Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pedaling for the Women of Rwanda

“Race what you bring” is the inclusively spirited motto for the monthly races run by the Rwandan Cycling Federation. In July, Angelique Mukandekezi showed up at the race on one of the Chinese single speed bikes that are prolific around Rwanda and East Africa. Just to give you perspective, my bike, which is a pretty good bike, weighs, as I recall, since I tend not to fully absorb bike facts, in the neighbourhood of 17 pounds. Angelique’s bike weighed in at around 40 pounds. The race, at Nyamata, drew 84 women participants (in case anyone thinks the women of Rwanda don’t want to cycle, that number should make them think again) and Angelique won the women’s field. True, the field was not exactly packed with top racers, but Angelique’s win drew interest from Jock Boyer at Team Rwanda, who had been paying some attention to the women’s field, wondering if he might find the right woman to add to their ever-strengthening team of men (who were profiled in a New Yorker article by Philip Gourevitch).

Jock brought Angelique in for a test, which basically means that she came to his house in Ruhengeri, where the team is based and trains and got on the Velotron, which essentially calculates the energy wattage output of the person riding. Angelique had the highest watts/kg ratio of any woman tested in Rwanda. And so, in September this year, Angelique became the first woman on the team. In October, Angelique’s first full month of training, the team paid her 30,000 Rwandan francs (approximately $50 USD) to stay out of the field (Angelique normally earns her living as a field worker) and cycle train exclusively. For perspective—the average annual income in Rwanda is $400 USD. Not quite junior bond trader pay, but Angelique is making pretty good money for a 22-year-old woman in Rwanda.

Staying out of the field means that every Monday, Angelique rides about 100 miles from Bougasera, where she lives with her parents, to Ruhengeri. She trains Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then makes the long ride home on Friday.

Inspired by Angelique, 24-year-old Janette Uwimana, who had been hanging around the team on and off, more on around the Tour de Kigali the last couple of years (cycling groupies aren’t only for Lance), upped her effort and has joined, too.

Being a strong woman in Rwanda is not easy. The tiny African country often feels more colonial than African, Kimberly told me. An already very conservative ethos is overlaid with a strong Catholicism. There’s not a lot of music. The women still wear the traditional dress for the most part and are timid and uneducated (as are a majority of the men, too—the uneducated part, not the timid bit). Women work the fields and have babies, while the men, in large part, hang out and drink banana beer, conserving their energy for a round of spousal abuse when their wives finish working.

When Angelique started at the team’s training camp, she wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. Well that’s changing. A few weeks on the bike, getting stronger every day, and Angelique is starting to have fun with the guys, to be part of the team.

A couple of weeks into her training, Angelique encountered her first overt harassment on the bike. About two and a half hours into a rainy training ride, shortly after nailing a tough, technical downhill, Angelique got a flat as they rode into a village. Janette and Kimberly got to work on changing Angelique’s tire (something she will learn in the weeks to come). By the time they had finished the job, there were about 50 people hanging around, mostly young men—not unusual when Kimberly stops, since a white woman, especially on a bike, is quite a strange creature to behold. When the three women hopped on their bikes to head off, a man grabbed Angelique’s back wheel as she was clipping in. Angelique, still fighting her timidity, didn’t know how to react. Fortunately, Kimberly had no such reservations. She screamed at the man to back off (using expletives appropriate to the situation). He backed off.

When Angelique caught up to Kimberly she yelled, in her newly acquired English, “Thank you—Kim!” Kimberly had never heard Angelique so much as raise her voice. Later, Kimberly explained to Angelique through the interpreter that Angelique can and should say no anytime anyone touches her bike, as forcefully as she needs. Kimberly might have added, anytime anyone touches her body, but one piece of progress at a time. And perhaps, for Angelique, learning to protect her bike is the best initial step to learning how to protect her body.

In her first week with the team, Kimberly had “the” conversation with Angelique. No getting married and having babies, if she wants to ride with the team. Not never, but not now. Because in Rwanda, the fact that Angelique has made it this long without getting married, and is still childless at 22, is something unusual already. She has already withstood the typical societal claims on her body for longer than many other women.

