Tuesday, December 29, 2009


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With friends in town for the holidays, I made it to the climbing wall to watch old timers and newbies get their climb on. I did belay, with the Boot of Doom I'm solidly anchored, and I'm not ashamed to admit I hugged the wall. The routes looked so beautiful, so welcoming, I ached to get UP. Unfortunately, I've got another twenty days to sit out until the next x-ray.

On Jan. 16 I'll find out my prognosis and recovery options. The swelling has gone down quite a bit - foot looks like a foot now instead of a Fred Flintstone club of a thing. And I've regained feeling in my toes. I'm excited about these small victories, and even more hopeful that I'll be UP again soon.

I haven't decided how I will celebrate the new year. I've been invited to a couple of parties, but I've never been one to go out on NYE - it's always been amateur night to me. Instead, I like to open a bottle of Irish cream and sip until I'm sleepy. I'm hardly the party princess.

All the same, I look forward to 2010 - it's challenges and possibilities.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Leave it to the French to take something ordinary, like "street climbing" and turn it into haute couture. If you've never heard of "Le Parkour," as a sport or pop culture phenomenon, then you're in for a treat. Translated, "le parkour" is the art of displacement, when one runs through a series of obstacles. As a French discipline, it sits somewhere between military urban warfare training and martial arts. Le Parkour is a component of French military training that emphasizes negotiating urban terrain to gain both position and advantage. What's interesting to me, is the how often Le Parkour requires mastery of what naturalist and sport climbers would term "dyno" moves.

Of course, I doubt Americans will be surprised to learn that the true origin of le Parkour rests in flight (a.k.a. retreat), a discipline that encourages students to make the most of all surfaces in order to protect oneself. Within French urban culture, however, Le Parkour is a mixture of its history and contemporary street culture. Like skateboarding, the sport draws the younger crowd who gather to compete and share trade moves.

The most notable expert in Le Parkour is David Belle. He is, by most accounts, the Bruce Lee of Le Parkour. And he's amazing:

Reading the Wikipedia entry describing Le Parkour (click here), it seems to me that this is a sport similar to climbing. Both require critical thinking and discipline, a sense of inner play and possibility. Both sports, too, require the sort of people who aren't afraid to take risks in order to gain self-confidence. In a BBC article (click BBC), Belle asserts that his mission is "to make people understand what it is to move." Watching his videos on You Tube, I can attest to my own blossoming understanding of how his work in Le Parkour could and will influence my work as a climber.

What's more interesting to me, however, is the ways in which Belle asserts that his version of street climbing is a philosophical act visible through practice. This reminds me of all the climbing videos I have watched since my injury, and the many ways in which one's personality or worldview is made visible through rock climbing. Though Belle was first claimed by gymnastic folk and runners - le parkour was once termed "free running" in the U.S. - it seems to me that the sport's epicenter on grip and forearm strength, mental discipline, and overall agility could make it a French kissing cousin of both rock and sport climbing.

For Belle, Le Parkour is a sport of "you against you" - and this is something climbing presents too. And the more I watch Belle, his training videos and performances, the more I understand what he means about "movement." Facing the rock or the urban landscape, one does confront obstacles. In that confrontation one learns more about personal freedom and self-respect than anywhere else. In my scholarly pursuits, I term this confrontation "displacement" and "process" - so it shouldn't be too surprising that I'm fond of climbing and le Parkour because it turns the cerebral into the physical. This is why I encourage my students to join me at the climbing wall, too.

Though most would have us separate the philosophical from "the real," I fail to see that separation as natural. To me, this breaking between mind and body is a byproduct of WWII mechanisms, ones that brought the university together with the military in order to gain advantage (and ultimately nuclear power). In the 1940s and 50s, America loved its scientists. Only after the bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima did the average joe get a view of what nerds were capable of and I think it scared them.

Scientists have been suspect since, throughout the "space race" and the Cold War, science was at the heart of espionage. So it seems the division between the "smart science people" and the "regular people" had everything to do with the circles in which they moved. Culture compartmentalized, and the "regular" people cast suspicious eyes at those in their ivory tower labs and libraries. It hasn't been cool to be a nerd since.

Even James Bond had to deal with science as villain in Goldfinger, and popular culture since often posits science as dangerous.

Technology presented, too, the "confrontation of one's humanity" like the Stanley Kubrick film, "2001: A Space Odyssey":

In the 1973 film, Westworld, Yul Brynner portrays a rogue robot. I saw the movie when I was a kid, maybe five or so, and had many nightmares featuring Mr. Brynner until I saw him in The King and I. The film was based on the premise as technology as vacation - with better actors and twists than the later Total Recall with Alnold Governator of Californie.

Anyway, my point is this: as typical plot themes go, technology rarely gets to be a hero. And the compartmentalization of people and knowledge, the ways in which theory was separated from praxis (though the two are braided together even when we can't name the theories at play), limited movement. This limited freedom and movement eventually became, as most social constraint mechanisms do, a collective preference. In our case, the exact opposite of movement is stability - a term government officials and politicos, financial "experts" and commentators throw around with unfortunate regularity.

It was French language theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida that introduced us to the nature of binaries and controls through language, and his response to stability - he argued this stability was about hierarchal structures - was play. Derrida provoked play every chance he got, as a way of moving through language and through thought. So I'm not surprised David Belle focuses on movement and philosophy, nor am I surprised to see the organizations supporting play as an engagement with imagination such as the Norfolk Council's "National Play Day" co-sponsored by Le Parkour Alliance:

My interest in movement, of course, stems from the fact that my own physical movement is limited by my injury. And as I process my emotive responses to my physical limitations, I return again and again to the connection between personal freedom and physicality. Mental and physical are visible to me in wholly new ways. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the charges that climbing, Le Parkour, and other nonconformist sports are "reckless" and "dangerous" are made because the sports put into physical movement, in tangible ways that are witnessed, the need and right to think for oneself.

Both climbing and le Parkour require critical engagement with surrounding spaces - the spatial theorist in my finds this fascinating. Both require a willingness to push back common tropes or meanings surrounding what is safe. Both require one to be physically and mentally present at the same time. And it seems both attract intelligent people who seem to be living out their personal theories in the real world. When I'm climbing, I'm processing my own physicality, my lived realities, and my body as miraculous machine. It's the movement up the wall that brings me in tune with my mind.

So I think I'll be adding some of the training moves/exercises from Belle's le Parkour to my workout schedule as soon as I can. I think training should be about play, about building strength and self-respect. I won't be back-flipping or anything, but I will be concentrating on grip and forearm strength, mobility and balance. I'll also be thinking more about urban landscapes and movement, about freedom and place. But I'm a nerd. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


I like Sonnie Trotter's rhetorical approach to framing his view of climbing and self-development. Having so much time on my hands to keep off my feet, I find that watching climbing videos assuages my sense of loss.

I've never been a patient person, but I agree with Trotter's assertion that "climbing is pure fun, pure joy." I'm not even a "real" climber - I'm still working on the skills I'll need outdoors. But I have felt more personal freedom, a real sense of self-trust and wonderment, roped in and harnessed, than I've ever felt before.

Sitting in my apartment, foot propped as ordered, reading books and writing in the margins of student papers, my mind wanders. Years ago, when I was fearless and green, still missing my front teeth, I used to climb the "monkey bars" at school. The goal was always to get to the top, to sit at the steel summit and see what my world looked like from there.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Hixon felt this was too dangerous for girls. She often limped over, bearing her weight on a cane, to yell at me to get down. She was a fierce woman who looked a bit like Henry Kissinger in a polyester JC Penny suit. One didn't mess around with Mrs. Hixon - rumors abounded Elmira Elementary. She cast spells. She collected children's bones. She was a real witch, not a poser on TV.

