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.