Janette, too, is coming out of her shell, getting stronger. Against the prevalent cultural grain, or men preferring women with a nice bit of extra, Janette is losing the bit of weight she needs to shed to be stronger on the bike, improving her diet, cutting out the soda and other junk food, claiming personal control over her body, shaping it to her ends, not to what society (aka men) want.

The next task for Angelique and Janette is to develop their competitive instinct. That was supposed to happen in the Rwandan National Championships on October 30th, where Kimberly was hoping that Angelique and Janette could place first and second, by working together, something they were learning in the last days before the race. Unlike the men, Angelique and Janette don’t understand yet how to be competitors on the bike and friends off the bike. In workouts, whichever of the two is lagging will cycle hard to catch up, but just that. Once they are riding together again, neither tries intentionally to outstrip or push the other. To compete is not in the Rwandan women’s upbringing, something Kimberly hopes to change.

Making that change is going to be hard. Women’s cycling in Rwanda is not exactly top of mind, even for the Rwandan Cycling Federation, which canceled the women’s race at the National Championships at the very last minute. Kimberly publicly complained, “I've been training these girls for the past four weeks, spent over $600 on their training, rode hundreds of miles and they are ready and wanting to race and that's it?” She went on to tell me, “I said, I was disappointed in their decision and said it wasn't right to do that to the girls and if they were going to cancel the race that it should have been done weeks ago.”

Undeterred, Kimberly says, “This is simply a delay.” She and Jock already have plans to put on their own women’s race in the New Year, once they’ve gotten through this hectic period of the African Continental Championships (November 8-11) and then the Tour of Rwanda (November 20-26).

In the meantime, training continues. Progress, being what it is, is never a straight line. One week, about five weeks into Angelique’s training, she seemed to forget how to clip in and out of her pedals, cycling for miles without clipping in, and then, when she finally did, tipping over still clipped in, damaging her bike. I won’t even mention the tire changing struggles. But Kimberly will not give up on Angelique, on Janette, on the future of women cycling in Rwanda, which she sees as inextricably intertwined with the future of women in Rwanda.

Because Team Rwanda, as you’ve guessed by now, is about more than cycling. For the men, “we are trying to train them to be not just good cyclists, but also good men,” Kimberly says. In addition to the practice of discipline, hard work and adherence to a training schedule, learning to read and write English, for example, is part of the training camp curriculum, an invaluable skill for any advancement in Rwanda or elsewhere in Africa (or outside Africa). Now that there are women on the team, there’s an added opportunity for the men to learn to respect their strong women counterparts.

Kimberly’s goal is to develop a field of women cyclists over the next twelve months, so that next year at least one Rwandan woman, if not more, will be competing at the African Continental Cycling Championship, a cycling event notoriously short on women participants.

What’s good for the gander is in spades for the goose. A survey of landscape of studies on the topic done by the Christian Science Monitor shows emphatically that empowering girls and women is one of the surest routes to economic and social development in a country. The fact that women may occupy political positions in government is not necessarily an indication of women’s general condition—certainly not in Rwanda. Women’s value and advancement needs to develop from the bottom up. How we empower women may be through education, it may be by providing them with micro-loans, and it might just be by putting women on a bike and teaching them how to ride strong and fast for all to see and respect.

As Kimberly says, “when we ride through a village, the woman on the side of the road clap and cheer for Angelique and Janette. I like to think that every time they see them on their bikes, they see a possible future that’s different. Maybe it sounds pie-in-the-sky, but I think that we can change the society for women, one bike at a time.”

You can help that change happen. Add your voice to Kimberly’s work. Send Team Rwanda (choose Kimberly as the contact person) this note: “I support women’s cycling in Africa and hope that Team Rwanda will develop a serious women’s team!”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Just Quit & Just Do It

To find our way in life sometimes we have to just quit, and other times we have to just do it. In Kimberly Coats’ case, she did both.

In 2008, at 42 years old, possessed of a high paying dream job as business development manager for Sysco, schmoozing the top chefs in Vegas, and generally possessed of all else we are supposed to want to “possess” in a quintessentially successful American life, a house, a car, a husband and such like, Kimberly realized that what she had was not what she wanted. She made of list of things that were important to her: She wanted to travel. She wanted to do something that helped people, to give back to the world in a meaningful way. And she wanted to incorporate her love of cycling into that mix of travel and purpose.

