Tuesday, September 29, 2009
It got me thinking.
Is part of our pure nature that we are also healthy and strong? I wonder. In any event, there's certainly something to be said for the power of how we identify ourselves. If we say, "I am a healthy athlete," there's a better chance that's what we'll be.
At 24 years old, Carrie weighed 50 lbs more than she does today. She had just moved to Austin, TX. She knew hardly anyone. She ate and drank way too much, by her account, and had recently had her heart broken. She was feeling blue about life, and her life had barely begun. She desperately needed a physical and emotional change in her life. She set a goal for herself to do a marathon by the age of 30. So she screwed up her courage and signed up for a beginning running group. She'd never run before. She worried she'd be the biggest person in the group (she wasn't); she worried she'd be the slowest (she wasn't); and she worried that she'd stand out or embarrass herself in some other way (she didn't). In short, she didn't identify herself as a runner yet. She identified herself as an overweight, out of shape person, albeit one who was going to try her hand at running. Four years later (and two years before her 30th), she crossed her first marathon finish line. It wasn't until that moment that the transformation was complete--she finally identified herself as an athlete, she flicked the self-identification switch in her head to the positive setting for good (okay, I'm sure it's still challenging, it always is). And what a difference that made. Seven years on she's done fifteen marathons, a slew of triathlons and an Ironman (I'm trying not to feel lazy as I write this). She's giving back to the sports she loves, too. Volunteering at races. Raising money for charity through races. And coaching others to accomplish their own extraordinary athletic goals.
Rebecca used to negatively identify herself as a bit of a helpless woman in some situations. That is, until she started running. It changed not only her view of herself as an athlete, but her view of what she was capable of in so many other things. Here's an example I like (especially since I've never yet had the gumption to do this particular thing): Driving to the mall in Houston, TX, where she lives (I know, this is a TX day), she drove over a ladder that was in the middle of the freeway (go figure, but she says the oddest things turn up on the freeway in TX), and arrived at the parking lot with two flat tires. She started to have a panic attack, looking for the "man" who would help her. Not even the security guard was willing. So she took a deep breath and said to herself, "If I can run a marathon, I can totally change these tires." Out came the car manual and lo and behold, she changed the tires. Easy as pie. "I knew then I was capable of many things."
Oh, and by the way, Rebecca has also lost over 60 lbs since she started running in 2002. She's still not small, by Vogue standards, but she can kick those size 4's butts on a run.
It's a whole new world when we shift our focus from identifying with all the negative things we've done or suffered, to identifying with the positive. I'm not saying it's easy. How could it be? If it were, we'd all be zooming around our lives bubbling with positive energy (and the high fructose corn syrup industry would die out, since we wouldn't need to artificially sweeten our lives to get a buzz out of it--I know, I know, I can't help myself sometimes. I admit it. I'm a Michael Pollan devotee). But it's possible; and possible is better than easy. It makes something worth striving for.
One more word from Kadam Morten's talk last night. As he pointed out, one of the most important things as we're making the transition to identifying with our pure nature is to be skillful about how we set our goals. If, for example, we say, "I'm never going to gossip again;" or "I'm going to run a 2:30 marathon my first time out." Well, then we've probably set ourselves up for failure, because we've set an exaggerated goal. Then, because we've failed, we get to re-identify with our bad nature. "See, I knew I was a failure. I couldn't even keep from gossiping for the whole rest of my life;" or "I only ran a 3:45, what a loser I am." Instead, set realistic goals. Turn up the heat slowly. Think of putting all those negative identifications into a pot of cold water and slowly boiling them to death--they're like frogs, they won't jump out of the water, if you bring it to a boil slowly enough. (Okay, that was a bit of a metaphor jumble sale just now.)
We are by nature pure. We are by nature strong and healthy. Let's not let our minds get in the way of our nature.
