, even for a week, you’ve heard me say this. Most of you only know Jim Steiner’s name from the exercise I call “Starting Up Jim Steiner’s Wood-chipper.” But often someone new to the ranks will ask, “Tony, who is Jim Steiner?”

I’ve even been asked if “Jim Steiner” is the name of a brand of wood-chipper! As if you could go to Home Depot and ask where the “Jim Steiner Wood-Chippers” are! (I personally think that would be a great brand of wood-chipper.)

Jim was a real person, a Boot Camper, and one of the best people I’ve ever known … and THE person who saved Boot Camp … and the person who saved me in the process.

Jim joined us after his wife, Carole, gave him a month of Boot Camp as a Christmas present in 1999. When Jim showed up in January 2000, he wasted no time making a difference! He quickly became everyone’s best friend! 

He was a flame. People were just naturally drawn to him! He had an inner light that illuminated everyone around him and made us all feel special. That glow made you want to be a better person.

Jim engaged the world, and everyone in it, by being friendly and genuinely interested in everyone he met. He was winsome and warm, intelligent and funny, kind and thoughtful, self-deprecating but confident, audacious but reflective. And he was a consummate prankster. He loved everyone and everyone loved him back! You just couldn’t help it! To me he became an older brother, some 12 years my senior.

Jim was a walking lesson in personal relationship building. He could have taught seminars on how to make friends with anyone, anywhere, anytime. I don’t know if he ever read Dale Carnegie’s books, but he could have taught the course! 

Jim was an Army veteran (of course, I ridiculed him about that without mercy or end) and he was an accomplished athlete. He was a voracious reader, an avid runner, triathlete, skier, hiker, and adventure racer. Jim was always up for foolishness and a laugh, often at his own expense. Or mine!

He was also something of an amateur astronomer. He’d bring his telescope to the Quarterdeck well before the 0530 class, set it up, scan the dark sky for things to observe, and have something for us to see by the time we arrived!
For more than two years we enjoyed Jim’s daily dose of fun, fellowship, and enthusiasm for life. If he had a story to tell or an anecdote to share, I gladly yielded the floor! He was the best storyteller I’ve ever heard.

Jim was a true renaissance man. I can’t think of any subject that didn’t inspire his interest. 

Unless he was out of town on business, Jim never missed a day on the Quarterdeck! He was a faithful Boot Camper and a wonderful and loyal friend.

One morning he came to The Quarterdeck complaining of a pulled upper back muscle that he’d strained trying to start his old-school-pull-start-wood-chipper. So to help Jim and his wood-chipping antics, I incorporated the “bent-over-single-arm-row” into the routine to help develop and strengthen the muscles of the upper back and shoulders, renaming the exercise “Starting Up Jim Steiner’s Wood-chipper.” And I’ve called it that ever since.

And because Jim saved Boot Camp from extinction, naming an exercise after him seemed like a small thing to do.

How’d he save boot camp?

Well, once upon a time …

One dark and cold morning of our first winter—in the pouring rain—at 5:25am, Jim and I sat in our cars parked next to one another in the parking lot. I think we were waiting to see if anyone else would show up . . . and which of us would make the first move to get out of our vehicles. USMC Fitness BOOT CAMP was on the campus of the University of Memphis for the first six years and part of the Continuing Education Department of the U of M. But Mt. Fuji (the parking garage on Zach Curlin) had yet to be completed and we had no rain-day option except to trudge outside and get bone-soaked, which we did often.

But this particular morning it was raining hard. Really hard.

And no one else showed up.

Jim rolled his window down and yelled to me over the pounding rain, “WHAT. DO. YOU. THINK?”

“I. DON’T. KNOW!” I yelled back, a little defeated.

“LET’S. GO. TO. PERKINS. AND. EAT. PANCAKES!” Jim suggested with a laugh!
Since it was just us that morning, and since I happen to love pancakes, and since I’m not particularly fond of getting cold-drenched, I agreed. I thought flapjacks, hot coffee, and a warm and dry restaurant sounded like a better option.

As Jim and I ate breakfast that morning I whined to him that maybe the program just wasn’t going to survive. There were no boot camp programs at all in this part of the country except us; there were only 4 other boot camp programs in the entire country at the time. This was on the cusp of the dot com explosion and there was no boot camp presence on the Internet. There was no social media; there was no MySpace or Facebook, no Twitter.

“Maybe this should be our last month,” I said to Jim with a sigh.

I loved my career as a high school history teacher and coach, and seemed resigned to admit that my early morning exercise experiment had run its course. I was reluctantly ready to face the fact that Memphis just wasn’t ready for this kind of fitness program. Maybe it was time to pull the plug, I suggested.

“Tony, don’t do that,” Jim said. “This is the best program I’ve ever been a part of. Hang in there, my friend, just wait! They’ll come out of the woodwork! You’ll see!!” Jim insisted. (It was his version of the “If you build it, they will come,” speech.)

That morning, I was discouraged and ready to quit. But Jim’s words of encouragement gave me a new commitment to make Boot Camp work. “If Jim says it’ll work, then it’ll work,” I reasoned.

He had that kind of effect on people.

If it weren’t for him, I might have thrown in the towel that morning. I might have quit. But with renewed determination, I stayed the course. And Jim was right! People came and have been coming for over 17 years.

