Wednesday, April 20, 2011


(PHOTO: Climbing godfather Jon Cannon celebrates his 40th birthday face-down)

In America when experts discuss the "obesity epidemic" and its possible solutions, the emphasis on change is most often a focus on the systematic, the "efficient" models for weight loss. There's tremendous focus on food and calories, and diets are recommended. There's a punitive, punishing attitude abundant in the diet industry's rhetoric because diets are structured against time. Results are pandered as quick, discipline-driven evidence of one's dedication, even as the national companies claim under their spokesmodel pictures, "Results not typical."

Diets are marketed as time-dependent solutions to what is, essentially, a life-long problem. And true to America's love of Frederick Taylor's "scientific management efficiency model," to its Henry Ford fantasy of mechanized production of reliable, predictable results, the diet industry replicates formulaic systems designed to work for every body. Dieting is sold as an individualized struggle, which again reaffirms the American tenets of "rugged individualism." If you're fat, there's something wrong with you, and it's up to you alone to fix it.

This business approach to body ignores rich histories steeped in anthropological tradition. The communal aspect of living, of humans as hunters and gathers, as social creatures who establish cultural traditions - music, art, providing, family, community, and even culinary histories - are often ignored, set aside as academic. The very social nature of people, the way we are born into a familial tribe and socialized to see all things, including the dinner table, in the ways our fathers and mothers do is ignored. Most Americans don't see the intersections where individual and community meet. In the most basic of ways, even our food supply is stripped of its communal connections. Giant, discount super stores display products that are no doubt, manufactured by real people somewhere, somehow - but the connection between what we buy and the state of our larger, national or even global communities is missing from the labels and displays.

Unless one goes to a farmer's market, one won't meet the person who tended the vegetables one buys. One won't get a chance to shake the hand of the rancher who brought his beef and pork to market, won't chat with the woman who brought eggs and honey to the market square, won't share a recipe with the vendor selling the rich, vibrant greens beneath a tent. The independent dairy farmer selling cheese, the small family making money to buy a home by selling tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, the elderly couple selling breads, cakes, and pies - all of these are missed with a single trip to a supermarket, erased. The "buy local" movement in America isn't simply a matter of commerce. It's a matter of responsibility, of connection to one's community in ways that foster growth, happiness, and sustainability.

How we buy, more than what we buy, affects our communities, ourselves, including the solutions to our alleged problems. How we live, who we are, how we spend our time, is also a matter of community. As Dr. Nicholas Christakis asserts in his book, Connected, humans live their lives connected through social networks - and these networks shape what we think, feel, and do. Christakis posits that our communities are like superorganisms, a collective entity that shapes individual perceptions, behaviors, and outcomes. As Christakis writes:

Seeing ourselves as part of a superorganism allows us to understand our actions, choices, and experiences in a new light. If we are affected by our embeddedness in social networks and influenced by others who are closely or distantly tied to us, we necessarily lose some power over our own decisions. Such a loss of control can provoke especially strong reactions when people discover that their neighbors or even strangers can influence behaviors and outcomes that have moral overtones and social repercussions. But the flip side of this realization is that people can transcend themselves and their own limitations (xii).

(PHOTO: Beth cheeses while lamenting the lilac color of her tassel, pleased to be nearly finished with architecture studies)

A typical dieting scenario within American households and supported/marketed by women's magazines: The mother/homemaker wants to shed a few pounds. The magazines offer a diet for one instead of a family option. Individual women will then try to exert intense self-discipline for their own eating choices while still cooking what the rest of the family prefers. The woman's struggle is considered separate from the family and she is alone in her desire to make lasting changes. Magazines offer advice such as: "Phone a friend when you're tempted to cheat," and "Make your own plan-friendly snacks for those family nights in front of the TV when the popcorn and chips tempt you."