Around the same time, Kimberly read Positive Spin, an article in the September 2008 issue of Outside Magazine about Project Rwanda, a non-profit “committed to furthering the economic development of Rwanda through initiatives based on the bicycle as a tool and symbol of hope. One of Project Rwanda’s main initiatives was designing and distributing at low cost special cargo bikes for the transport of coffee (one of Rwanda’s key crops). The so-called coffee bikes significantly decreased the transport time to processing plants, so that the coffee berries were that much fresher and the resulting product that much higher quality.

The article released the proverbial bee into Kimberly’s bonnet (or cycling helmet, in her case). Six months later, in April 2009, she was on a plane to Rwanda for a three-month volunteer stint with the project. Volunteering turned into paid work and Kimberly got involved not only in the coffee bike work, but also with one of Project Rwanda’s other initiatives, a national cycling team, Team Rwanda (which was the subject of a long article by Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker). When Kimberly’s contract with Project Rwanda finished, she increased her involvement with the cyclists and eventually switched full-time to working with the team, which is now its own entity.

The team operates on a shoestring budget. Kimberly earns in a year now, what she used to earn in a month. She doesn’t have health care, and she can’t count on having water or electricity every day. Her clothing occupies half a shelf. And she and her husband are divorced. As she says, “There’s that old cliché that if you follow your heart and passion, then the money will come. Well, I’m doing that, and I guess I have a roof over my head and no debts.” Though she adds, “I’m way behind on retirement.”

I believe that what that shopworn cliché really means, is that money’s importance is diminished in the face of passion. To wake each day with a clear sense of purpose, with a drive separate and deeper than making money, changes our views of what “enough money” means. There is, after all, no absolute benchmark of what “the money will come” looks like.

When I speak with her, Kimberly sounds happy, except that word is too pale by far to describe the fullness she describes. How she sounds is in love, not with someone or something, but with everything. She is traveling. She is doing something that she believes is changing life for the better in Rwanda. And she is cycling up a storm, training with the men, and now the women, on the team, and in the best shape of her life, at 45.

Speaking with Kimberly, I was reminded of a documentary I saw recently about Bill Cunningham, a long-time fashion photographer for the New York Times, known for his candid street photos of celebrities and ordinaries alike. At 82 years old, though he marinates daily in haute couture circles, surrounded by the beautiful, the rich and the powerful, Cunningham himself lives an ascetic life. He has little money. He duct tapes his rain poncho when it starts to show wear, and he has not much use for food, except as fuel. He has never had a romantic relationship. Yet, as portrayed in the film, so steeped is he in his love for his work, that in a world of legendary bitchiness and snobbery, he maintains a DNA-deep kindness, of an authenticity rarely achieved. Cunningham made me want to try harder, to love more. So does Kimberly.

When Kimberly comes back to the US for visits, her friends and family offer her jobs and alternatives. They suggest it’s time to finish up with her “African adventure.” On the side, some ask her what her secret is, how she did “it.” Kimberly says, “The secret of how I did it is…I quit.” No secret. It’s not headline news that we are attached to the stuff and style of our lives. Nor is it news that when we find the will to voluntarily let go of our supposed needs, that many are happier for it. We make space for love.

And yet…we hang on for dear life, convinced that the next career move with a fat pay raise, the next acquisition of…some…thing…will be the one that assuages all of our desires. And then…it doesn’t.

I’m not ready to give up my nice life and run off to Africa, or start duct taping $5 rain ponchos; but it makes me think: What can I do more of? What can I do with less of? I aspire, not to stuff or style, but more love.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is Strong Sexy?

I was asked recently what I thought about men watching women’s sports for the eye candy. Did I think it was bad, the interviewer asked? My immediate thought was, yes, of course. I don’t want men watching women athletes for the turn-on, I want men to be watching for the strength and grace and prowess of the players; because the women are just as good athletes as their male counterparts. When I thought further about the question though, my feelings about the issue got more complicated. In thinking of World Cup soccer, a sport where the women are fierce, fast, strong and covered in mud…well, if men find that sexy, how much better that is than the media-generated ideal of fragile bunny beauty, a mere willow wisp, toppling over from the weight of her surgically enhanced breasts.