Mrs. Hixon would tap her cane on her useless leg and demand of us, "Do you want to end up like me? Get down!" and we obeyed. Carrie, Wendy, and I were tomboys, eager to get out and make our way in the world, but none of us had the moxie to monkey around after we'd been spotted by the eagle-eyed yard duty teacher.

Looking back at my life, I had many teachers of fear. My childish impulse was to push, to explore, to see what would happen. Loving adults, even not so loving adults, were always offering imagined consequences for my curiosity. Everything I most wanted to do would kill me, in their mind, or make me deaf, blind, and stupid.

Children were safer on the ground. We shouldn't run with scissors. We shouldn't run at all. Walk. Be quiet. Don't make a mess. Don't leave a wake. Obey. Obey. Obey.

And I became supremely obedient, to rules, conventions, and even unspoken but felt restrictions. I've spent the greater part of my life worrying about consequences. In those worries, I've closed opportunistic paths. Somehow convinced of how things should be, I failed to look at how things were. I've shied away a first kiss. I've let phone calls go unreturned. I've told myself "No," far more often than I've said, "Why not?"

I have failed to see "the fine line of possibility" as anything more than a line in the sand, something I shouldn't cross. Until now.

With nothing better to do, I've been making lists of all the things I hope to do once I get this Boot of Doom off my foot. It's a work in progress, of course, and the Doc said I can't climb for six months. So in the meanwhile I'm planning to:

1. Dance badly until I feel good

2. Skip

3. Wiggle my toes with joy

4. Saunter with sass

5. Ask the guy who has been flirting with me if he is, indeed, flirting with me before asking, "You gonna do something, or just stand there and breathe?"

6. If he wasn't flirting, then I'm going to point an accusing finger and yell, "Poser!" then scurry away

7. Walk into the truck stop lobby, demand a copy of Playgirl, toss cash on the counter, then declare, "I'm buying this for the testarticles!"

8. Take my bathroom scale for a ride in the country, then beat it down Office Space Style

9. Watch The Big Lebowski again, this time with friends, and drink every time someone says, "Dude."

10. Walk until I don't feel like walking anymore

11. Perform a poem in the state capitol building - uninvited

12. Do whatever I have to do to get "Meat Spin" out of my cerebral folds. I saw it two summers ago and I still haven't fully recovered.

13. Burn some journals - it's time

14. Go sledding - I haven't been in years

I'm sure the list will grow. Climbing is at the top of all my lists, but I'm afraid I'll have to follow Doc's orders. But in the meanwhile, I will keep worrying the fray of possibility, thinking about how I want my life to be when this deep resting spell is over.

Friday, December 4, 2009


If you haven't seen Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic, Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, you should. Considering its debut in 1955 rattled moviegoers with its frank, voyeuresque perspective, it's one of those films that challenges the common, and perhaps false, perspective of 1950s innocence. There's nothing innocent about this film - it portrays communal living with a sort of unflinching construction of both observation and critique. Stereotypes are used in wholly new ways, and it's clear the film itself is pushing the envelope of censorship and decency for the era.

It's a thinking person's film, the sort that just aren't made very often in our contemporary time. Dialogue matters (instead of being used to just move plot or set up the next "money shot"). And like good fiction, "the devil is in the details." Hitchcock does a masterful job of placing the viewer in the chair of L.B. Jefferies (Stewart). I think that's just one of the things that makes me love this film.

Hitchcock builds on the common trope, the one equating wheelchairs and injuries with supreme vulnerability, and uses it to get inside the viewer's psyche. Often, when we're at our best, we think of chair confinement and injury as an interruption in "normalcy," a weakness to be healed, and even internment. This view has shaped the cultural view of those permanently living in such a condition - so much so the pro-rights movement for the physically challenged began its confrontation of society with a rhetorical campaign to change "handicapped" to "handicapable."

To lose mobility is to lose one's Western sense of self, of living, as Stephen King highlights in the 1990 film, Misery, starring James Caan and Kathy Bates. There's nothing more horrifying than injury, than internment and dependency or even the codependent relationship between hostage and captor. When Paul Sheldon (Caan) betrays Annie Wilkes (Bates) by attempting escape, she intensifies their bond by changing the nature of their relationship. She hobbles him, and in the process, increases both his dependency and hers:

Annie Wilkes' (Bates) connection between capitalist behaviors in the diamond mines, behaviors that created hostages of the working class, is an interesting (and haunting) connection. However we enter the capitalist machine, we all become hobbled by it in some way eventually. We won't quit or leave a bad job for fear of losing what we have - our dependency becomes the very nature of our internment. We'll critique the economy, hold it responsible, for our stresses instead of considering employers themselves manufacture and support our subordination with help from a ruling class and culture.

What really sucks: Ideologies are just as hostile to our well-being as our working conditions. What we value limits us, curtails our sense of independent agency, shapes our sense of "being" (in the philosophical sense) by making the day-to-day conditions seem normal, inarguably true - "the given circumstances" everyone encounters. Everybody works, so we say, so everybody has to "deal" with the limitations of that employer/employee relationship. Or as the song goes, "Everybody hurts ..."

I've been thinking about ideologies and normalcy all day - probably because my injury won't let me get too far from my apartment. One can do homework and read philosophies only so long before everything makes dangerous sense and one's mind wanders off, regardless of the limitations of metaphysics. When I'd get this antsy, disconnected feeling in the past, I'd either get on my bike or head to the wall (sometimes both). With all exits blocked and some regrettable chaffing in ye olde pits, escape isn't so easily won.

So I've been thinking, perhaps too much, about climbing and philosophy. In my jacked-up little world, I've come to think of climbing as a respite. But I'm thinking today that as marvelous as that may seem, I shouldn't afford myself such a hiding place. Climbing can be restorative, but it's not naturally so. In fact, I'd argue that climbing is always a litmus test. Even climbs one has done before can present a new challenge. So as one does come to wall or rock wanting the easy, self-removed hour or so of leisure, that isn't always what one gets. Climbing has a way of baring one's hidden limitations, the "I can't" and "I don't think I can do this" constructed on and off the climb.

I know I come to it looking forward to facing down my own thresholds, to push myself past my own sense of limitation and skill. And the sense of relief, the respite from daily drudgery, isn't anything but the shirking of chains I myself have cast. In other words, I've made choices - like my relationship status, my program, my job - that come at a cost. I don't always feel as though the consequences of these choices are just, tolerable, or even surmountable, but that doesn't equate to a loss of free will. Each day that I get up, go to work, crack a book - whatever - I am affirming my original choices.

Climbing, then, is a microcosm of larger psychological workings. It puts into route all the struggles that seem unrelated into a linear progression. Climbing is a condensation of the stakes. One can either go up, go down, or bail. Seems to me that's pretty much how life works. When it comes to work, I go up. When it comes to the day-to-day, I descend because one always wakes up, just as one hits the sheets and "goes down for the night." What I hate to admit, though, is that when it comes to love in all its constructions, I bail.

When I get close to friends, and begin to feel attachment, I often disappear or foster conflict - subconsciously - to alleviate a sense of vulnerability I have, until recently, perceived as uneasiness. When I have been within reach of a relationship, I have withdrawn, held firm a sense of awkward incompetence that is completely counter to my personality, because loneliness is a condition I know well and trust in a sick sort of way. You want to fuck me up? Love me and mean it. You'll soon see that I panic and squirm, claw and howl, like a cat going into a warm flea bath.

A few years ago, I thought this had more to do with my past than my present. I thought abuse had made me wary. But that was an old, crippling view, a limitation, chains forged from my own self-doubt. Just recently, with the changing of seasons, I came to believe that my way of coping with vulnerability is simply to bail. Climbing, in just a few short months, taught me the cost of bailing, the personal critique that follows when one bails on a route or project too soon. It has taught me to approach larger issues as a shorter set of "problems," and then to work out the skills, problem by problem, necessary to tackle the larger work.