What's missing from the national conversations about health and well-being is the notion of community. Who you spend time with shapes how you treat yourself. An individual's health within a family is dependent on the entire family - it's traditions, habits, and lifestyle choices. And friends, the social networks you select outside of familial bonds, affect your choices, habits, and outcomes - even those you take on alone, like a diet. What's also missing is a conversation about the way communities treat individuals, the ways in which the hardness of life creates insatiable hungers in our young people that go unsatisfied. Childhood obesity isn't a matter of calories and a lack of self-discipline. Something else, something much more complicated than the Self is influencing our children to make such unhealthy choices, to eat needing more than nutrition. I'm not sure our country is prepared to have those conversations, to look at our nation's children and consider that millions are obese while millions more children go to school uncertain there will be food for their family at the end of the day. It seems America prefers to maintain an individualism at all costs - even those our children pay.

Community is essential to one's well-being and potential. I didn't need to read the research to experience this idea first-hand. At the UNL Climbing Wall, there is an established yet evolving community of climbers. As a collective, the superorganism provides support, enthusiasm, and care. One can't climb alone at the wall - one must rely on another to offer belay. As one climbs, one forges relationships with others. One learns to trust and count on those belays. One begins to look forward to the conversations on the bench while waiting for a rope. Recipes are exchanged. Restaurants are reviewed. Weekly group dinners and movie nights take shape. Others will note and compliment a climber on his or her own progress. Victories are shared. Disappointments soothed by good-natured jokes or sincere kind words. This environment is quite different from a dieting center whose members show up, get weighed, suffer the gains alone, but celebrate the losses collaboratively with stickers, small trinkets, and applause - the typical Weight Watchers meeting would be a good example of this.

Instead, one develops relationships that lead to other opportunities, such as climbing at Shelf Road or biking on a Saturday. And when you're with other people who care for their bodies and their minds, you tend to follow suit as the "price" of membership in that community. Your personal changes become part of a larger evolution, almost imperceptible without deliberate reflection, as you yourself become part of the superorganism that is the community itself. You are affecting and being affected by the group - permeable in your changes and influences.

Unlike a diet program, a community doesn't pressure one's growth and personal results to fit into a specified time frame. Change is gradual, part of the superorganism's inherent life cycle. It's kinder to the psyche as one attempts to entertain new possibilities for health and well-being. The voices of failure that so often accompany diets simply fade, even as one radically changes eating habits. The key is to forget the typical goal-setting, such as, "I want to lose 20 pounds before that wedding," and to embrace, "I want to make myself as healthy as I can and have fun while doing it."

It's a radical notion and quite contrary to the American ideology to decide to invest over a lifetime without an end goal, a result, a product, to show for it. In my own experiences during the last three years, I can only testify to the gradual and imperceptible changes that I hadn't considered until sitting down to write this post. For example, five years ago, one could have opened my cupboards and found "staples" such as Nutella, Oreos, chips, microwave popcorn with extra butter, and sodas. My refrigerator was full of processed meat products, easy to fix frozen dinners, and a plethora of unhealthy, over-processed fodder that passed as "food."

Today, if one were to open my cupboard in search of a guilty pleasure, one would be sorely disappointed. Staples are now indeed staples, such as brown rice, oatmeal, tea, honey, beans, whole wheat pastas, and spices. My refrigerator stores vegetables and fruits, dairy, and healthier proteins such as tofu, chicken, and very lean beef. My daughter often complains, "Geez, there's nothing good to eat here." I smile when she does. There's plenty to fuel a body with proper care and concern - and that's revolutionary for me, a person who grew up in a family convinced gravy and melted butter were beverages.

(PHOTO: Ryann, Caitlin, and Stephanie hold baby Easton and discuss Stephanie's upcoming nuptials)

More importantly than my individual changes, I've become part of a larger community. Going to the wall to climb is also going to see friends, to hear news, to share stories. It's a witnessing of life unfolding, like graduation, when Beth, Ryann, and Caitlin will scatter like seeds to the wind to start lives anew. Being there reminds me of the role of generations, as an experienced climber shows a newbie the ropes, as I did last night when a colleague from work took me up on the offer to climb. As I tied Wendy in and explained the process, as she learned to trust herself while climbing up and doing what she never thought she could, there was a collective joy, a palpable happiness, when she reached the top. Those of us who climb know that feeling of a first climb well, that first day when we saw ourselves anew and potential beckoned. Seeing another's personal goal bloom helps us to carry on.