Friday, September 25, 2009
I had a great conversation/interview with a women who is hoping to make a ski film by and for women. No more "duh" mentality Warren Miller films, with extreme (and extremely expensive) ski locations, with the occasional (male, of course) skier sitting around in a stone-out haze waiting to ski. We got to talking about how and why women take up the various sports they do and we realized that in our own lives, and in the lives of so many women we knew, they had taken up different things all through their lives, often for a boyfriend or husband, both when they got together or as solace after breaking up. But there were lots of other reasons, too, for which women had taken up a sport. And ultimately, the women stick with sports because they love them--they are pursuing their passion.
The interesting thing that she and I had noticed about our own lives, and the lives of our other women friends, was that men seem much, much, much (I could go on) less likely to take up something new after, say, the age of 25. Certainly, it's pretty rare to hear about a man who took something up for a girlfriend (this was pointed out to me early on by a women I interviewed). It's equally rare to hear about a man being "taught" how to do something new by his girlfriend. Because here's the hard part about pursuing new activities as you get older--you have to be willing to be a beginner again and again and again.
So, here's my question--are women more willing to be beginners than men? And if so, why is that? Or, as one woman has suggested to me, is it that men take up many more new things when they are younger (and, in their turn, perhaps women are more tentative and take up fewer new things in their youth), so that there is less that is truly new for men to try as they get older? Is that why women take up their boyfriend's activities and not vice versa--because they just have more activities to be taken up?
I'm more inclined to the first of these possibilities (women's openness to beginning again), than to the latter, but really, I just don't know. I'm asking. What have others experienced and observed?
Let me know!
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Except that, for some women, it's also the way they give back. Virginia is a sixth-degree black belt. In her younger years (though she's still young at thirty-five, of course!), she competed extensively in sparring matches. Over time though her focus has shifted to teaching, to passing along her knowledge to others; something she finds very fulfilling. As she says, "nothing in the world can replace the sense of accomplishment that comes from teaching others that they are capable of protecting themselves, no matter how small, young, old, or shy they are."
Mary Beth feels the same way. She's a CPA who worked for years for Arthur Andersen and then McAfee. She started playing soccer when she was two and a half (kicking the ball around at her older brother's games) and she never looked back--basketball, volleyball, soccer, marathons and fitness & figure competitions (which involve some combination of body building, dance, gymnastics, obstacle courses and other demanding physical feats). While working as an accountant, she got her personal training certification, and one year at a continuing education conference in the field her financial brain hooked into her personal training brain and she got the idea to start a fitness community, ALaVie, (primarily, but not exclusively, for women), which offered outdoor boot camps and a network of health and wellness professionals.
Mary Beth hasn't made her millions (yet), and she still has a full-time other job, but she is pursuing her passion. As she points out, many women aren't as lucky as she is, to be able to join a soccer team to get their workouts in. They need some source of team spirit and motivation to get them and keep them in shape. Mary Beth provides that essential "team" ingredient. As she says, "the biggest thing I didn't expect when I started the business was the relationships people build through the programs." She doesn't know it, but she's sort of a sports yenta (matchmaker) for friendships.
Not only is Mary Beth giving back with her business, she goes further still. On a recent Saturday morning she was wondering why she'd committed to do a fundraising boot camp for the Bay Area Women's Sports Initiative (BAWSI--great acronym if you say it out loud as if it were a word--a word that men like to use to describe women with opinions). BAWSI takes college athletes in the Bay Area and has them work in challenged neighbourhoods, creating sports options for girls. They even have a program they've developed for the girls' mothers, who were sitting on the sidelines often times and were thrilled to have their own reasons to move around. When Mary Beth got to the fundraiser she was running, she remembered why she'd given up her Saturday. "There was so much passion, and what we're doing makes a difference in people's lives, which wouldn't happen if I were just pursuing money."
