Monday, April 26, 2010


(PHOTO: My homemade naan on a Sunday afternoon)

Apart from developing what Professor Emeritus John Ikerd terms, “a new food ethic,” and continuing my work to engage with the Slow Food movement, I’ve been thinking of my kitchen in a whole new way.

I’m thinking my kitchen could become my personal apothecary.

Until P'UP, I was sort of an automatron eater. Everything was on autopilot, and I didn't give food much thought beyond its caloric consequences. But now, I'm turning a keen eye to my own sense of science and satisfaction. Of course my lay science is no match for those professionals in the food industry, people who use chemistry to find the “bliss point” in the foods offered to the American market (and later the global market). This “bliss point,” David Kessler asserts as a researcher and the former head of the FDA, is an issue of addiction as serious as those associated with tobacco.

It was Kessler who helped to expose the chemical constructions and additions to tobacco products that made them, quite literally, irresistible to the brain. Kessler claims that ready-made foods, snacks, and cereals are chemically designed to trigger responses in consumers’ brains, tapping their reward centers while at the same time leaving them craving more.

In his latest book, The End of Overeating (2009), Kessler explores the ways chemistry influences consumption, and the food industry’s perfect culinary cocktail of “fat, sugar, and salt” that keeps people hungering for more.

“As more sugar is added,” Kessler notes, “food becomes more pleasurable until we reach the bliss point, after which it becomes to sweet and the pleasure drops off.” Kessler claims the same is true of fat and salt, and that the “optimal combination” food actually increases appetite instead of suppressing it by falling short of this natural indicator of appetite/taste satisfaction.

In his research with others at Yale University, Kessler discovered that overweight and obese people have significantly higher response activity in the reward centers of their brains. Certain combinations of sugar, fat, and salt can increase the amount of neurotransmitters in the pleasure centers of the brain. Kessler asserts that some foods are chemically engineered to fall just short of the “bliss point” that leads to satisfaction in order to keep consumers dissatisfied, craving and eating more.

Kessler, a lawyer and professor of pediatrics, epidemiology, and biostatistics, has a reputation as a whistle-blower. His work at the Food & Drug Administration (1990-97), and his tenure at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine involved outing practices and products that violated ethical and legal codes in society at large as well as industry. In 2007 he was dismissed from his post as dean and vice-chancellor for revealing that the dean’s office was operating in a perpetual deficit and would continue to do so. Eventually, UCSF had to publicly acknowledge that Kessler’s claims were indeed correct.

The guy seems to have the moxie to take on powerful institutions on both sides of the public and private enterprise divide, so I found myself captivated by his claims about overeating, the “bliss point,” and his research surrounding neurotransmission.

Because I’m working on a new food ethic that helps me to disconnect from corporate practices that are stripping the planet of natural resources and exploiting human lives for material gain, I decided that perhaps I had the power to do my own chemistry experiments in the kitchen. After slogging through nutrition books written by nutritionists and doctors, thumbing through health magazine articles about learning to substitute low-nutrition ingredients for high-nutrition ones, and after working with Weight Watchers premises, I feel I can testify to the following simple advice. To help rewire your taste buds (and perhaps your brain) to reach its “bliss point” in healthier ways while letting go of the salt, fat, and sugar addiction, I recommend:

1. Using vinegars (particularly rice wine vinegar) and lemon juice and soy sauce in place of or with a reduced amount of salt
2. Using natural sources like honey, coconut milk, fruit (fresh or dried), or raw sugar in place of sweeteners, processed sugars, and corn syrup
3. Increase the dietary fiber of your meals to help you feel full and to keep your body (and brain) satisfied
4. Use plant-based oils (olive, safflower, grape seed, peanut, sesame) instead of canola or corn oils, hydrogenated margarine, or butter because they contribute a flavor to foods that will naturally increase the pleasure of eating
5. Increase the spice complexity and potency of the foods you eat, including adding peppers and chiles because of the health benefits they bring to your circulatory system and metabolism

It’s not rocket science (okay, maybe it’s a little like rock science). What I’ve discovered is that many cuisines from other parts of the world, particularly the Far East, help you to make this transition. Indian and Thai recipes have helped me to rethink my own palette and to move from an overall dissatisfaction with healthier eating to a sense of profound satisfaction with it. Drawing from books such as The Healthy Low-Fat Indian Cookbook by Shehzad Husain and Manisha Kanani, Edward Espe Brown’s Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings, and the gazillion Weight Watchers recipes offered online, I’ve come to a whole new level of epicurean experimentation.