(PHOTO: Steph holds son Easton to the wall)

When I started this project a few years ago, I thought it was a weight loss journey. I thought that I'd be testifying to the benefits of exercise and healthy eating, showing photos that heralded my success, and then end it. What I've discovered along the way is that the journey itself is everything. All I have accomplished, the changes in me that are more evident with each passing day, are a matter of community. I couldn't have done any of it without the support of those near and far. Even more amazing to me is that time is no longer something I'm working against, trying to shape it to meet my demands. Instead, I'm becoming more and more present in the present, taking stock of my day as a day in itself. Tomorrow will come soon enough. Yesterday is behind me.

That isn't to say I always succeed, or that my patience prevails. My vanity gets the best of me sometimes, when I sit writing in a journal lamenting the fact I'm not one of those women men cross rooms to court; or when I'm feeling sorry for myself because all I've learned about love I've learned the hard way, by its absence. What I've learned that's mattered most is that I'm not ruggedly individual. I need others. I want others in my life. I want to inspire people not with my accomplishments, but with my connections to them by caring about what they want to do and become. It's an ethos of collectivity in a world demanding individuality, so I should expect to feel outnumbered, invisible. But when I need to feel a part of something good, when I want to rejoice in others' joys, when I want to laugh and feel as though anything were possible, all I have to do is go to the wall, put on my harness, and ask a friend for a belay.

(PHOTO: Easton, lovely, lovely boy)

And that, like the smile of a child so dear, is all I need to keep believing in myself and the community that makes me possible.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Fridays never come soon enough, especially now that I spend a couple of hours every Friday afternoon with baby Liesl. We do grand things like coo, rattle monkey toys, and contemplate poetry. So far, she prefers the flowing poetry of Ted Kooser and Billy Collins. Anne Sexton made her cry. Sylvia Plath made us both big-eyed and cranky. We're still trying to figure out what we think of Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation - but I can tell you that though we're still contemplating, we're not sharing the same dark critical forecast shared in a New Yorker review of the book by Dan Chiassan.

We don't subscribe to the claim that, "Donnelly's style must be withstood before it is enjoyed." The great thing about reading poetry to a baby is that because all language is a new, experimental thing to her, everything that flies out of my mouth is a whirling juxtaposition, a wind of words. This takes some of the pressure off of poets and authors, really. In a world that gives words to babies one image at a time, socializes them through lore and story, poets that screw up form and social caste in their poems without implying they're a few years away from baking their brain in a gas oven are a lot of fun. I'm hoping to inspire her independent, artistic thinking. When she's in a good mood, we read Donnelly. When she's not, we turn to Collins and Kooser - their rhythms are softer, metronomic. Because she's the daughter of aspiring musicians, I try to focus on the sounds the poems make more than their meanings or forms. I hope her first virtuoso instrument is language, then I hope she takes up guitar.

Liesl and I had a big day on Friday. She didn't want to take the bottle from me. She wailed. She wiggled. And then she discovered I knew how to make rice cereal. We made an unholy mess of her pink pajamas before she was sated and happy. That's when we read some of Rachel Manija Brown's All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. Brown's memoir shares her years growing up in an ashram in India as her parents followed Baba, the same dude that inspired Pete Townsend. It's a great memoir in the vein of Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs about a childhood lost to parental stupidity. This is why, at the end of chapter two, I put the book down in favor of Kooser's Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps.

It's important to protect innocence after all.

Anyway: After a particularly long afternoon with a baby that didn't want a bottle because she'd rather wait for the breasts to get home from the university, I arrived home to discover the Bolder-Boulder folks had mailed my official participant package. My t-shirt, calendar, time chip, back and front tags, even the little plastic orange ties and safety pins needed to affix my runner's bling - all of it cascaded out of the vinyl package and onto the table. I stared at it for a while, thinking I'd made a horrible mistake. The run is six weeks away, and I'm still struggling to get my lead-like behind through the 7k course for the Lucky Bucket Inaugural Run on May 12. I'm making progress, but I'm nowhere close to the goals had I set for myself.