Next week I'm interviewing Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run International, another fabulous organization giving opportunities for girls to flourish, using running as its basic tool. I recently became a Girls on the Run Solemate--which means the half-marathon I'm doing on October 3 is to raise money for the organization. So I'll feel a little less selfish about abandoning my parents during their visit to do the race--plus the t-shirt is pretty darn cute.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
In the late 70's, when Central Park was less of the jewel it is today (at least safety-wise), she was attacked by a man brandishing a knife, as she was running to work (there's something ironic about the man's choice of victim). She was so incensed at having her run interrupted, not to mention that she didn't want to be late for work, that she turned on the man and yelled, "You better leave me alone!" He did. It sounds like Jo's running shoes had some kind of Dorothy's-red-shoes magic in them.
Actually, come to think of it, our running shoes do have magic in them--the power to transform a bad day into a good day; frustration into speed; chocolate cake into muscle; and self-doubt into self-confidence. I can't guarantee the power to ward off attackers as Jo did, but for the rest...I know.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Katrine has been with her now-husband for five years. In fact, it was he who got her into serious running and doing triathlons (when they were married, their three-layer wedding cake was triathlon-themed: the miniature bride and groom ascended through the layers in the various sports to cross the finish line on the top of the cake). Now they are both equally dedicated athletes. In the beginning, Katrine was very competitive with her mate. Because he was faster than she was, Katrine had trouble seeing her own accomplishments as worthy. To compensate for his gender handicap (kind of like a golf handicap, but harder to change), Katrine would instead drive herself to train at least as much as him, if not more. When she was laid up after knee surgery, it would drive her crazy when he headed off for a run or bike or swim. She knew it was selfish, but it made her feel worse to see him training when she couldn't. After a few years of living in the swirl of her own self-generated competitiveness, she realized that she needed to "beat that beast" out of her mind. She needed to be comfortable with, no more than that, happy and proud of her own accomplishments, and stop comparing herself to her speedier mate's. It took a couple of years, but Katrine's attitude has evolved to a better balance. I'm impressed. I know what that kind of intra-relationship competitiveness can feel like. We women sometimes have to reach deep inside ourselves to find our strength in the face of our male partner's seeming superiority (after all, they do have a natural physical advantage---never mind the socio-economic advantages). I wish I could say that it only took five years to beat that beast in my case. Sigh.
One thing that struck me when I was speaking with Katrine was when she said, "he's faster than me, obviously." Why does it have to be obvious? Yes, as a statistical generalization, men are faster than women. Within any relationship though, there's no guarantee that will be the case. Except...except for the niggling fact that it seems to be a rare man who will partner up with a woman stronger and faster than he is. Mary Beth, the other woman I interviewed this morning, has experienced the short end of that stick. She's a successful, super-athletic (and yes, beautiful) woman in her mid-thirties. She's had a series of relationships go south in the face of her athleticism. In high school, she allowed her relationship to side track her from participating in Track & Field, to compensate for her boyfriend's insecurity with her strength, and to avoid his less-than-supportive retaliatory behaviour when she did take part in sports. Then in college Mary Beth decided against playing basketball to try to maintain the balance in a long distance relationship she was involved in. To no avail. As she's gotten older, Mary Beth has made the conscious decision to be the best she can in the sports and fitness activities she's passionate about, and which give her so much joy (more to come on Mary Beth in another post). She decided to stop holding herself back in an effort to please men intimidated by her vigour. I'm sad and disappointed to report that the result is that Mary Beth is still single, despite her desire for a life partner. She recently got out of a dying relationship, largely because he couldn't deal with her being as strong and fast as he was.
No, not all men are threatened by women who are more talented athletes than they are. Men who aren't athletes themselves, for example, are often quite content to support their athletic partner. But it's a rare and precious man who can be in a relationship with a woman who participates in the same sport he does, and is "better" at it than he is. Men don't like to be beaten by women. They feel emasculated (I'm not a man, yet even when I hear that word it has an uncomfortable onomatopoeic ring to it). Not that women aren't complicit, too, in the power-balance-dance around sports. A lot of women don't want to beat men. We become enablers, by purposely holding ourselves back to bolster a male ego.
I wish I had a solution. I know what I don't think the solution is--not being true to our nature. Slowing down. Playing weak. Pretending fragility. It turns out that pleasing men is a conundrum with a lot more complexity than Cosmo lets on. In the meantime, be yourself.