ESPN seems to think that strong women are sexy, or at least their magazine’s 2011 Bodies We Want issue capitalizes on this new direction in women’s sex appeal, with its photo spread of modestly posed nude photos of top ranked athletes, women and men, showing off just how rippling a woman’s abs can be.

The bodies on display are, indeed, beautiful. And if we women are killing ourselves trying to live up to some mythical beauty ideal, wouldn’t it be nicer if the ideal were not quite so mythical, and instead something real. I feel certain that Hope Solo is not photo-enhanced for television while she is playing soccer matches. And though I will never play World Cup soccer, I can aspire to be my strongest self. The only thing stopping me from my own rippling set of abs is the sit-ups I don’t do (okay, and maybe chocolate cake). Not only is the strong, tough, active woman ideal far more attainable than anything we see in Playboy or Vogue, because it is less constricted in its definition, the strong ideal is healthier, physically and mentally.

When I say healthier, I really mean it. The beauty ideal propagated in our society is ruining girls. Beauty and sexuality have become so completely intertwined as to be indistinguishable. A Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls found that the increased sexualization in magazines, marketing, television shows, movies and song lyrics harmed girls’ interpersonal relationships, fostered greater body dissatisfaction (as if that issue needs more kindling), and its companion—eating disorders, increased depression, generally affected physical health, and even led to diminished cognitive skills (apparently they posed math problems to girls trying on sweaters and girls trying on bathing suits, and those trying on sweaters scored much higher).

The Disney princess effect is sucking the life out of girls, leaving them on the front stoop, waiting for Prince Charming, instead of outside running around in the fresh air, where they might not look pretty-in-pink every moment and their tiara might fall off. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that girls drop out of sports at a rate of 6:1 versus boys. And a Girl Scout study showed that many girls between 11-17 years old don’t play sports because they think their bodies don’t look good.

And even if girls do think their bodies look good, there are a lot of messages out there that we shouldn’t be using our bodies for sports anyway. Passing through Times Square subway station these last weeks I’ve been struck by the new Levi’s ad, which shows boys skateboarding and doing tricks on bikes wearing their jeans, whereas the girl’s jeans are down around her ankles (she’s ostensibly pulling them on, after what, who knows, since she’s standing beside an SUV in the middle of nowhere), flashing us a good look at her lacy panties. The tagline is about creating our legacy. So…boys’ legacies lie in extreme sports and girls’ in their undergarments.

I think that’s enough bad news for now. And lest it’s not obvious, when I advocate for a new beauty or sexy ideal, I’m not advocating for sexually provocative sports uniforms. Scantily clad beach volleyball players do not advance the cause. The Lingerie Football League is not part of the healthy new ideal I’d love to see. Leveraging what Catherine Hakim calls our Erotic Capital (i.e. our sex appeal) in her book of the same name, will not, in my opinion empower us, as Julie Ruvolo suggests in Forbes blog post, “If You’ve Got It, Charge For It”: The Feminism 2.0 Manifesto. Instead it sets women up against each other, in that eternally unhealthy competition for men’s attention, and ensures that aging will continue to be seen as the end of our power and worth—Ruvolo sets that age at 35, so I’m way out of time anyway.

What we want is to redefine sexy completely. There’s hope. The ESPN body issue is a slight breeze, perhaps portending bigger winds of change. And there’s The Kicking Queen, Brianna Amat, who recently became Homecoming Queen and kicked a winning field goal for her football team (all male, except her) on the same day.

One question is whether men will still find the eye candy soccer player (or football player or runner) sexy when they have to deal with the actual strong woman behind the shin guards.

Another question—should that even matter?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Girl Changes Her World

You may have noticed, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the under-layers of that eternally provocative question—“why are we here?” Maybe there doesn’t need to be a reason for everything. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But isn’t it nice to have a reason for something as important as our existence? At a fundamental level, think of how much more reliable and motivated you are when someone else is counting on you for something. Showing up for someone else feels good, right? So is that where we might locate some of our reason for being, our purpose?