I crammed everything back into its package, set it on my table, and mentally ran away. Meaning, because it was raining and snowing, I put on my sweatpants and Super Friends t-shirt, grabbed Brown's book, and headed for bed. I finished that sometime before midnight, then grabbed Paulo Coehlho's The Alchemist. It seems as readers go, I'm a marathon kind of gal.

Right before falling asleep, book in hand, I realized that Fate had been delivering interesting genre questions to me. Just last month, I finished a three-month inquiry into legend writing, beginning with Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. I turned that collection of papers in to a professor who now wants to co-author a paper. While in Boulder last week, I picked up a copy of Regina Weinreich's Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics, a book that begins with an overview of the construction of his structure of legend- his Dulouz Legend - and its relationship to his spontaneous prose.

So in a sense, I was primed for Coelho's fable about following one's dream, one's "Personal Legend." Perhaps my inquiry into legend and the book from Boulder were my own version of Urim and Thummim, the black and white stones handed to the boy by Melchizedek, the king of Salem. Or, as I've been thinking today, perhaps pen and paper are my stones and those books simply omens. Whatever the case may be, it seems I'm sitting in the middle of a big questioning of my purpose and personal dream.

I don't remember why I thought running would be a good idea. My dad thinks I'm nuts, mostly because, "Running is serious stuff, Kiddo. Be careful." He has weak ankles, so weak, they give out on him without warning. After biffing on his face in business suits, after falling down stairs from his attic in his workshop, he started wearing calf-high boots all the time. He puts them on first thing in the morning, even before heading to the bathroom. It's not uncommon to find him sitting in his bathrobe and boots, yelling at the morning Fox News financial reports. His mixture of spa robe cozy and militant protection as a fashion statement is an awesome rhetorical situation. Yet I'm the one who's always nuts for trying new things. But who am I to critique his loungewear? I plod about wearing Captain America and The Hulk on my chest.

We all have our uniforms. We all have our armor.

Years ago, in P.E. class with Mr. Oates at Elmira Elementary School, I learned to hate running. Our field was a field by definition, but instead of clipped green Kentucky turf, it was a mown cornucopia of noxious weeds - most of which made me wheeze wildly. We ran as the dry heat of the Vaca Valley beat down on our heads until we all smelled of wet dogs (as children often do). Well, they ran. I hobbled along, wheezing and feeling as if my sides were about to explode. Every other kid, even the one nobody liked, sprinted and darted about. I had the viscous fortitude of sludge. It was then, at the jaded age of ten, that I decided some people were born to run and others, well, others were born to sit around and hate them.

And that was before puberty when the Gods of Womanly Curves cursed me with a spiritual burden that didn't fit into the cups of my Playtex Training Bra. (Incidentally, I never understood why they were called training bras in the first place - training for what?) That's when I learned about the horrific old lady section in our local JC Penny store. My childhood was lost in one shopping trip, standing among the racks of girdles that looked like bleached seal skins. While my compatriots in pubescent warfare trotted about the locker room at Will C. Wood Junior High in their cute, bows on the straps bras that reminded me of butterflies, I rolled through the joint wearing a fabric Sherman tank. I was in the fight of my life, encamped in a Battle of the Bulge far more offensive on my Western Front than anyone could imagine. Running without knocking myself unconscious seemed unlikely. I surrendered. But every now and then, I dreamed of running the way others dream of flying.

Now here I am, years later, wearing better bras that don't destroy my self-esteem, trying to regain forfeited territory. It started with walking - serious walking. Sometimes, on my walks, I was hit with the sudden impulse to run. A burst of energy would bolt through my legs and my instinct was to follow. But, as Coelho writes, "The fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself" (130). I'd wait for the impulse to die by pushing it down with old memories. "You can't run," I'd say. "Thin, agile people run. Maybe later. Maybe after you lose some weight so you don't blow out your knees."

"You'll look ridiculous - all that mammary excess flopping up and down."

"Can't you just focus on the work at hand?"

"You're not a runner."

"Big girls don't run."

"Hold on Iron Priestess of Divine Mercy, gotta walk before you can run."