(PHOTO: My homemade naan, raita, aloo potatoes, and shrimp balti)

There are spices in my cupboard that were, until recently, unfamiliar to me: cardamom pods, curry leaves, garam masala, fenugreek, black mustard, saffron, tamarind, and turmeric. I’ve got fresh ginger bulbs and garlic heads in a big bowl in my refrigerator. I’ve learned to make a tart, satisfying cheese from plain yogurt. I can now taste the difference between different types of chiles to understand what each could or would bring to a recipe. Before this experiment, I always just tasted the heat. I’m no longer buying salad dressings – I just make my own. And my refrigerator is becoming cold storage for my low-cost, high-taste experiments instead of a showcase for ready-made engineered foods.

In the process, I’ve learned which spices aid in digestion, promote regularity, or minimize gas. I’ve learned which spices turn up the heat in the body’s metabolic furnace, and which foods help the body to feel/sense an adequate source of potential energy. Not every recipe has been a success, but the ones that have worked well have been amazing (like those featured in the photographs here). I hope you'll consider taking on some experiments of your own, that you too will find a new food ethic that will connect you to yourself and those who help you bring your food to the table. But don't get carried away. This should never be work. As Edward Espe Brown directs, just "please enjoy your food." You know, really live instead of cruising on autopilot.

Monday, April 12, 2010

(Dis)Shelved: Part I

(PHOTO: The view from camp)

“You’re going to catch a colder.”Jonathan Safran Foer

First night:

Ten hours on the road later, I was freezing my ass off in a tent on the cusp of a limestone cliff. I had already taken a photo of the ridge across the canyon - the one that looks like it has a stone penis tip. I had already eaten a great meal, drank a few good bears, and pitched a tent with help from new friends. I had already questioned my sanity for taking on such an endeavor with so little camping experience.

I had already lost my pants.

But not in a good way.

Headlamp beaming from my forehead, I rifled through my bag, trying to find my base layers. I was shaking, laughing, and feeling as if it were going to be a long, long night. I had definitely caught a colder.

Eventually, after some not-so-minor acrobatics, I had two pairs of pants on, a hat on my head, gloves on my hands, and a cozy mummy bag zipped up around me. As I laid my head down on a tiny travel pillow, as I watched the tent walls breathe in and out with the chilled night air, I asked myself, “What in the hell am I doing here?”

And just as I dozed off, I heard a voice.


I faded into a deep mountain sleep, and forgot all about my valley worries.

(Dis)Shelved: Part II

As I reached my group of friends at the North Bank, every muscle in my body ached. My head, though, was giving me the most trouble. Having already experienced so much just in the journey to that moment, I was unable to sift through my thoughts in order to make room for new things. Tyler was wearing one of my Rheterica t-shirts, and announced that it was well received among the gang. Janice and Lizz were ready to get their climb on. And there I was, suffering from mind melt.

(PHOTO: My first outdoor climb: "Focus and go up" by Janice)

I couldn’t get my act together. I tried. So I approached my first climb already knowing my head wasn’t there with me – I had left it somewhere on the hike. So I wasn’t able to process the encouragement, to let love fill me, or to even channel it to help me ascend. I climbed my first on-rock route feeling as if I were outside of my own body. As I reached a difficult crux, I knew I was in trouble. It’s not smart to climb when your head isn’t in the present moment – it’s just not safe. So I cut my losses, part of me feeling as if I had failed, part of me clinging to the victory of getting on the rock at all.

(PHOTO: Lizz celebrating her 30th by topping out a lead)

But I was full, of life, of love, of hope. Full with comfortable quiet, I watched and listened. I wrote more poetry vandalism on the walls of my heart – bold, declarative, and in my own colors. I didn’t need to climb today, I thought. I didn’t need anything except Whitman, maybe.

There was never any more inception than there is now, 

Nor any more youth or age than there is now, 

And will never be any more perfection than there is now, 

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now

A long time ago, when I worked for a church, I learned two things that have stuck with me since. The first is the concept of the “prayer closet” – your own private space in which to experience spiritual connections and pray. The second, was a lesson about the baptism of the heart itself, when once is washed clean not by the water offered up in iconic representations of baptismal religious practice, but by Grace itself.

(PHOTO: Amy, relaxing at North Wall)

(PHOTO: Eli in "over ...oh-oh-oh-overdrive")

Sitting among my friends, I felt awash in both grace and love. Withdrawn in my silence, I was resting in my own prayer closet. I realized, while sitting down after handing over my first climb in gratitude, that I had somehow found my path. Buddhist writer and activist Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this kind of power, this connection to spirit and Self in his book, The Art of Power (2007):

If you have some experience that this path leads in a good direction, you will have faith in your path. You are very happy that you have a path, and thus you being to have power. This power will not destroy you or the people around you. In fact, it gives you strength and energy that other people can feel. When you have faith, your eyes are bright and your steps are confident. This is power. You can generate this kind of power every moment of your daily life. It will bring you a lot of happiness (16).