Harnessed in and on-belay, I am the most physically vulnerable I'll ever be of my own will. When I'm working my way UP, I don't think about the move before - everything is on a future trajectory. One move at a time, one problem. In a world praising the value of multi-tasking, such mono-focus may seem archaic, pedestrian. But this ability to concentrate on just the present circumstances is saving my soul at the moment, when it's all I can do to get through my apartment without snagging on some outcropping of furniture, dragging a discarded something along with my crutches, or thwapping my Boot of Doom against the kitchen trash can no matter how often I remind myself of its location.

I used to possess a modicum of grace ... now I'm just sticks and momentum.

But when I lay awake, foot propped, book in my lap, I'm completely in that moment. I'm no longer thinking of all the things I need and want to do. I don't have a ticker running at the base of my consciousness, alerting me of my responsibilities and desires. Instead, I have just the words in my lap and the sense that time has been stretched into a pliant frame. What else do I have but presence? The past belongs to history, and the future has yet to be claimed. So all there is to worry about, to shape, to defy, is the present.

Well, and myself.

I think some define climbing as reckless because the thought of being so confident in one's ability that one would climb high and away from the stability of the ground is terrifying. People will say, "I can't do that - I'm afraid of heights." But I think, really, what they mean is that they don't want to experience not a loss of control, but the full accountability to oneself. Up there by choice, secured by a knot tied with one's own hands, there's not much room for a lack of self-respect. I'm no braver on the wall than I am on the ground - it's just that my self-trust and challenges are exposed. The wall becomes a mirror to the soul, and the soul's a fierce warrior.

Sometimes I think it's easier to accept one's weaknesses than embrace one's strengths. Compliments have always made me uneasy. And today, while sitting in my chair, clacking out a new entry for P'UP, I decided that was prima facie evidence of my own limiting ideologies. I raised my own bullshit flag. In the moments after, reaching for my crutches, I decided that they were the last ones I would ever allow myself to use. I'm thinking that this injury and its recovery is a demand for a different sort of climbing - a scaling of my conscience. And to make matters worse, its a free solo.

Bailing is not an option.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


(Photo: Raymond Burr played the lead in "Ironside," a popular police drama that ran from 1967-1975).

It's been a turbulent week for P'UP. On Monday, I spent the afternoon at the health center. A painful exam and seven x-rays revealed I had a large crack in my heel bone, where it meets the tarsals. Instead of cracking the heel, as most adults do, I cracked the front portion that ends where one's arch begins. When I fell, twisting my foot, the bone cracked under pressure. The good news: I will not need an expensive surgery to pin and plate the break, as most people do. Instead, I'm to spend the next four weeks on crutches, another two in the boot, and then I get to do physical therapy. The bad news: Doc said it'll be three months before I'm walking "normally."

The worst news: Doc said he wants me to wait six months before climbing again.

Sitting in the exam room, sweating in the Boot of Doom, I teared up. He handed me a tissue, and told me we'd know more in six weeks or so, when he did another set of x-rays. "But usually," he said, "you can count on at least six months before resuming athletic activity. For now, just concentrate on everyday mobility."

My doc, a trim forty-five year-old runner, listened to me as I explained P'UP, my fitness goals, and how much I've learned so far.

"Rock climbing? At forty? Even I'm not brave enough to try that! Good for you!" he said.

"I'm just worried that my project will get derailed now. This is a huge setback for me. I was hoping to be on my first real rock trip in April. I have no idea what I'm going to write about now."

He sat down. "I know this is a setback," he said. "But it could be a lot worse. We'll get you up and climbing, it's just going to take time."

I spent a fair amount of my evening trying to figure out what I would write about, and how this setback could be framed in the larger P'UP project. I suppose, when one takes on a year-long inquiry project, one should expect to roll with the challenges and contemplate their meaning and potential. I know I said I had no idea where this project would take me and that I was willing to share my experience. However, I never anticipated it would take me to the orthopedic surgeon.

Doc said I should concentrate on the awesome upper-body workout crutches will give me, and the forearm strength I will develop. He promised that he would help me to figure out an exercise plan at our six-week appointment. And I suppose I could spend the next few weeks working on my grip - as soon as I send someone out to buy what I need to do that.

Until I was brought to this stop, I hadn't realized how active I had become. I was walking the mile to and from work each day, hitting the climbing wall 3-4 times a week, and doing yoga at home. Now, it's all I can do to take a shower, navigate my apartment, and get up and down three flights of stairs in my building each day. Getting around on crutches is difficult, cumbersome, and a general pain in the ass. And I have to rely on the kindness of others, like friends who have given me rides to work, done my grocery shopping for me, or sat at home with my daughter who just had her tonsils removed yesterday.

I went back to work today, and I'm exhausted. Even with the elevator, it's difficult to get to all the places I need to get to in that building. Just getting back and forth from my office to the central printer is a sweaty effort. One of my bosses suggested I use the wheelchair they keep in the office for just such occasions. When she did this morning, I balked. At three o'clock this afternoon, with my foot throbbing and painkillers fogging my head, I decided that perhaps I should use that chair until I got over this "breaking in" period of limitation.

I don't think I'll be able to make the wheelchair seem as sexy as Detective Ironside does ...

In the meantime, I think I'll continue working on recipes, interviews and profiles, as well as training. I'm not sure what form that training will take, but as it takes shape I'll be sure to share it. All I can say for now is this: I'm really disappointed. My climbing day in Madison was a good one, and I was feeling more and more capable at the wall. It seems as though Karma has other plans for me, however, and the journey of ascension will begin anew, from a more broken and difficult place.

I suppose it's just as important to document this part of the struggle as it is to share the "highlights." I won't blame you, dear reader, should you tire of the navel gazing and introspection. It's interesting to me that just as I reached a place of confidence, I was handed a tremendous challenge. I shouldn't be surprised. This is, after all, the way life really works.

In the weeks ahead, I'll make a point to stop in at the wall to visit with my new friends there. I'll continue doing interviews and profiles because it's the people that made the work so much fun, so inspirational. And I now have a new set of recipes: "Dinners you can cook sitting down" and "Tiny Tim Specials: God Bless Us, Everyone." Every time I set my crutches in the corner, I think of Tiny Tim, The Christmas Carol, and then ponder the power of painkillers.

I'm down, but not out. I'm not giving in - far from it. I suppose at this hour, when the ache goes deep into the bone and the heart feels a bit restless, I'm just tired. Tomorrow will be different. It may not be better, but it will be different. And I suppose that's something to look forward to - no matter what.

Monday, November 30, 2009


(PHOTO: Home sweet home with my new living room furniture - just $16 for table, chairs, ottoman, and a lamp from the Goodwill)

I didn't want anyone to think I didn't have fun in Madison. Despite my review below, I made the best of the facilities I was allowed to use. It was Brad's first climbing experience, so I didn't want to be a sourpuss about our limitations. We had a great time, though the clip-in auto-belay system (wasn't their a manufacturer's recommended recall last month???) made descents both awkward and "sticky." I was bummed about this - I wanted Brad to have the sort of experience I had my first climbs at UNL.

Christina wanted to climb, but her left ankle wasn't fully recovered. She fell last week, in a hole, during some sort of par-tay with new friends in Milwaukee. I hope she'll be able to go to my review trip to Warrenville, Illinois some time next year. Sidelined with an injury, she got stuck with the dubious honor of being our documentarian. Considering the limitations of my camera, a Canon PowerShot A720 IS, she did a good job. My camera, by the way, is out of commission. The shutter mechanism got sand in it during my summer trip to California and this morning, well, it stuck in the open position (despite my efforts to fix it). So it looks like I'll be dropping off my camera at Rockbrook this afternoon while hoping the repair won't cost more than an 8.0 mega pixel 6x zoom replacement.