I told myself a lot of useless, untrue things. I held myself back. I pretended all I wanted to do was walk the Rock Island trail. And then one day, a retired lady with big jugs and a flowing mane of grey hair blew past me on roller blades. She was grinning, wearing a navy sweatsuit, her mass moving gracefully like a Calfornia Blue Whale in the deep. Every part of her was in fluid motion. In her wake, a man I guessed to be in his eighties, though listing to his left, ran after her. His knobby knees were bone white, and he wore black socks. But dammit, he had his running shorts on and a sweatband around his head. He said hello as he bolted past like a man in italics, slanted against the path's black line.

There I was, sans serif and straight, walking in dutiful order. I didn't like this reading of the world in that moment. I didn't like seeing that other people, older people, bigger people, weren't talking themselves out of what they wanted, or needed, to do.

In his fable, Coelho asserts that once one has committed to fulfilling one's personal legend, the universe provides exactly what is needed to complete the journey. Not everything is mystical, of course, but even the most utilitarian can certainly feel that way when laboring to complete a run. Just the other day, as a couple of Bucketeers and I worked the trail, I realized how far I had come as a runner wannabe and a person.

A man passed us who reminded me of my former husband. After a few moments I turned to my friends and said, "You know, a few years ago I would never have been able to do this. My husband would have had none of it."

I explained the nature of his personality, the jealousy, the resentment of my friends and critique of my need for female friendships. Life was hard back then, isolated. He was consuming of those he cared about; he drained those closest to him. I never realized, when we were together, just how exhausted I was. It wasn't until a year after our divorce that I exhaled fully for the first time. I was on my first road trip to Colorado with a friend's brother. I was rolling down the interstate, yelling at cows out the window, making bad jokes, but breathing fully for the first time in eight years.

I thought about this while running and walking with the Bucketeers. I explained to them that I often lived in a state of perpetual wonder as I went about my daily life. It's so different from what I had sought. It's so different from what I expected. I'm doing things I never thought possible then, like climbing, running, and eating vegetables for breakfast. When I had left my old life, I felt a profound terror of the unknown. I knew only that I was dying inside, that I had to follow my dream of getting a Ph.D., of building an erudite life and becoming a teacher. What I didn't know was that someday I'd listen to my legs and let them carry me as fast and as far as they could.

It's the small, ordinary moments of struggle that lead to fulfillment. I'm not fast. I'm not agile. But I'm breathing and running and walking. I'm writing, living, and believing in myself. Perhaps this is why the Bolder-Boulder package seems so intimidating. It's a tangible thing, an omen right there on the table, reminding me that I'm stepping even further away from who I once was, who I thought I could be.

I used to associate running with escape. Now I can see it as a means toward oneself. There are no hounds at my heels. I don't have to defend my right to choose changes, to challenge myself. I just get up, put on my running shoes, and head out the door. I meet up with friends. I laugh. I feel the sun on my face. I let my legend unfold, one mile at a time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

SHELF ROAD REVISITED: Lessons from the School of Hard Rocks

I’m a part-time philosopher. When going about my business, this thing we call living, I often search for deeper meanings in the metaphors in which I live. This is why I’m single – nobody is supposed to think so hard about the ordinary. Language isn’t just something I toss around like a Frisbee. It’s all sniper fire or bullet spray to me. “There is always debris after discourse,” I often say to my students. Yet, it’s often in the debris where one can find the best gems, the big meanings.

This week, I headed west to visit my favorite dingledodies and climb at Shelf Road. It’s been a year since my first trip when I learned so much about myself all at once, I almost couldn’t breathe (I thought that was just an issue of altitude, but I digress). My climbing trip was epic for me. I “sended” my first on-the-rock route. My camping gear was put to the test and passed. I even changed my clothes in the dark without worrying about anyone seeing my reptilian underbelly and lily-white ass.

That last one was a really big deal to me.

I bared my butt to the Darkness after achieving that send and learning an important lesson (and a few lesions) about gravity. If you want to test your metal and discover what you’re made of, all you gotta do is fall. Fall hard. Fall without clinging. Fall while counting on someone to catch you. I learned this profound truth by doing the exact opposite, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Failure is where real learning happens.

And thanks to a belay from Adam Scheer of Climbing House fame and a 5.7 route with a nice crack, I learned that my instinct is to hold on even when it hurts like hell. A year ago, this would be where I’d add some sentimental drivel about sticking it out, about overcoming the pain and adversity by holding true to one’s convictions, to one’s heart.