(PHOTO: Ron, doing a "sweet belay" for Tommy and Tyler, soaking up the day)

Just the night before, my friend Dana Marie had told me that she had noticed what she termed a transformation. “When I met you, you were so nervous, so timid. Now I see you and it’s like you’ve changed everything. It’s really cool to see you so happy, so bright and alive.”

We were walking a path back from the outhouse, and I was smoking my last cigarette. And I knew it was my last one because I had found my path. In just a few hours at Shelf Road, I had come to see that I wanted to spend the rest of my life loving and being among my friends, and that smoking was going to separate me from them, from my family. Just the thought of losing those I love too soon made my heart ache. And that was it. And in the three days since, I haven’t craved a thing.

Except a grilled ribeye steak, but that’s a different addiction.

(PHOTO: "Hot Climbing Momma Kate O with Baby D)

Sitting on a rock with friends, watching a new mommy love her baby, made me think of my own babies back home. My next trip to Shelf will be their trip to Shelf, too. I was thinking about all the years between their birth and their adult lives, wondering if they remembered all the mom smiles I offered them, if they understood my quiet way, and if they know how much I love them, even though they no longer wear ducky pajamas. The greatest part about maternal love is the way its waves ripple out to others, reach deep into the chest and touch one's soul. Watching new mommy love is proof life is gloriously good, and sitting on that rock I wanted to reach out and hug my kids. I wanted them there with me to see the bright visions my eyes held at that moment. I wanted them to know there was nothing I regretted about our life together, nothing more I could want but their respect and love as grown adults.

And it was this moment, watching a baby, remembering my own, when I realized something in my life had changed.

When I got home last night, as I showed photos from the trip to Laura, she was expressing great interest in my discoveries. Since I began P'UP, she hasn't wanted to climb with me. She hasn't wanted to climb at all. Given all the reasons we came to climbing in the first place, this worried me. As a mom, I wondered if I had killed her teenage enthusiasm for the sport by trying it too. I wondered if we were losing touch, our common understanding of the difficulties of being a family. I wondered if I was losing her to the momentum of her own life, her own journey. And I grieved this apparent loss in my own way, in quiet hours with my journal.

(PHOTO: Adam doing what he loves)

It was Adam who brought climbing into our lives, his way of showing support for a new and difficult part of my family's journey together. In fact, if it weren't for Adam, none of the Boulder friends I have now would be friends at all. He's been more than generous, and I doubt he'll ever really understand how much this has brought to our lives. "Did Adam climb well?" Laura asked.

"Duh," I said.

"And Tyler climbed?"


"Those Scheers are badasses," she said. "I love them."

As she sat on my bed, her feet dangling, she smiled at me. "Hey, I'm going to bed," she said, then got up to leave. As she reached my bedroom door, she looked over her shoulder at me.

"I want to climb with you tomorrow," she said.

And I wanted to cry. The path was definitely right. I had faith again.

(Dis)Shelved: Part III

(Photo: Clarita @

What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s heart would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war. – Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

As I marched up the trail to Cactus Cliffs, as my heart pushed blood through my body, I heard my mortal drum line. The beat of me, the thump, thump, thump of all the years and broken promises, of victories and defeats, of heartbreak and expansion – all of it melding and mangling a crescendo of unspeakable beauty.

I struggled to ascend the approach routes to the climbing areas. It was difficult going at times, particularly because I was alone. In the morning, I had missed the other noobs’ departure, and tagged along with a very enthusiastic group of people I didn’t know. I could have followed dear friends to their climbing spot, but I decided that for my first outdoor trip I needed some time to deal with myself, with my heart.

As I hiked to the rhythm of my own heartbeat, I thought of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume, 

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you

I could hear my friends’ laughter echoing, bouncing against the canyon walls. This comforted me as I plodded a beaten path and pondered the lives that had pounded down the dirt before my feet followed. I wondered what their hearts sounded like, what they thought about while making their way. When I stopped to rest, I simply listened. Breezes stirred my thoughts. The sun warmed my face. Life pulsed through me, the lightheaded journey girl, as I negotiated altitude and my physicality.

At the cliffs, I met a group of “old timers” who were climbing and hiking together as part of a yoga trip. They were celebrating retirement, and they offered me coffee from a Thermos. We talked about getting older and how life on rock seems bigger, more, and far more grounded than anyone outside of the climbing community would guess.

(PHOTO: The view from Cactus Cliffs where I sat and pondered life for awhile)

After that encouraging conversation, I stopped at a spot to take a photo of our campsite across the canyon. I couldn’t believe that I had made it that far, that I was ensconced within a pocket of rocks, looking over a gorge with a red dirt road slicing through it. Six months ago, I would never have tried to venture out this way, to see where my feet would or could carry me if I just followed the sound of my own drum. I took a moment to let my tears fall. It was a good, restorative cry.

