Oliver Sacks, big beefy lad

The doctor who loved bro-ing down, plus: the powerlifter who started at 71; Ilana Glazer on becoming jacked; training for the time-poor. This is Link Letter 95!

Oliver Sacks, big beefy lad
Oliver Sacks in 1961, mid-record-setting 600-pound squat, sporting glasses and work boots. Courtesy of the Oliver Sacks Foundation. 

A few weeks ago, I formally entered old age and subscribed to PBS. This stuff more fully scratches the itch I usually try to soothe with YouTubers homesteading or cleaning old video game consoles. I’ve learned what I really want is basically to have a picture book read to me, but for nothing to be exciting about it, just words and images washing over me like a gentle tide. I’ve been blowing through the documentaries, with Ken Burns weaving in and out of the periphery: Mark Twain, Marcel Duchamp, Frank Lloyd Wright (a loon, apparently, but if you’ve never read about how his mistress and her children died, uhhh, holy shit), both Basquiat docs, a really good one on the guy who started the Mammoth ski resort. This is how I happened upon the Oliver Sacks PBS documentary from 2021.

It’s not exactly a secret that Oliver Sacks, writer/doctor/model/DJ, lifted weights; it feels like one of the better-known things about him now. But that famous photo of him on his motorcycle belies the truth, which is that old boy was a big beefy lad, a true muscle-head. He was 6’4” and weighed 280 pounds at his peak, in part from drinking a gallon and a half of milk every day. Before I lifted, I didn’t really have a sense for people’s presence except to detect who was enviably skinny; now Oliver Sacks’s sheer size leaps out at me in photos of him.

Oliver Sacks, left in front, sporting the canonical (presumably gray) lifting sweatpants and motorcycle boots. Whoever that is to the right is about to attempt or just finished squatting, by my estimation, 525 pounds in cuffed jeans.

Oliver Sacks loved lifting, especially squatting, and set a California state record squatting 600 pounds in 1961 while he was a medical intern at Mount Zion Hospital. He lived for the 1960s bodybuilding scene, and Muscle Beach called to him then as it does to me now. His lifting pals would tease him about his routine of squatting 555 pounds for five sets of five reps every five days. (This was before he started mainlining amphetamines.) After his death, the editor of Muscle and Fitness published a letter he received from Sacks about lifting that he wrote in 2003:

When I came to the States in 1960, I concentrated on powerlifting and especially squatting… The most amazing lifter in San Francisco that I met was old Karl Norberg—already over 70. He used to do very strict narrow-grip bench presses with a two-second pause on the chest—warming up with 350 pounds or so. (I believe he later did a 500-pound bench press on his 75th birthday, someone told me.)
When I moved from San Francisco to Venice and Santa Monica, I met extraordinary lifters… some almost out-of-the-world figures like Charlie (Chuck) Ahrens and Steve Merjanian. I never trained with Ahrens—I think Steve may have been his training buddy.
I saw the two of them together, with their 60-plus-inch chests, totally filling a VW Beetle, but I had difficulty lifting his favorite dumbbell (a 375-pound dumbbell he used for side presses) off the ground. I trained partly in the open air on the lifting platform on the beach in Venice, partly in the wonderful subterranean “Dungeon” in Santa Monica, and partly (with “Peanuts” Jim Hamilton and others) at a small home gym in Peanuts’ place.

But my ears really perked up during the doc when Sacks mentioned briefly that he had wanted to do a whole book about lifting. He more fully described the situation in his memoir that was published in 2016 just after his death, On the Move: A Life, and apparently had years’ worth of photos, sketches, and writing documenting the SoCal lifting scene:

I took photographs on Muscle Beach, trying to catch its many characters and their haunts; this went hand in hand with a project for a book about the beach—descriptions of people and places, scenes and events, in that strange world which was Muscle Beach in the early 1960s.

And then tragedy struck, and this suitcase he describes here is about to become my D.B. Cooper:

Whether or not I could have written such a book, a montage of descriptions and verbal portraits interlarded with photographs, I do not know. When I left UCLA, I packed all my photographs, everything I had taken between 1962 and 1965, along with my sketches and notes, in a large suitcase. The suitcase never arrived in New York; no one seemed to know what had happened to it at UCLA, nor could I get an answer from post offices in L.A. or New York. So I lost almost all the photographs I had taken in my three years near the beach; only a dozen or so somehow survived. I like to imagine that the suitcase still exists and that it may turn up one day.

We have to find this suitcase. We have to find this suitcase.

In the meantime, here’s a relevant clip to the PBS doc, but I highly recommend checking out the whole thing:

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‘I diet so that my partner will also diet; how can I stop?’
Starting to lift means eating more food, but what if it also means... more than that?
Chloe Brennan of Dinnie Stones fame on why she decided to move up a weight class.


~Discord Pick of the Week: Love this from Stronger By Science: Training for the Time-Poor. Maybe the most important thing here is once you have some gains under your belt, it takes far less effort to coast than it does to build. I’ve been meaning to do more on this for a while; if you’re interested, you should drop me a note!

Effective Strength Training for the Time-Poor • Stronger by Science
This article covers strategies for continuing to progress, even when time is tight.


“I became a powerlifter at 71—and I’ve never felt so good about myself.” Not only that, she had multiple sclerosis and her knees were so stiff she couldn’t do a bodyweight squat; now she deadlifts 55 kg (110 lbs). It’s not too late!

Ilana Glazer of Broad City wrote a little monologue to go with her strength training montage, including how the media really did it to girls our age in terms of making us mortally fear being strong or “bulky.”

It’s About Damn Time: Strength training has surged in popularity.

At the risk of asking a dumb question when I’m supposed to be the one with all the answers: how do I get into “playground speed run as a sport”?

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It’s been said over and over again that anorexia is the deadliest psychiatric disorder, and yet the only treatment anyone offers is “just eat.” Really good stuff from society!

Elle rizzed up social media gymnast Livvy Dunne.


If you saw Oppenheimer this week, as I did, you will enjoy this very thorough Vulture roundup of fact and fiction checks (spoiler: almost all of it was basically true!).

Also, if Oppenheimer turned you into a nuclear-program head, friend of the blog Sam Biddle obtained and digitized a bunch of Cold War-era slides from the estate sale of an Air Force officer who worked on a base tied to the Manhattan Project. (Related: a hilarious telegraphing of the atomic program for you academics out there.)

You deserve a tech union.

Programming note: We’re going to be taking a little break for the next two weeks, rerunning a couple of old columns and unlocking one (1) advice column for all readers. I always put this to a vote on Instagram, so jack in if you want to have a say which column gets unlocked!! I’m doing some traveling, but also indulging the panic setting in about my book deadline, and writing like the wind. We will resume our regularly scheduled programming on August 18, when you should begin to attune your ears for our yearly anniversary/end-of-summer subscription sale...

That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—