But after scraping the underside of my bodacious ta-tas as I slid down a route like cheese on a grater, I am writing to testify to the merits of falling clean like a cat. There’s no dignity in holding on – just the scraping sound of ineffective smearing and full-frontal failure, followed by the sting of first aid antiseptic and the sense that yes indeed, you are a big boob.

I learned a lot about myself in less than five seconds. Climbing’s lessons are quick and painful, but not every wound scars. Most wounds teach you a lot about what’s holding you back, what’s getting in your way, and what not to do. I appreciate climbing’s directness, its difficulty. It’s not obscure. It’s not even natural. Climbing demands some mastery of both fear and instinct. One can mitigate the risks, but one can never erase them. That’s a big deal in a culture promoting security and stability at all costs.

After learning the painful lesson that came with holding on, we shambled off to a beautiful set of climbs the others were working on – projects they’ve faced before. The hike was good, full of interesting little metaphors and grace (even as I plodded along like an epileptic chicken). I sat watching the good climbers, listening, talking. I sat thinking about my grated boobs and counting my bruises.

At the end of the day, we hiked back to Cactus Cliffs to work a few routes before dark. It was on a corner route that I learned yet another set of painful but important lessons that are, miles away from me, still teaching me something, still offering me things to ponder. I’m hardly finished, but here’s what I think I know:

When it comes to reading a route, as with my reading of people, I’m far too generous. I see possibility before I note difficulty, the opposition. I once considered this one of my gifts, a brilliant optimism in the face of dour circumstances. I so wanted to be sunshine in a clouded world, I failed to note that there’s a certain protection afforded from the grey. So I took my happy ass up a route far more difficult than I could see, and then became a whimpering simpleton as I clung to a ledge, waiting for the throbbing pain in my left knee to subside.

A good little Buddhist wannabe, I stood on that ledge and thanked the rock for its lesson. I thought about Thich Nhat Hanh’s sense of “mindfulness,” and positive and negative energies. I cast love upon the stone, holding my heart against its face, forgetting rock is a cold, unfeeling sedimentary and stoic thing unbothered by my gnat-like humanity.

In the silence on that ledge, feeling the beat of my heart, I realized that rock wasn’t listening, didn’t need to, didn’t want to, couldn’t. It was I that was the interloper, the parasite, feeding upon not what the rock had to offer, but my own delusion and fantasy. I looked upon the route, honest and small. I let go. I leaned back like a cat and let my belay catch me and my failure until we were both lowered to the ground.

Standing on both feet, tied in, looking up, I was glad to have bailed. I was tired. I was spent. The hike back to camp seemed harder, longer, than the hike out. Later that night, stemming in my sleeping bag because I couldn’t let my knees touch, I was thankful for so many things. I could hear the dingledodies a few campsites over, gathered around a fire. I could see the stars, beautiful and twinkling, bright and encouraging. My muscles were stiff, generating heat. I was breathing. I was still.

I was alive.

The following morning, I opted out of climbing. I spent the day reading and lounging beneath the shade of an evergreen. The wind whipped clouds into a froth and twisted jet-stream lines into curls. I made a cup of coffee and contemplated silence. I slept, out in the open, unafraid. I thought about Oneness and compared it to Aloneness, deciding the former was proactive and the latter reactive. I committed myself then and there to making more room in my life for proactive, contemplative living.

A line of poetry, perhaps a Buddhist kohn, came to me: Absence is a hue the color of my name. It reminded me of the Zen Buddhist question: What was your original face before your parents were born? And that reminded me of a poem by Dogen:

Cease practice based
on intellectual understanding,
pursuing words and
following after speech.
Learn the backward
step that turns
your light inward
to illuminate within.
Body and mind of themselves
will drop away
and your original face will be manifest.

It’s in the fall, the dropping away of body and mind that one will be made manifest. Perhaps that’s the lesson of this trip. Perhaps that’s why I’m still thinking and no matter what, the ending to this entry will be incomplete. Or maybe, just maybe, a philosopher's work is never done.