At this point, I'm hoping to get a digital video camera - something beyond the Flip but not quite as pricey as the cameras I oogled at Best Buy. Not only am I becoming a gear ho, checking out climbing stuff online the way my ex surfed for porn, I'm becoming a digidweeb - hot for electronics. Checking out new climbing videos on YouTube has become a favorite hobby of mine, but that isn't saying much. I'll do just about anything to avoid reading the books on my dissertation comp list.

I'd even read stereo instructions, in Spanish mind you, and I don't habla.

Later today, I'm heading to the medical clinic for an x-ray on the sausage foot. Even after five days the thing hasn't improved, unless one considers its kaleidoscope color striations and blue toes improvement. At this point, I just want a shoe splint so I can go to work tomorrow. I've got teaching to do.

I'm bummed out, though. I already know the recovery time is going to cost me. My callouses, which were finally solid, will soften. I'll have to go through that conditioning period again. And I'm worried I'll gain weight or lose ground I worked so hard to cover at the wall. Climbing is "inherently dangerous," so I'm not complaining about the injury itself - I had a great time getting it.

Well, except that biffing part, where I fell from grace and into my face.

It looks like my next scheduled review will be of Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul, Minnesota. I'm headed to Minneapolis for the Rhetoric Society of America conference there during Memorial Day Weekend. It's a big conference and my first appearance there, so I thought I'd add to the fun by spending a day climbing. At some point, I'd like to check out the Stone Age Climbing Gym in New Mexico - and the outdoor climbing near Albuquerque.

Why the emphasis on sport climbing indoors? Well, why not? It seems that as popularity grows for both climbing and comps, and as some gyms employ a "great for parties and retreats" approach to wooing customers, reviews would be worthwhile. Also, I'm promoting healthy lifestyle development for women of all ages and sizes. I hope to contribute to others' sense of experimentation and growth - the sort of good stuff climbing provides in ways other sports/workouts can't.

But mostly, I'm having fun. I do hope to make it to the Shelf Road trip scheduled for April, but I may have to wait until the fall since I'm heading to Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and Milwaukee again in the first six months of the year. Laura's graduating in June and Christina's getting married in July. It's going to be a busy year.

That reminds me: I'm collecting green wine bottles for Christina's centerpieces at the reception. If you live nearby or will be visiting, bring me your empties (or better still, full ones and we'll empty them together). Christina and Brad are trying to put together a "green" wedding, so all of our decorations, table service, and all that which is bridal, is coming from nontraditional sources such as thrift stores. Even the caterer is a owner-operated organic food restaurant. Beans and Barley of Milwaukee will be providing the trays - and I think that's pretty cool.

The wedding and reception will be at the original PBR brewery in Milwaukee - a beautiful space rich with history. I'm hoping my friends and PBR loyals will consider making the trip. It looks like we're going to have a rockin' good time.

That's about all I've got today: X-rays, a trip to the camera store, Dad and Denise stopping in for the night on their way from Chicago to Longmont, Colo., a dinner to cook in their honor, and papers to grade. It's a good thing I got my climb on over the break - there's no telling when I get to climb again.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Boulders Climbing Gym
3964 Commercial Ave
Madison, WI 53714-1216
(608) 244-8100

Cost to Climb:
Clip in with harness $16 (without belay certification) $12 day use (without equipment rental and with belay certification), $10 late day use

Equipment Rentals: harness ($4), chalk bag ($4), shoes ($4), belay device ($4) each, or any three for $10.

RATING: Three Chalk Balls out of Five

When I was a kid, roller skating and disco melded together in an unholy alliance. In the late 1970s and early 1980s a teenager, caught in the pointless years between thirteen and driving age, could have an exciting Friday night at the local roller rink. While holding the sweaty hand of a pimply beau, skating to the Bee Gee’s “How Deep Is Your Love?” awkward romances bloomed.

Oh yeah, it was hot stuff.

When I first arrived at Boulders Climbing Gym in Madison, Wisconsin I was reminded of a 1980s roller rink in Fairfield, California. Bold colors and manufactured “street art” graffiti marked the welcome area that included a sales and registration counter, changing area with storage cubbies, restrooms, hold storage and class rooms, manager’s office and equipment sales area.

I emailed the gym last week, describing my project and concerns. I was given very little information in response to my requests, but welcomed all the same. As I prepared for the review, I couldn’t decide whether to bring my own gear or to arrive as one off the streets intrigued with climbing would. I decided on the latter, hoping to offer something to those trying to follow in my footholds.

Despite my “newb” status, I think I can offer a fair review for new and experienced climbers. Though Boulders gym has hosted the largest climbing comp in Wisconsin and hosts local comps regularly, such as the Halloween comp earlier this year (and was still selling t-shirts for both), it has an ambience that affirms a separation of clientele in ways that could limit one’s climbing experience. All the same, on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving it was far busier than I expected it to be, something that could be attributed to both the sport’s popularity as well as the gym’s support of its climbing clientele.

(PHOTO: EFR topping out her second on-sight of the day)


There were climbers of all ages when I was there, ranging in age from about five to seventy. The older clientele wasn’t limited to tie-in climbing, and one ambitious grey-haired old guy spent the hours we were there traversing the entire gym. Music choices were tame, mostly ‘70s rock. Children were well supervised for the most part, though a group of girls were left to clip in together in pairs as a frantic mom tried to keep her eye on those there for a birthday party.

Boulders Gym promotes itself as a parent-and-me climbing gym and a “great place for birthday parties.” It also supports women climbers by offering a women’s climbing club and by featuring area women climbers and supporting their comps.

But there were eight clip-in routes, and the majority of the top-climbs were for those with belay certification. I had all of those routes 'scented within an hour, all but one on-sight. Even with my "newb" status with just three months of climbing under my harness, I grew bored quickly. A boulder in the back of the gym was also reserved for those with belay certification and was stationed near a workout area with free weights, pegboards, fingerboards, and a punching bag.

Route difficulty was labeled labeled clearly, and they seemed designed to encourage climbers more than to frustrate them. There were many bouldering routes and bouldering areas - including a “problem cove” that was a busy center of activity.

For the belay certified, this gym would be a great place to spend an afternoon. As I walked the route areas and inspected the bouldering areas, I thought of my friends back in Boulder and how they would have laid waste to the place (figuratively speaking). It’s that “belay certified” thing that would, in the end, prove to be a fatal flaw in my climbing experience at Boulders, however.

(PHOTO: EFR standing on a penis)


Customer service at the gym was a bit of an oxymoron. Counter staff, despite my references to P’UP and a gym review, failed to answer basic questions. My requests for belay certification – all four of them – were met with doe-eyed stares and a repeating explanation of the auto-belay devices and how to clip into them.

The young woman at the counter took one look at me and immediately began to loosen the harness at all points. She seemed confused, and despite my assurances that I could adjust my own harness, she replied with, “I hope it’s big enough.” I thought of other women my age carrying a bit of extra weight wanting to try climbing, and then wondered if that harness moment alone would scare them off.

The Petzl rental harnesses left a lot to be desired. They did not adjust easily, and tended to cinch up in all the wrong places. My climbing partner for the day, Brad, is very thin. Together we represented the opposing ends of the fitness spectrum, but he too found the harness unreasonably uncomfortable, difficult to adjust, and too short between the waist and legs.

We both struggled with that aspect of the fit – something I don’t have to worry about at my home climbing base at the UNL Rec center. Those harnesses can be adjusted to accommodate larger people. Since the clerk made it clear she was giving me the largest harness they had, it seemed reasonable to assume it couldn’t accommodate even a fit, 225-pound football player, either. The necessary room just wasn’t there, and the strapping was unreasonably narrow.