Friday, September 18, 2009
And Kim's experience is hardly unusual. Raise your hands if you've been taken out by your (often well-meaning) boyfriend/partner/husband/significant other and ended up in a situation that was above your head, where the motto was "do as I do, dress as I do, use the gear I do; oh, and also, watch me kick your butt." No wonder so many women abandon sports. They have no idea that what seemed to be outside their capacity is only temporarily so. They don't stick around long enough to find out.
Kim did--stick around that is. She's an extraordinary skier now (not to mention kayaker, mountain biker, climber etc...). Amazingly, she stuck with the boyfriend too (now her husband and father of their son, but definitely no longer her ski instructor), and together they recognized that there was a niche that needed to be filled; that is, sports clothing and gear specifically designed for women. Until the last five years or so, most companies have taken the approach of (here comes my new retail term, in a context) "shrinking & pinking," in other words, taking men's clothing and gear and just making it in smaller sizes and, yes, offering it in pink. [Full disclosure: I have nothing against pink. It's just a really really bad colour for me.]
Kim and Mike decided to open a women-only store. Everyone told them they were crazy (people seem to love to tell other people that their dreams are crazy--why is that?--are they threatened perchance?). People said that women didn't want their own place to shop (if such a store existed in NYC, I guess I'd shop there only 95% of the time, that's true). People said it was folly to split the market. Sigh. Whatever. As Kim says, "If you have a really great idea, run with it. Take advice and constructive criticism from experts, but never let them quash your dream." I'm taking that advice to heart as I send out my book proposal.
Outdoor Divas slogan?--Women are not small men.
Final thought--those English Lit degrees are a great preparation for life, contrary to popular belief. Maybe reading all those books keeps the world nice and open.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
A few weeks before she went to Sweden she was in Sports Authority picking up some last minute hockey equipment when this happened: A girl, maybe 8 years old, picked up a pair of pink hockey gloves. With a big smile she showed them to her mother, "Look, Mom, I could wear pink and play hockey." The excitement and hope in the young girl's voice was palpable. Her mother said, "Girls do not play hockey. Any girl who plays hockey is masculine and not feminine, and would not wear pink." KP picked up the pink hockey mouth guard she had been looking for, walked over to the mother and daughter and said, "Excuse me, but I wonder if you think that I am feminine or masculine?" She was wearing a skirt (newsflash--you can play hockey and wear skirts, though apparently some people can't imagine it). The mother said "feminine I guess." KP thanked her, looked at the small girl, and told her about how she was picking up a pink mouth guard in preparation to go skate professionally in Sweden. Then she said, "Girls can play any sport they want to and maintain femininity...it's all in how you are raised." Oh mama. I'd like to have seen how conversation went at the dinner table that night in the young girl's family.
So what's feminine? I'd hate to define it, and why do we need to? Be your own person. Travel lightly in the world. Contribute. Share. Be a source of positive energy. And wear whatever colour, for whatever sport--it won't change your gender!
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
It's funny how that happens. You read a book and the issues in the book seem to strike right to the core of your own life. We read our own lives into the best books. In this case, I realized that I was being as small as Gene was about Phineas in the book. Gene jounced the tree branch, causing Phineas to fall, because he was sure that Phineas was deliberately trying to undermine his studying, and to show him up. As we know, Phineas' mind didn't work that way, nor did his heart (and of course my partner wasn't trying to do anything nefarious to me either). Gene had created the mean rivalry in his own mind, because it seemed inconceivable that someone else couldn't feel as small as Gene did. How I felt on my mountain bike was up to me. I created every second of that ride in my own mind. I could find it fun and challenging to try to get up the steep, sandy hill between the looming rocks, or I could find it discouraging and frustrating, and feel small, and want to blame it all on someone else. As soon as I remembered Gene, I remembered it was my mind and my ride.
It's hard to stay in our own moments, but it makes all the difference.