Following the path back down the canyon, I encountered a woman sitting with two small children. Her husband was setting up a climbing route, and we talked of getting older, of writing, and her first year of college at UNL. We marveled at how small the world really was, and how Karma brought two strangers to an intersection of familiarity. She had seen my friends as they had passed through, and mentioned seeing one with a baby.

“I saw her and thought I had wasted my early year as a mother,” she said. “I saw that hot climbing momma and thought, man, I need to live my life differently.”

We exchanged contact information and talked about writing. We said we’d start a writing group for climbing women. I hope we do. I waved goodbye and pressed on, hoping to find my friends whose voices I could hear louder now, but whose bodies I couldn’t locate on the cliffs. Tired and wondering where to go next, I decided it was time to return to the campsite.

I hiked the road back to camp, unable to recognize my own song, but still thinking of Whitman:

Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the 
earth much? 

Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? 

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

I reckon’d the path, the earth, the meaning of my life. I took time to stop and look up, to listen and to feel. The breeze that caressed my skin seemed familiar, loving and kind. Pine memories of trips with my father came back to me as I looked at limestone cliffs, pondered all they contained, from geodes to history, and the stories of his gem hunts he would have told me had he been there.

As I walked, I heard the first line of a new poem. I stopped to write it down in my Moleskin book. I then stooped to put a rock in my pocket and wished my dad could see me then, standing outdoors, hiking on my own, while conjuring Whitman's poetry.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of 
all poems, 

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions 
of suns left,) 

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look 
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in 
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, 

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

As I hiked, I thought of the chasm that once separated my father and I. When I was a kid he didn’t understand that when my head filled with new thoughts and the silence roosted in my bones, it didn’t mean I was absent or pouting. He often misinterpreted my quiet way as a withdrawal from him, a separation. Dad was always delivering new ideas, new experiences, to me out of love. He never understood, then, that my silence was reverence for the very things he offered. I think he understands that now, or at least sees the fingerprints he left in my memories. I think he finds comfort in that now as he watches me grow.

(PHOTO: Dad, in his workshop, explaining his latest invention to me)

Hiking up the road, I wondered if there were others in my life unable to read the poetry that is my silence, the reaching in and loving that is my quietude. Sometimes I am closest to a heart when I stand furthest from it, when I seem withdrawn I’m actually cleaving to the fiercest earthbound love there is. I used to think of this as a failure on my part, some sort of fear of intimacy. What I know now, after a long cry among Cactus Cliffs, is that it’s a love unbreakable, the true north of my compass.

I encountered two of my dearest friends as I approached camp, and decided to follow them to the others among the North Bank. We waited for others to join us then started on our way. Sometimes, the only way to find your up is to go back down again.

After a full day of hiking and climbing, after feasting on a glorious buffet of visions, we returned to camp. We cooked. We ate. We laughed. Gathered around a fire, we sat together, our heartbeats pulsing in synchronized joy. I looked upon them for a very long time, trying to memorize their faces warm and the color of fire. Beneath a chandelier sky, stars burning through the black, I wasn't the only one seeping into silence. Bright eyes cast to the fire, they sat like dingledodies, fists worn from rock, and became poetry.

And I loved them for it, in my own quiet way, sitting off in my own mind.

I woke early my last day at Shelf, long before the sun tore from the ridge and warmed us. I packed up, and marveled the spiders that had sought warmth beneath my tent. I bagged up, loaded the car, and took one last walk to campsite 5 where most of my Boulder friends were just waking. We exchanged morning greetings and farewell hugs. They have become family to me, and after I turned to walk away, as I plodded down a red dirt path, I choked back the bitterness of goodbye. Every time I leave them, I feel wrenched away from love. Only the love awaiting me at home makes me strong enough to endure the separation from those fine people making their lives near the Flat Irons. Only the faintest promise of seeing them again makes it possible to go, and that is just one reason to love them even more.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

On MY Shelf: Volumes and Issues

With my first outdoor climbing experience just hours away, I'm feeling a bit out of sorts. I am now the owner of a 2-3 person tent, a snake bite kit (my dad insisted), a camping cup, technical clothing, loose chalk, and something my son declared essential: a "hobo tool."


This may seem perfectly normal for those classified as "real" or experienced outdoorsy types, but I haven't instigated a camping trip since Def Leppard was topping the charts with songs about pouring sugar and rockets. My last camping trip was with a husband - and that trip was miserable for a variety of reasons far beyond the company, biting overnight lows, and freak snowstorm in July. Now that I think about it, all the photos from that trip were taken with a film SLR - Kodak hadn't yet released its first digital camera to the public yet.