The gym’s selection in harnesses alone could be limiting its access to possible clientele. Those seeking to explore indoor climbing to assist their fitness and weight loss goals need to buy their own harnesses in advance – something difficult to do without previous climbing experience. I’m classifying this gym as one for those considered at “normal” weight or “slightly overweight.”

The rental chalk bag was a deep IV bag, and too deep as far as I was concerned. Accessing chalk while on the rock required yoga-like stretching and coordination (both of which I have, but that’s not the point). Shallower bags were for sale, but not for rent.

Though the gym’s website and posted policies indicated all I had to do was ask to be belay certified, when I asked I was denied in the typical Midwestern way: with silence or diversion. The clerk seemed to think that clipping in was “my best option,” but each time she said that she would look me up and down. I explained that I had attended a belay certification course in Nebraska, that I climb four days a week, and belay far more experienced climbers than myself. I even reminded her three times that I was writing a review of the facilities.

Unfortunately, she just repeated herself without asking for assistance from the manager or even taking me over to the belay certification area to let me pass (or fail). I found this really interesting as a rhetoric theorist, but really frustrating as a customer. I’m sure that if I had opened a can of E.F.R. rhetorical fury, I could have had my way. However, that isn’t the point, really.

The point: Without belay certification, the climbing experience was limited to the kind a kid could get at a birthday party. Two-thirds of the gym was off-limits to me. The bouldering boulder was for only those with belay certification, as were the more exciting (and interesting to me) top-rope routes.

When I asked the final time for belay certification, I was told that Brad would have to be certified too – even though I didn’t want him to be my belay on top rope. I learned my “new guy belay” lesson last week, and had hoped to meet some Boulders regulars.

(PHOTO: Brad, my future son-in-law, on his first ascent)

All I could do was clip in, climb around, and traverse (though no one explained that option – that I learned from another customer). I wandered around the climbing areas forbidden to me, though, to note the route-setting and difficulty levels.

Overall, their top rope routes were rather short compared to those I’ve seen at the Boulder Rock Club in Boulder, Colo and those at the UNL Rec Center. Ratings were tied closer to holds than to anything else, such as hold distance and moves: The higher the rating, the smaller the holds. However, that isn’t to say routes weren’t challenging.


First of all, the customer service needs work. There weren’t staffers on the floor to assist those with belay certification who came alone. Considering how large the gym is, and how it has many nooks, it seemed reasonable to expect some assistance/observation by staff. Also, the price is a bit steep considering a day-pass at Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul runs a chill $13, just a nickel more than a Stone Age Gym pass in Albuquerque, NM. Though Vertical Endeavors in Warrenville, IL will set you back $15, it makes up for the cost with amenities Boulders Climbing Gym doesn't have, like locker rooms and showers. All three of the cheaper alternatives, by the way, have significantly larger climbing surfaces and square footage.

Within the bouldering area, it seemed that there wasn’t enough space between the wall and the ledge of the entry. If you fell, you had few places to go. Though the climbing arena was outfitted with exceptionally deep foam flooring, even that was problematic at the steps leading to it. The riser distance between the step and the foam floor was taller than expected, and the floor gave a good inch.

(PHOTO: It turns out this is what a left calcaneal fracture looks like)

It was this design flaw that ended my climbing time at the gym. While stepping down from the step to the foam, I fell, and suffered a calcaneal fracture of my left foot. Though I face-planted within sight of the staff, no one came to my assistance or to protect the interest of the gym. I suppose this has something to do with the contract one signs in order to climb, the one that says, “Climbing is inherently dangerous.” That may be true, but steps within the facility should at least be to standard construction code. I find it hilarious that I climbed for nearly two hours without incident, but biffed trying to get a sip of water. I had hoped to traverse so I could get my $16 worth, but in the end just hobbled to the car, grinning.

(PHOTO: Have I mentioned how much I love climbing?)

Just as well, really. I think Christina was bored out of her mind. Don’t get me wrong: Despite “the good, the bad, and the ugly” I had a good day of climbing, probably my best. I reached the top of all but one route (one with a freakin’ crag). I knew the skills I had gained at my home gym were paying off, and I was confident in my climbing. I made the best of it, but there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t feel as though I should have brought my own harness and just give up on the review.

I’d still recommend the Boulders Climbing Gym to anyone with some time to spend in Madison, Wisc., but I wouldn’t make a special trip from out of state to go there. I wouldn’t bother with a trip from Milwaukee, either. There are a couple of gyms in the Milwaukee metro area that can deliver at least what Boulders offers. And hey, Vertical Endeavors in Warrenville (Chicago metro) is just about as close to Milwaukee as Boulders is.

But you know, I’m sure Boulders is a great place to throw a birthday party.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


(PHOTO: The right end of a banner by Pablo Piccasso, "Guernica" 1937)

Well, it finally happened. While climbing Sunday afternoon, I asked a fellow climber, Zach The New Guy (our climbing community has a lot of Zachs in it), for a belay. He's been climbing a bit longer than myself, always shows up with his buddy, Dave, and seemed to know what he was doing. I was projecting the "Cold Hands" route, a 5.7 masterpiece in the corner of our wall, requiring stemming, smearing, and all kinds of nouns turned into verbs.

The route begins in an alcove, and one must learn to use the features on and off the wall, including a nice little foot hold chipped out of the brick - the fringe of our wall's construction. I've worked really hard to get out from under the alcove, reach above it, and begin that corner ascent. When I left the house today, I had high hopes of completing this route and adding it to my "Notches in My Harness" list.

But Karma is a cruel mistress and Fate a miserable thing. My success was not to be. I blame a few things: 1) I had skipped lunch inadvertently, while working on student papers; 2) I came to the route cold, without doing the now boring 5.6 warm-up; and 3) An overall sense of my head not being in "the game."

Even as I began my ascent, having gained a sense of the rhythm required for the first five moves (I tend to think of climbing as a vertical dance - each route has a beat of its own), I was on autopilot. That was my first mistake. I was thinking about the paper I have to write for the graduate theory course I'm taking, about Fredrich Hegel, Nietzsche, and Jacques Derrida. Philosopher kings held royal court in my mind, and I knew I was in trouble when I instinctively used my hip to smear, to gain any sort of leverage I could.

Both hands in a nice bucket of a hold, hip wedged against the lip of the alcove, and reaching for the next hold, I couldn't do it. Not a huge deal to jump from a foot above the bouldering line, but to sort of plummet without purpose kinda sucks. The trouble was, my belay hadn't taken up the requisite slack. The rope was loose and though he tried to spare me the inevitable, I hit the mat hard - really hard. And fast.

Don't hate the new guy: I should have told him to take in the slack, and I would have had my head been on straight.

Fortunately, I hit the ground feet first before falling back on my butt. Unfortunately, I bounced a good three times creating a marvelous cloud of chalk in my wake. If it hadn't been so damn funny to me, the bouncing, the cloud, the fact I had skidded to a stop on my butt in front of a bunch of people who were looking on, slack-jawed, I would have been scared out of my mind. A quick ass-essment let me know I hadn't broken anything but my pride. Even as Zach The New Guy rushed up to apologize, even as he felt the first pangs of responsibility, I howled with laughter.

I don't think, in retrospect, that my laughter was maniacal ... but it could have been.

Not many can drop E.F.R. on her ass and live to tell about it. So I'll consider Zach's current lively state as proof I have a charitable heart. All the same, my back and neck are killing me now. I held office hours at the Coffee House, then I took a hot shower when I got home. I iced my lower back before putting on the heat. I can already feel the stiffness settling in, and this makes me nervous.