Two years after that morning in the rain, Jim, Carole, their son Rob, daughter Meredith, and I were making plans to run the Marine Corps Marathon together later that year. But in the spring, suddenly and without warning, Jim suffered what appeared to be a mild stroke.

But in the weeks that followed it was discovered that it wasn’t a stroke that Jim had experienced. Jim had a brain tumor.

Because of medical treatment, Jim had to quit coming to boot camp a few months later in the summer of 2002. After that, I started making visits to his home to check on him and to hear more of his stories. I continued to receive invitations to Steiner family gatherings, including their world famous Christmas party. Those parties were attended by the broadest of cross sections of Memphians, evidence that Jim and Carole’s hand of friendship had been extended into the most unlikely and unusual of places. Their friends came from all walks of life.

Jim’s gamma knife surgery removed an extensive amount of the tumor, but unfortunately not enough of it.

Even though his condition continued to deteriorate, Jim made the most touching of returns to the Quarterdeck on October 24, 2003, over a year and a half after his brain cancer diagnosis.

With the aid of his brother and sister-in-law, Jim came back to Boot Camp early that October morning in a wheel chair.

He had dumbbells in hand and worked as hard as anyone there! You should have seen him! It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed. I fought to hold back the tears the whole morning.

Always upbeat, always an encourager, Jim had a huge capacity for joy and fun! I never heard him say a single bad thing about anyone. Not even about me! He laughed that morning in October and clowned as if nothing was wrong with him. New boot campers who’d joined since Jim had become sick, gathered around him after the workout to meet the famous Jim Steiner! He was a real celebrity!
It was also the last time Jim would be on the Quarterdeck.

I have always said, “In the Kingdom of the Kind … in the company of true gentlemen … Jim Steiner is royalty.” 

I was privileged to have known him and deeply honored to have been numbered among his friends. And I was profoundly heartbroken when he was taken from us.

For months I wore one of those WWJD bracelets. The “J” stood for Jim. I had no idea how Jesus would run a Boot Camp program. But I had some idea how Jim Steiner would do it. He’d remember people’s names. He’d try to make everyone feel important and welcome. He’d have a good time! He’d joke and clown, while giving everyone a hard time in a playful and winsome way. He’d call people goofy names and they’d love it. And he’d make people proud of themselves by giving them something significant to accomplish everyday. He’d work everyone like rented mules! He’d help people get fit and achieve new things. And he’d love them.
Jim passed away on December 19, 2003, thirteen years ago today. He was only 58.

Jim taught me that the power of simple encouragement can’t be overstated. The spoken word can change the world. The book of Proverbs says: “a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”

Jim taught me that pushups alone don’t inspire or motivate people. Adding humor, warmth, a sense of community, and motivation inspires people to lead more productive, focused, and happier lives.

It’s been reported recently that many people go through their whole day without smiling even once and that most people who do smile don’t do so until after 10am. (Possibly when their coffee, or meds, have kicked in!) Jim taught me the value of laughing before the sun comes up!

One cold and rainy morning over pancakes, Jim Steiner’s words of encouragement changed my life and inspired me to keep on keeping on. And if you’ve ever been a part of USMC Fitness BOOT CAMP in these 17+ years, his words influenced your life too.

I’m certain that Jim had no idea that morning that he was going to alter the course of my life during a simple conversation over breakfast. But that’s what happened. For Jim, it was just another day and another conversation in his life. It’s what he did. That’s who he was.

Today, like every day, your words could change someone’s life and encourage them to do something awesome! Your words could give hope to someone feeling hopeless. What a priceless gift that would be!

Today, and every day, I’m thankful for you who give me the privilege of your daily trust and the value of your friendship. 

And today, and every day, I’m thankful for you, Jim Steiner!

— 30 —

Jim Steiner

Jim Steiner

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Body and Soul — announcement for 12/11/2016

Dec. 11th 2016

Last week I announced something unique for December.

With the exception of Tuesday’s workout, I’ll leave 3 to 5 minutes at the end of each workout for meditation and prayer. We’ve been doing this on Thursdays for years, but for December (and maybe beyond) we’ll do this at the end of the Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday workouts too.

I was told by one boot camper that their religious tradition doesn’t allow for them to participate in such a practice with folks who aren’t a part of their church. That’s perfectly ok. This is not mandatory! In fact, between the last exercise and the beginning of the meditation/prayer time, there’s a 1-minute break to allow those who must leave to gather their things and slip out quietly.

If you’ve not done this before, let me explain how we do it. We sit comfortably with eyes closed and spend that time in quite undirected prayer and meditation with no instruction and no interruptions.

I think the key to this is to be mindful, thankful, and present in the moment. Some people use it to recall sacred verses and passages. Others use it to recall inspirational phrases and quotes. Others use it to count and concentrate on their breathing. Those 5 minutes can be used in any kind of quiet reflection and contemplation. As one person said to me last week, “this is my favorite thing about boot camp.”

If you’ve participated in martial arts, you’ve probably done this before. Unfortunately, not many church services allow for 5 minutes of undirected quiet prayer and meditation.

Here’s a short article that might help you get the most out of those 5 minutes. See you on the Quarterdeck!

Posted by Tony Ludlow | in Uncategorized | No Comments »

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