The majority of my current climbing friends were still in diapers, I think. Maybe a few of them were eating solid foods, getting ready for kindergarten, or just discovering their wanks, with a smattering of high achievers accomplishing all three milestones, but that hardly makes me feel better. In fact, I'm feeling rather old at the moment, perhaps too hold to be jumping into a car and embarking on a climbing road trip.

One of the recurring themes to P'UP, an undercurrent I don't always explore, is one of permission. I find myself often pondering if I'm allowed to make these changes, allowed to embark on such a journey, yet unable to name exactly who it is in charge. As a pro-woman writer and sometimes feminist, this just pisses me off. As an academic, I find it interesting that in the absence of authority (like that ex-husband), I create an imaginary gatekeeper.

What the hell is that all about?

Well, as someone who just figured out how to separate her fork and knife, use the corkscrew, and then lock them all together again, I can only assert this fundamental truth: I'm a nattering nabob of negativity. I traffic shame and guilt like a Columbian cartel moves narcotics. As Glenn Frey sings, "it's a losing proposition/but one you can't refuse" - yeah - on occasion I get the Smuggler's Blues, but mostly I just wander about feeling as if I'm knee-deep in nickel bag of self-loathing.

And yeah, it's skunky.

All the same, I feel as though I'm on the cusp of the abyss, something I've avoided most of my life until now.

Though this project has been about learning to climb, it has become so much more. As I've learned the top ropes, I've also learned a lot about living - the living I wasn't doing. I've spent far too much of my life being afraid; afraid to disappoint, afraid to fail, and afraid of the consequences of my own decisions. So I existed on auto-pilot, turning over my right to self-define and make decisions over to others. Climbing has taught me to knock that off, to let that go. You can't climb well without owning up to your physical and mental limitations. You can't climb well if you're not fully present in the task at hands (and feet).

And damnit, P'UP has made me want to climb well. It's not enough to get up. You have to BE up, too. So as I learn about climbing, I also learn about myself. I discover things I didn't know I lost, or things I never realized I already had. Like today, when I showed up at the wall for one last practice session and had to work with a belay I don't know well. I discovered that my lack of knowing promoted an uncertainty - unrecognized consciously at first - that resulted in timid moves and anxiety I haven't felt since my first climb.

Though I completed two routes without incident, I couldn't approach my projects - a 5.8, 5.7+, and a new 5.7 hung earlier this week - with the same degree of reluctant confidence I experience when working with my two favorite belays and friends. What this signified to me was that I have been working on building intimacy and trust within my friendships through climbing - and that realization made me grin like a dope.

I don't think I will ever, in one paragraph or even one post, fully articulate everything my abusive partners stole from me or what I gave away. I can only point to these discoveries day by day, post by post, and write toward some sense of self-actualization and appreciation. Since leaving my marriage and embarking on my new life, I've struggled to trust, to take people as they present themselves, and to allow myself the same opportunity. It's difficult to trust yourself after a decision to love someone turns out to be the worst decision you could make, the most unhealthy thing for you and your children. I know that I lost my sense of self-trust and that climbing is helping me to reclaim it.

I think I may be the quintessential late bloomer, but that's okay. I'd rather re-learn these lessons now, so I can rewrite the scripts that limit both my sense of living and my self-confidence. Though I still feel old, and though I still feel out of place sometimes, I think even this is a process worth exploring. Like a tough climb, life is a project, too. Even in my mom jeans.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


In the final days of preparation for my first outdoor climbing trip, I’m spending my time thinking about things I’d never thought I care about. Today, I stood in the outdoor section at a local store, wondering if I needed to buy a snakebite kit. And I’m not talking about Tabasco, tequila, and whiskey in a shot glass. In the end, I decided not to buy the kit – I’ll take my chances – but there’s a part of me that wants one. It’s an Indiana Jones sort of thing, proof you’re one of those people who goes out seeking adventure, but not actually seeking snakes.

I did get batteries for my headlamp, round up a tent, and put together the sort of wilderness first aid kit worthy of a Boy Scout merit badge. It’s not the sort of kit that anticipates major injuries, but it’s pretty spiffy. Scrapes, splinters, bug bites, hangovers, allergies, sunburn, and inflammation don’t stand a chance against yours truly.

I’ve assembled a wardrobe I think will suffice for a weekend trip, layers of wicking inner and outer layers, a technical coat and intermediate fleece, and some not-so-fashionable headgear. I’m borrowing a sleeping bag and pad this trip, but both are on my list of “someday” purchases. Because this trip is a “car camping” sort of excursion, I’m not worrying about a backpack. That too, I think, will have to wait until the fall when they go on sale.