I'm leaving for Wisconsin in a couple of days, and have scheduled a climbing day at Madison's Boulders Gym. The plan: Climb as much as I can and review the facilities for P'UP. Boulders has 8,000 square feet of simulated rock routes and I'm eager to see them. I want to see how I fare at a place outside of the Rec, and put my limited skill to the test.

But if I've jacked my back, that plan could go up in anti-inflammatory gel caplets. I have no choice but to take-er-easy until then.

I'm really bummed out. Not only did the climbing day suck for me (the rest of the day was shot - I couldn't shake the fall), I didn't get to project the 5.8. I've been making great progress with that route, even as it demands so much grunting and power-thrust happiness. I'm training hard because I have a goal: I want to go on an April trip to Shelf Road in Colorado. I want to go, even though I know I'm going to have to work on that whole peeing outside business.

I did learn some important lessons today. I'll stick to my trusted belays for now, won't climb unless I'm totally focused, and I will make sure I've eaten so I don't feel so sacked. Rookie mistakes, all, but mine all the same.

But hey, that's what I am. And a good fall had to happen eventually. I guess it's a good thing my first solid fall was at the gym, and that my coping strategy for fear is laughter. That's kinda cool, really. I guess it's my inner self demanding of the universe, "Bring it on, wha-ha-ha-ha!"

Or, I've lost my mind. Too early to tell.


If I had to describe how climbing makes me feel, I couldn't do so without music. As I finish up my work for the day and head off to the climbing wall, I often hear Aretha Franklin. I know this isn't normal, but thankfully there isn't a cure. Everything I have come to feel about climbing is reflected in her song, "Natural Woman."

"When my soul was in the lost and found, you came along to claim it," pretty much sums it up. And now that I have such a feeling of intense love and respect for something I do, I pity the next love interest who comes along. A man, it seems, will have to at the very least, make me feel as good about him as I do climbing.

Yeah, I know it's a tall order. And yes, it may even be ridiculous, all things considered. That being said, I think it's good to (finally) have standards. I want a man in my life who can challenge me, present opportunities to reach beyond my own limits, and be there to celebrate with me my achievements. And I want someone who will welcome the opportunity for me to do the same for him. I've been told far too often that I'm "intimidating." Now that I've been investing in climbing, and the climbing community has been investing in me, I'm thinking my personality might be a 5.11 - intimidating, but totally worth the struggle.

Before climbing, I always thought of myself as a self-sufficient woman. And that may have been true, but I wasn't a self-loving woman. Climbing has helped me to see my body as more than a container. It's a miracle, really. Having any part of my physique firm up at forty seems like a Biblical sort of thing, like Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments or Jesus hosting a fish and bread potluck for the multitudes. It's as if climbing helped me to "get sanctified," to find something outside of myself that hones and perfects what's inside.

"We're all sensitive people, with so much to give" as Marvin Gaye sings. Understand me, Sugar, this is prophetic shizznit.

If you climb, then you know what I'm talkin' about. I'm not even good yet. I have yet to climb real rock. And yet ... here I am, feeling as if I'm about to burst. And I can't decide if it's climbing that has done this directly, or if it has simply helped me to bring out all the best parts of myself I'd been hiding away. I suppose, really, it doesn't matter.

What does matter, I think, is that I have found a way to experience love, real love. I walk with pep in my step, and I smile far more often than I frown. I've come to appreciate people in new ways, their vulnerability and imperfections. And I've come to appreciate myself, my clown nature and alleged immaturity, as a facet of my passion for life. No other sport has opened so many doors into my soul, and I'm no longer thinking of myself as a dated artifact. I'm alive, dammit. Let the archeologists have my bones another day. For now, I choose to fully live and love.

You don't have to hold on so tight to your construction of self that you become permanently affixed to a perspective or position. Climbing has helped me to value the fall, and this reminds me of a song by South:

Feed me something
We'll go back to the start
Take pride of place
Understand our reasons
A photograph taken at the time when
Confidence won't up and leave

So loosen your hold
Though you might be frightened
Release or be caught
If this be the right thing
Unable by thought
To look what the tide brings in
Look what the tide brings in

Feed me something
We'll go back to the start
Take pride of place
Understand our reasons
A photograph taken at the time when
Confidence won't up and leave

So loosen your hold
Though you might be frightened
Release or be caught
If this be the right thing
Unable by thought
To look what the tide brings in
Look what the tide brings in

So loosen your hold
Though you might be frightened
Release or be caught
If this be the right thing
Unable by thought
To look what the tide brings in

Climbing feeds me something, makes me feel found, and man, all I can say is, "Let's get it on." Get on that rock. Get on that route. Climb up with all you've got. You'll meet yourself there, a self you never knew before.

Friday, November 20, 2009


It's been a great two weeks for P'UP. Not only have I started projecting a 5.8 Steph Laudenklos (profiled here) named, "Erica's Song," I have had the pleasure of sharing my enthusiasm for climbing with several of my students.

Tana and Rachel, both students in my "Writing and Communities" course, took up my open invitation to try climbing. I didn't have my camera with me when Tana, a former gymnast, got her climb on. She ascended four routes wearing tennis shoes, and despite the struggle, found herself in love with the sport. She got her certification and is now a regular at the wall. Rachel came to the wall just this Tuesday.

Rachel, a former HS athlete and power-lifter, showed up this week to give climbing a try. Nervous and edgy, she faced down some old fears.

"When I was a kid," she said, "my sisters could climb trees and I was too scared. I can't believe I'm doing this."

As Josh tied her in, she beamed with both fear and intrigue.

"I don't know if I can do this," she said.

"Honey, if I can, you can," I replied.

Rachel blazed a rainbow path up the wall, as Josh offered beta to keep her going. At times, she claimed, "I can't do this," and we replied, "Yes you can!" (Oh, who knew Obama would become a prophet?)

As she ascended, and with just a third of the route left, her arms and hands began to shake. "I can't do it!" she wailed.

"Just sit back and take a rest," Josh suggested. "Shake out your arms for a minute."

After a thirty-seconds of shaking out her arms and self-empowerment, she took on the rest of that wall. She hit that last hold and touched the bar above the route.

Victorious and in disbelief, she came on down. As Josh untied the danish with cheese, Rachel beamed. Her energy and self-respect resonated.

"I can't believe it!" she said, grinning. "That was hard!" she said with a big smile.

As we talked afterward, she looked down at her hands.

"You know," she said, "when I was power-lifting, I thought callouses were the coolest thing for a girl to have."

She seemed to be seeing a forgotten self as she looked to her palms. I smiled.

"This is so awesome."

"Yeah, you did a great job. Are you coming back?"

"Oh yeah!"

Just last night, two of my freshmen students, Travis and Bill, showed up to climb. Travis had a tough time of it, but he's coming back. Bill, a student returning home to Delaware at the end of this semester to attend a university there, won't be. However, he thinks he may have to take up climbing at home, on his beloved East Coast.

After the young men had climbed around and discovered it was harder than it looked, they too were smiling. As they took off their harnesses and rushed to get back to a study group, they too seemed to vibrate with excitement.

"You coming back, Travis?" I asked, smiling.


In the past couple of weeks, I've seen how enthusiasm is contagious. I've watched young women who had forgotten or set aside their athletic lives, reconnect with a part of themselves. I've watched young men learn that there's something valuable about the process, the struggle, climbing represents. This process reflects my teaching of process as a pedagogical tool. What I valued most, I think, in the moments I spent with students, is the ability to point to a tangible, physical process and explain how it replicates or affirms the intellectual process I've been trying to help them to understand all semester.

It was beautiful to me, that connection between the mental and the physical. I think that's what keeps me coming back to the wall, too.