My nutritional needs for the trip are proving more difficult to anticipate and prepare for, but I’m working on it. I’ve got a recipe for breakfast/energy bars in the works, one that is low-fat but high in protein and carbohydrates to aid in muscle recovery after a day of climbing and mucking about. Nuts and legumes are on the list, too, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. Unlike most, I can’t use camping as an excuse to munch down on the hotdogs (the international mystery meat) and s’mores.

When I was a kid, my dad used to take us camping just so he could cook fancy, interesting fare. I remember driving up above Estes Park one summer, just so he could cook us beef fillets and sautéed mushrooms, asparagus tips with lemon-butter, and grilled tomatoes. We went to bed that night with full bellies, listening to the creek and evening bugs, our lungs full of fine mountain air. That night stands out as one of the best I had as a kid.

Dad was the sort of camping guy who got up early, started the fire, put a speckled pot of coffee on the grate, and cooked breakfast. Bacon and eggs, I think, will always remind me of those trips with him. There’s a part of me that wants to attempt his culinary role this trip, to be the one who cooks pounds of bacon while sipping coffee so strong the grounds stick in your teeth, but I’m resisting that temptation.

I already know, however, that no matter how awesome my energy bars turn out to be, they won’t compare to crisp bacon and flapjacks on a chilly camping morning.

(Photo: My son and my dad, with their dirt experiments)

During the difficult years, when I was a teenager, I lost interest in camping or anything else my dad liked. And for whatever reason, I never took up camping again until now. I’ve been thinking about that today as I’ve prepared for my trip to Shelf. Dad and his wife will be camping that weekend, too, somewhere near the Wyoming and Colorado border. That seems fitting, in some ways.

Sorting out my gear today, laying out my stuff on the livingroom floor, I thought about how much my kids missed out on when they were little. We couldn’t do things that our controller/father figure found upsetting, and anything he couldn’t control upset him. So we didn’t pile into a car and head out for adventure. That would have lead to work (on his part), mess (on theirs), and fun (he was allergic).

We didn’t do much of anything, actually. No sports (he never wanted to sacrifice Saturday mornings to kids’ soccer games). No vacations (though we did drive to Wyoming once –for a funeral). He preferred to watch life pass us all by on television. The road trips came later, after the divorce, when I was shuttling kids back and forth from summer visitations.

That’s when we learned how much fun we could have on the road. It would be years and years later until Jack Kerouac would teach us why.

And maybe this is just a mom thing, but there’s a part of me that feels guilty as I pack up. P’UP has been teaching me a lot about myself, and this week I’m learning that the past is never past us – it lingers. The kids are grown, and none of them want to go with me. I shouldn’t feel guilty at all. Yet I do.

All the same, I’m excited and feeling free to pursue my own goals. After years of maternal sacrifices, that alone presents a myriad of emotional booby traps to navigate. And there’s something else I’ve realized. My own academic use of “inquiry notebooks,” the little black books I carry around, scribble in, throw quotes and poetry into are related in some ways to the notebook of the senior Dr. Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

I watched that film with my dad years ago, and I remember being intrigued by the notebook in it, the one they use to unlock all the secrets to their journey.

Looking at my growing collection of notebooks, I’m wondering what, if any, journeys my kids will find unlocked years from now. I think of the books I’ve made and given away, and wonder if they will someday lead to a metaphorical quest for a covenant or challis. In some ways, this very blog is like one of those notebooks …

"History is never past" … it lingers. It’s in the pages of my books, the ink, the midnight thoughts and ponderings. As I prepare for my next adventure, I wonder what kind of history will unfold, what kind of stories will reveal themselves. Which is, I suppose, why the trip is worth taking even before it has begun.

Friday, April 2, 2010


The Physics of Rock Climbing from Christian Fracchia on Vimeo.

Last semester, while teaching a "Writing and Communities" course, I offered extra credit to students who ventured out and tried to join or experience a community far outside their comfort zones. I held up the climbing community at UNL as an example, and four of my students joined me for their first climbing experience at the Rec. One student spent another two weeks exploring climbing as a sport, and wrote her final project on what it was like to join the group.

I've come to use climbing as a metaphor for writing. I use it to teach patience, experimentation, process, and the use of tools. Drawing connections between the climbing hardware and the "rules of writing," including the dreaded grammar and spelling, helped students to see both as utilitarian devices instead of skills one was either "good" or "bad" at using. I also used the metaphor of a climber with a belay as an example of academic writing, when one scales an idea with the safety of others down below. In the case of scholarly work, thinking of citable sources as those keeping one safe or supporting one's climb, is a useful device. One can't just write one's ideas -one must always "join a larger academic conversation." No one gets to "free solo" a research paper.

But the most useful metaphorical use of climbing has been in the area of process and its focus. Teaching students to think one move at a time is important when working with inquiry, and I've found that climbing provides an embodied example that moves students from the abstract to the physical. Next semester, I'm hoping to be able to bring my entire class to the wall at least once in a semester. We'll see.

In the above video, two physics instructors use climbing to teach their introductory course. Apart from wondering if climbing attracts a disproportional amount of math geeks to its folds, I'm wondering who else uses climbing to teach bigger, more important lessons that will matter to students outside of the classroom.

I know Outward Bound uses climbing in some of its courses, and I know places like the Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School offer curricula for one-day clinics to four-day camps. But to use climbing and the outdoors as a basis for in-class curricula, well, that's a little harder to find. And it's too bad, if you ask me.

In the No Child Left Behind era, students are getting much time or money for field trips, particularly the kind of trips that take students out into the real world to experience self-focused challenges. Standardization of education, which is what high-stakes tests like those required by NCLB foster, means students' scores are comparative and leave little room for an emphasis on self-assessment and improvement.

Climbing, as a sport, offers the ability to self-test within a community of others who are putting themselves through tough lessons of patience, skill, and mental agility. In my experience with P'UP, I've learned amazing lessons:

1. Progress is an accumulation of smaller, incremental steps toward a larger goal

2. Success is not defined by the end result - finishing the climb - but often measured in a single move, particularly when struggling to master a new set of skills

3. Projecting a route is a physical manifestation of inquiry itself. When one attempts but doesn't necessarily solve, a problem on the first attempt there is much to be learned. On-sighting, killing a route at first go, doesn't teach a new lesson. It only indicates that previous learning has occurred

4. Limits are temporary obstacles that provide opportunities to learn more about yourself and your purposes

5. As Robert Frost writes, "The only way over is through." This is particularly true of the crux of a climb, or any problem worth solving.

6. One shouldn't get too wrapped up in the numbers. A 5.6 can push you around, no matter how many other "higher" or "tougher" routes you've successfully climbed. All problems are contextual.

These seem like pretty important discoveries to me. I'd love to teach in a world that didn't relegate teaching and learning to something that only happens in the constructed walls of a classroom. And maybe someday, I'll get to be one of those professors who can take students out into the real world, harness them in, and show them what they can do.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


(Photo: Still from "Stone Cold")

There’s a down side to Project Up, a dirty little secret I’ve been keeping. In the interest of full disclosure, and with a nod to the patriarchal notion of confession being good for the soul, I’ve decided to come clean.

With all the uplifting news, the epicurean adventure, and the steady progress as a climber and a human being, there’s been a dark reality following me. Like a shadow hemmed to the soles of my feet, it lurks behind me everywhere I go. And it’s a truth too horrifying to look at, like the Medusa demon of chthonic female monsters capable of turning even the bravest into stone.

Like all freaks of nature, they’re proof one should never encourage incestual relations, prima facie evidence that inbreeding, even among the gods, is never a good idea. Among women it’s a truth so horrifying we’ll spend millions of dollars each year on arming against it, as we build an arsenal of creams, serums, and surgical interventions.

That’s right. I’m talking about stretch marks. And I’ve got ‘em. IN MY ARMPITS.

(Photo: "Matisse Circle" of The Full Body Project by Leonard Nimoy - yeah - the Spock guy)

One of the cool parts of being a Chubs McBigPants is that your face won't wrinkle. It’s easy to maintain youthful-looking facial beauty when you can feel your face stretch every time you blink. Trust me. However, rapid weight gain causes a great deal of stress on skin from the neck down. Sometimes, the stress goes unnoticed – not everyone develops stretch marks at the same rate, and not everyone develops the telltale signs of redness and swelling. So for some people, it’s only after they lose weight that they begin to see the exterior damage done to their bodies.

New stretch marks are often deep in color, and usually red or even purple. They are, technically, scars. When the elastic fibers in the middle layer of the skin, the dermis, break down stretch marks appear. Since collagen (more specifically, “collagen VII) holds the dermis layer together, the best “cure” for these dermatological injustices is really a matter of prevention. Vitamins A, C, and D are critical building blocks for collagen and should be consumed through sensible eating (citrus fruits, vegetables like broccoli, and dairy products) with some “help” from a vitamin supplement. Keeping properly hydrated all day, instead of just during workouts, is also believed to help protect your skin, too.

There are about 20 types of collagen (proteins) in the human body, incidentally, and they do amazing things to your soft tissues, ligaments, tendons, and even your lungs. Bones benefit from collagen I, so those concerned with preventing osteoporosis should care about vitamin A, C, and D levels even if their skin is “flawless.” The womb, stomach, heart membranes, and your eyes – all of these need healthy levels of collagen in its various types to function properly.