As I project the 5.8 (made it past the bouldering line last night), and negotiate stemming on that projected "Cold Hands" 5.7, I'm learning to respect my body in new ways. I'm not as weak or awkward as I once believed. I'm getting stronger. I'm beginning to understand my potential as a human being.

My love for climbing is infectious, I believe, and helping others to catch the virus has become an example of prophetic love. I am a teacher of self-appreciation, of self-centered exploration with community-wide implications. Climbing is helping me to name all of the methods I use in the classroom, and those methods are bleeding into the work I do at the wall. Someday, I hope to be a climbing writer, the sort who takes off all summer to write of rock and daydreaming, of the earth and humanity.

Until then, I'll keep training at the rec, sharing all of myself I can, and marveling at this truth: Sharing your enthusiasm and self-confidence helps others to do the same. It draws them out of themselves and back in again, as they reconnect with parts of their soul they thought they had lost. It's the best kind of inquiry, and it's beautiful to watch.

If I were to send you, dear reader, a postcard it would read, "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here."

But I'd really mean it. Some things you have to see for yourself. And man, you should see the human beauty I'm seeing at the wall every day.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Hanging out with the climbing gang, I've noticed there's a somewhat substantial sector of the climbing population that has developed alternative cleanliness standards. Some have become a bit "squiggly about the edges," emitting an earthy pungency while wearing clothes that are, admittedly, routinely hung on their bedroom floors. The most enthusiastic climbers I've met have hairstyles that have a perfect balance of the unruly nonconformist and unwashed.

I call their big, curly, greasy, floppy, or stringy coiffed mops, "Neanderthal chic."

At first, I thought these practices reflected a ethnographical connection between the land and the (wo)man. You know, the closure one gets to nature, the more natural one becomes. I attributed this earthy mystique to nature itself, to the love of rock and scenery one must certainly develop while ascending to great heights.

But in my humble two months of climbing, I've discovered it's far more practical than that. Always looking for theories, I missed the practices.

I, too, get a bit squiggly, and it has nothing to do with the great outdoors. I'm not making a political statement, or imagining a life free from chemical interventions, like deodorant. Though it's true that I'm becoming more lax in my shower schedule and more tolerant of undone dishes, my motives have nothing to do with saving the earth.

I just don't want to get my hands wet.

Cleanliness may bring one closer to Godliness, but washing dishes and showering every day make the callouses on my hands far too tender. They rip open, give way, while projecting routes. I've had several days in the last two weeks when my hands hurt so badly, I had to stop climbing far earlier in the night than I expected. In fact, I'm rather disappointed in my milquetoast hands at the moment. I'm trying to toughen them up.

As a blossoming wall weasel I'm discovering, to my horror, that all the rhetoric surrounding women's hands as soft, as worthy of protection and in need of a fantastic moisturizer to keep them looking youthful, is a bunch of crap. If I want to climb the way my heart wants to, I'm going to have to give up my insecurities about age and agelessness. Shit.

And like other climbers I know, while contemplating an evening out, I've stood before the shower stall and weighed the need to be clean with the need to climb later. "If I wash up now, my hands are going to be hamburger later," I think. Nobody bothered to tell me that becoming a climber could mean becoming a proponent of the "whore's bath" - and I'm amused by this secret bond we share.

Today, for example, is a climbing day for me. It's morning, and I should be embarking on my toilette routine. Instead, I'm sitting here, weighing the benefits of squeaky clean v. protecting my callouses. "Screw it, I'll shower after I climb" has become a mantra of mine, and when the goal is to climb every day I wonder if I'll ever find time to shower at all.

Though one must certainly take great care of one's grundle and/or bandt, and women certainly must avoid the Pike's Place Fish Market complex, climbing and bathing present an awkward paradox all the same.

Before climbing, I was a home spa girl. I loved shower gels and lotions, back scrubbers and anything that made me feel pampered. Now that I've been flailing about on the wall, however, I'm looking at all the products in my shower caddy and considering them obstacles to my overall goals. My bottle of sandalwood rose shower gel is no longer decadent. It's a lure to tender skin failure. Bath and Body Works, my once happy place, is the devil's workshop.

So what's a girl like me to do?

Well, I'm going to shower this morning but only because I stink. But I know as soon as I get on the wall today, I'll regret it. This seems to be the daily dilemma, and today's no different. While I'm harnessed in and working on that overhang 5.7 later today, I'll admire the Neanderthal chic, their swagger and calloused attitudes toward bathing and hope that someday, I'll be like them.

Friday, November 13, 2009


You know, I'm not just a climbing novice.

But I've got big news: The Split This Rock Poetry Festival has invited yours truly to present a panel with colleagues. The festival is in Washington, D.C. and it looks like it's going to be a smashing good time. Split This Rock is, at its heart, an anti-war event aimed at reclaiming language and our collective potential. Poets from all over the country come to this festival that is a mixture between an academic conference (with workshops and presenters) and a public protest (such as the march to Lafayette Park across from the White House).

The organization is supported by grants, and this year it will be filming a documentary about the festival itself. For now, you can see videos on YouTube, such as this one:

For the 2010 Split This Rock Festival, I will be presenting with Madeline Wiseman and Aimee Adellard titled, "Fatty Girls, Imaginary Cocks, and Vaginas Built Like Bookstores: A Workshop on Writing the Activist Body." We're thinking the title alone got us into the festival, but we're planning on helping other poets who want to take their interior poetic lives into the public in hopes of affecting social change.

In this sense, I'm taking on work people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg sponsored during Vietnam, and did in the later years of their careers, long after the Beats were considered history. I've been thinking about this more and more as I consider the curricula goals for my section of the workshop, as well as how this speaking out and up work will fortify me as a writer, poet, and climber.

I've also been thinking about how sacred Lafayette Park is as a site for democratic activity. It is the ground in Washington where activists of all sorts demonstrate, and where, I'm sure, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI gather photographs and documentation of those who show up to exercise their First Amendment rights.

But I've been thinking about Ferlinghetti's book, Poetry As Insurgent Art, and these lines in particular:

"The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it."

"Words can save you where guns can't."

It's not that I've always been a peace activist, or even a poet. It's not that I've always picked up my democratic responsibilities as a citizen of the United States. It's not even that I've always believed in the power and reach of my own words. I've never been to the East Coast. I've never been to Washington. It has always been a mythical place, something I've seen on television and wondered if it existed at all. I'm just a woman learning to live, write, and climb and seeing where that takes her.

The airline ticket alone is going to be around $350. The hotel rates are staggering, even if William Shatner asks on Priceline.com, "Who's ready to take a ride on the deal stallion?" Democracy, it seems, will come at a cost - as it always must, I suppose.

So for the next few months I'm going to enter every poetry contest offering a kitty I can. I'm going to have to step-up my efforts at fundraising, and I'm thinking about a bake sale (however quirky it may seem). This may become an "E.F.R. Goes to Washington" sort of thing, and I'll admit this: I've thought of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington more than once since receiving my invitation to the festival.

I'm pretty sure Jimmy Stewart didn't go there to yell, "Vagina!" at people, but still ...

As a poet, this is a pretty big deal. I'm taking my work far from Nebraska, way out into the public sphere, and doing that work in a very respected poetry festival among celebrated poets. And I'm thinking of women and men who have gone before me, of those people I respect who have taken the risk to say out loud what their soul needed to say. I'm humbled and excited, intimidated and encouraged.

Performance poetry, embodying the activist poet, teaching others to let the words seep into their bones and perform instead of recite a poem ... all of this is spinning in my head as I write today. Or as Peter Gabriel sings: "Ill be a big noise with all the big boys ..." (Seriously, watch this old video ... it so fits my story!)