As far as collagen VII and your skin go, nutrition is more important than superficial treatment. Though topical creams and lotions containing A, C, and D vitamins are believed to be helpful in keeping the skin supple, they are by no means as powerful as good eating habits.

Unfortunately, one often doesn’t see evidence of dermis layer damage until its too late. And for some of us, the scars don’t appear until after the burden on the skin is removed. That’s what has happened to me. Old marks I couldn’t see before are now visible. For me, even faded stretch marks are rather painful to look at because the skin itself is clearly looser, and evidence that firming up isn’t going to happen as quickly as I’d like it to – if at all.

For a lot of people working on healthier lifestyles, this evidence isn’t easy to look at or accept. It can make one feel defeated, especially if one had any hope of feeling more aesthetically beautiful, or comfortable in one’s own skin, even when naked. The most common surgery post weight loss is the tummy tuck done to remove excess skin after prolonged periods of obesity. Surgeons literally pull, cut, and sew back together the dermis layer to remove the excess, and the surgery itself costs between $6000 and $20,000.

Surgeries to remove excess skin from the arms and legs, however, leave mighty scars and are recommended only to those who have been morbidly obese, have skin rashes, infections, or problems due to friction and moisture problems, and are deemed unlikely to regain weight by a responsible surgeon. Recovery time for all of these surgeries is considerable, and there are substantial surgical risks. And if you ask me, they're horrifying.

Yet the struggle to be fit, to take care of yourself, can feel all the more defeating once weight begins to fall off. Looking in the mirror naked, gazing at your stomach and seeing what appears to be a frowning, one-eyed bulldog staring back at you, doesn’t do a lot for one’s self esteem. My own bellybutton seems to be perpetually disappointed and depressed – it’s like a downturned mouth. And there’s a part of me fearing that after all is said and done, after I’ve reached my weight-loss and fitness goals, I’ll look like I’m wearing a skin suit that’s two or three sizes too big.

I know this could, on some level, seem like a vain, superficial concern. But beauty really isn’t skin deep. It goes far deeper into the psyche than one would hope. Feelings of acceptance, purpose, future, and hope are often located within one’s body image and self-perception. The best thing I can think of to assuage my fear is to keep climbing, and follow this up with a healthy dose of patience with my physical self.

I’ve been projecting a couple of 5.7 routes, fiddling with the first three problems of a 5.8, and getting my butt kicked by a 5.7+ that has a slight overhang. I’m getting better at the footwork required to get up and over that damn thing, but I’m discovering that keeping good arm position as I do that work is burning up my upper body. I’m not pulling myself up, mind you, just trying to maintain the right amount of upper body tension to encourage progression of my foot positions.

I know I’m making progress. Some things are getting easier, for both my body and my mind. However, I’ve reached a difficult place as a climber, when the mind is willing but the flesh is weak. Though I have on-sight victories of every 5.6 set at the Rec in the last six weeks, I’m (sometimes quite literally) beating the hell out of myself on 5.7 routes the better climbers – my heroes - use for warm-ups.

As Kermit the Frog sings, “It ain’t easy being green.” And I’m very much so. I’m six months into what I hope is a life-long relationship with climbing, something I try to remind myself every time I feel beaten by the wall. I so desperately want to transition to the next level, to feel as though I’m making my way and holding my own. I’ve got “Newbie Fatigue” big time, when the newness and excitement for the sport can no longer eclipse its difficulties.

This isn’t about earning other climbers’ respect, either. I get a lot of support from the climbing community to which I belong. Admittedly, some of it is awkward like the standard comment, “I wish my mom would try climbing” and my personal favorite, “Your like our own Biggest Loser.” But even the awkward comments are encouraging, earnest, and sincere so I’m lucky, actually, to have people in my life who are as excited about my project as I am.

But as I’ve reached a few fitness goals, I’ve also reached the crux of my dermatological shame and a major hiccup in self-perception. Though I am more confident and comfortable with myself, and though I celebrate my climbing victories with great joy, there are times when I feel I’ve completely stepped outside myself. Who is this woman? Who am I now that I’ve decided to take better care of myself and try new things? Who am I when I’m hanging above the ground, resting my arms before giving a problem another go?

I don’t always recognize her, this woman I’m becoming. I suspect this is what really gets under my skin about those stretch marks – they’re inarguable evidence that big changes are going on in my life. They’re also evidence of just how far I let myself go, a truth I can’t deny. This isn’t existential navel-gazing, either. I can’t look my navel – it’s angry.

I suppose, if I aim my critical eyes at myself, I’m just burdened by the weight of process, and feeling a bit overwhelmed by change. At least I know this journey is a one-way trip. There’s no going back, even if my body leaves its own map, the scars that show where I’ve been.