As exciting as this new challenge is, you have to know that I'm already trying to figure out how to find climbing opportunities in the D.C. metro area. I'm looking at Earth Trek's facility in Rockville, MD (a quick train ride from D.C.), and SportRock in Alexandria, VA. The latter is in the middle of a remodeling project to make it more competitive with Earth Trek's gyms, so I'm thinking I should check both of them out in order to write a fair and balanced review.

I love this justification, of course, because that gives me license to monkey about in the name of P'UP.

I'm thinking too about the ways in which climbing is shaping my approach to writing and public performance of that writing. I don't know if I'll get the chance to climb in D.C. or not, but I do know that when I take the stage or give my workshop, all I've learned through climbing about patience, personal achievement, and moxie will be with me. I'm thinking, too, that I might shoot a documentary myself ... more on that later.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


(PHOTO: New computer cam tries to capture my Cheshire Grin. Unfortunately, bad cake had paralyzed my mouth).

I had hoped to post a new recipe for a whole-wheat apple spice cake today.

Unfortunately, my first attempt is now a brick of healthy fodder on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator. It looks good, but something went awry in the preparation.

Maybe I’ve created a muffin recipe – a stay-with-you-all-day muffin. Maybe, well, maybe one shouldn’t try to use all whole-wheat flour instead of a flour blend. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear to me now that I’m no “Ace of Cakes.”

All I know is that a cake isn’t supposed to remind you of bran flakes, or roll on your tongue like Ready-Mix in a cement mixer. Cake isn’t supposed to dehydrate your face.

I may have just invented a cure for acne. On my second bite, when my mouth went bong-dry, I felt a pull from deep within my pores. I’ve had a glass of milk and two glasses of water since my first 2 by 2 inch square of apple spice disaster.

Drinking that much liquid after a piece of this epicurean experiment was like pulling the rip-cord on a life raft.

Despite this culinary misdeed, I’ve had an awesome day. I met Ryann and Schnook at the wall this afternoon, and enjoyed a couple of good hours of climbing and belaying. I knew it was time to quit while ascending my last climb of the day, when I forgot I had feet. It was as if I were dragging myself up the wall, sort of like when a dog hustles her hindquarters across shag carpet.

It wasn’t pretty.

A good fifteen feet after the bouldering line, my feet flailed about like flags flapping in the breeze. I looked down to Ryann, and yelled just one word:


We packed up and headed for our bikes. It was a delicious fall evening, crackling with excitement as Husker Nation scurried about campus in preparation for the showdown with Oklahoma. It was dark out, and I realized then that I had forgotten my halogen lamps. Stupid Daylight Savings time.

Riding hard, passing football fans and drunk idiots, I welcomed the chilled November night into my lungs. Two weeks ago I began the “step-down” smoking cessation program my doctor recommended. I can already feel a difference in my body and my mind. Even so, habitual self-destruction is harder to give up than one might think.

Addiction, even to something as pedestrian as nicotine, shapes and distorts who you are. It's difficult to imagine you and your life without it. It's difficult to admit you're entitled to good things, like love, or life. It's even more challenging to face down your inadequacies and self-destructive nature in a public sphere, with your life "Out There" for anyone to see.

P'UP, though, isn't some narcissistic endeavor. It is not so much a projector of my life as it is a microscope. Even the small things, stuff that doesn't seem related to climbing at all, is beneath the scope of the project. So here I am, thinking about all the years I wasted five minutes at a time, smoking to calm the uncertain beast that is, when matching my feet and plotting my approach, humbled and silent.

All my disappointments, the hurt, all those times I didn't get what I needed ... they all get left on the ground, stamped out and discarded, like a cigarette. I love that. So two weeks in to the new cessation program I’m making progress. Nov. 30 is the “no butts, baby, it’s-all-over-but-the-cryin’ deadline.

But it ain’t gonna be a walk in the park, and it definitely won’t be a piece of cake. Thank God.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Some say she's awesome, others simply state the obvious: "Steph is a badass." Though both distinctions are accurate, this UNL Climbing Club President is dedicated to her work as a climber and a community representative.

Laudenklos has an infectious enthusiasm for the sport she came to in January of 2008. Her background as a high school pole vaulter and hurdler only helped her to make the best of her climbing passion. She attributes her foray into the sport to "the boy of the time," but it's clear she comes to it on her own terms.

With climbing, for Laudenklos, it was love "on-sight."

Thirteen years of dance, 8 years of gymnastics, and her recent work in yoga have honed her into an aggressive yet graceful climber. Watching her ascents at the wall or on the rock, one comes to understand the true meaning of "grace under pressure." She's intuitive and calculating in her route assessments, yet delightfully sensible and logical in her approach. She never flails, wails, or bails with even a hint of self-incrimination. For Laudenklos, it's the quiet and focused challenge of pursuing her personal best that makes climbing both a challenge and an affirmation of what she values most in life: Her faith, the people climbing has brought to her life, and fun.

One shouldn't, however, confuse this fun, friendly, and God-lovin' graceful rock chick for a softy. Her competitive nature and natural gift in the sport have made her, in less than two years, a formidable foe on the Plains climbing circuits. Laudenklos won two climbing comps her first year in the sport, the UNO Bouldering Intermediate division in 2008, and the Climb Iowa bouldering Advanced division 2008. Just this year she placed 2nd at the UNL Sport Climbing Comp Advanced Division 2009.

The 21 year-old UNL senior has maintained a grueling academic schedule while working at a local veterinary clinic. In October, she submitted her applications to veterinary programs across the country. Her aspiration to become a veterinarian has put her in a very competitive professional school arena this fall. But deep down, this Columbus, Nebraska native wouldn't have it any other way. It's the challenges in life that keep her going.

Despite the pressure of school and working a serious job, Laudenklos has come into her own as a climber. To her, climbing is a mental and spiritual manifestation of deeply held personal beliefs because to climb is to also meditate, to focus, one the best parts of self and God.

Steph Laudenklos at Penitente Canyon, Colorado.
(Photographer: Doug Lintz)

"Just being outdoors in general is an ultimate connection with God and His creation," Laudenklos said, "So climbing gives me that opportunity to get out and worship in that way."

Laudenklos cites the "very liberal and karma-believing" nature of her climbing community as yet another influence in her overall faith. Though the multi-faceted spiritual and religious views of others make what Laudenklos terms, "evangelizing" difficult, the diversity only affirms her belief in both God and her ability to be a good listener to others embarking on spiritual journeys of their own.

"I have been amazed at how many people I have met through climbing that feel comfortable talking to me about their spiritual struggles because they know how strong my faith is," Laudenklos said, "So in a way it's given me yet another way to be close to God through His two greater creations: mankind and nature."

But man and God aren't her only inspirations. Laudenklos, when asked about her climbing heroes, nearly swooned when she mentioned Internationally renowned climber Steph Davis (click: High Infatuation). In Davis, Laudenklos said she sees "a bit of herself" and hopes to someday match Davis' contributions to the sport.

Serious and silly, kind and competitive, Laudenklos seems to be poised to pursue this goal. Though she waits now with a bit of nail-biting for veterinary program admission letters, her uncertainty is assuaged by her steadfast commitment to climbing as "a life-long sport." It's in this commitment that she continues to inspire other women climbers at UNL, including the out-of-shape newbies such as myself.

Laudenklos said she fantasizes about climbing in Spain someday, and hopes to deep-water solo in Mallorca like those featured in the film, Perfecto:

With a smile, Laudenklos thinks of this dream with her signature move: unflinching honesty and sensibility.

"I really want to boulder around in my swimsuit," she said.

Fair enough. No matter where her veterinary studies take her, it seems climbing will continue to be the glue that holds this young, inspiring climber together. Keep an eye out for this rising talent. She's going to be rockin' the climbing world for years to come.