I was reminded of this in a stark way reading Leymah Gbowee’s, Mighty Be Our Powers, about coming into her womanhood and finding her strength and activist core in Liberia during the brutal civil war in that country. At one point, speaking about coming out of a long depression (brought on by an abusive relationship, not to mention the horrors of the violence in Liberia), she begins to feel the power of meaning in her life, “I wasn’t sitting home thinking endlessly about what a failure I was; I was doing something, something that actually helped people. The more I did, the more I could do, the more I wanted to do, the more I saw needed to be done.”

Leymah’s story is a we-shall-overcome tale, if ever there was one. But most of us, thankfully (!), do not face such overwhelming challenges. Our worlds are relatively peaceful and easy. Complacence is natural. Nothing in our direct field of vision seems to “need” us. Yet, that feeling Leymah had is, I think, still familiar. Most of us have days we sit at home feeling like failures, then something demands our presence, and I don’t mean just physically, but emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and there’s no space left for despondency.

I spoke to one young woman who found her opportunity to contribute in her own backyard. Paloma Wiggins is a junior in high school in Yellow Springs, Ohio (pop. 3200). She started running in the 7th grade, when one of her friends encouraged her to join the cross-country team. The distances seemed crazy long at first, but it didn’t take much time before Paloma had fallen in love with running over hill and dale, with the feeling that comes with being involved in a sport.

When the small team of five girls got to high school, they decided they at least needed t-shirts, so people would know they existed. The boys’ team had shirts, oh yes, and other PR perks, like free frosties at meets. Paloma, passing over the bake sale, suggested the team organize a 5k event in town for girls and women only, as a way of fundraising for their team. 150 women turned out the first year. “I realized, this was about more than raising money for my cross-country team,” Paloma says. “I saw how invigorating and powerful and supportive it was to have a women-only event. And hearing the women’s stories, ‘this is my first 5k’ or ‘this is my first run since my husband’s death,’ well it was amazing to feel that I was helping women through things in their lives, and helping them feel active, healthy and productive.”

Paloma founded Simply Women Ohio three years ago, after that first 5k event. Although the 5k is the main event of the year (217 women and girls showed up this year—a huge turnout for the size of the community), her organization embraces a broader mission. Simply Women has also established a leadership in athletics award, which will be presented each year to the graduating senior female athlete at the Yellow Springs high school who best demonstrates an enduring model of leadership and a lasting commitment to female athletics. In other words, not necessarily the best athlete, but the girl who is a team player, who encourages others and gives back into sports, not to mention taking her studies seriously.

Paloma’s mission, through Simply Women, is to create broader support structures in the Yellow Springs community for young women participating in sports and other healthy activities. In the short term, Paloma is already searching for her successor, because after next year, she’ll be off to university and she needs someone on the ground in Yellow Springs to carry on the day-to-day work. Any takers?

Not all of us find our purpose so early in life. And that’s perfectly fine. If we’re listening, our minds, our spirits, our bodies even will let us know what to do when the time is right. Start simple. What things get you up happy in the morning? Notice what makes you feel good. Explore those avenues and you just might find your Simply Women Ohio opportunity.

This post appeared on the Huffington Post under a different title.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shoot to Score

When I ask, Olivia says she thinks she’s been playing soccer for four, maybe five years. Five years, her mother, Jane, clarifies. So Olivia (Liv to most everyone) has been playing soccer for half her life (and maybe it ought to count for more, since for at least the first eighteen months of her potential soccer playing life she wasn’t yet walking).

Liv plays a lot of soccer. Last spring, for example, she played on a club team that practiced for an hour and a half on Tuesday, Friday and Saturdays, played games Sundays, and had what’s called academy practices on Monday and Wednesdays (of which Liv was only required to attend one, but always attended both). Her own hour and a half practices and extra academies were apparently not quite enough, because on Tuesdays her younger brother’s team’s academy practice was before hers, and Liv would play with them for that hour and a half, too. For the record, Jane wanted me to add this important not-a-tiger-mum-disclaimer: All add-on practices are at Liv’s behest.

One of Liv’s favourite add-ons is when there’s a scrimmage between the girls and boys teams. “The games get stronger and more physical when the girls play the boys,” Jane says. “Like if we really want it,” Liv says, “we have to put more power into the ball, and be more aggressive. So we’re everywhere, running fast, dribbling, passing and taking more shots on goal.” Like having the confidence to race Nascar rules in Ski Cross, the girls’ game goes up a level when they face off with the boys, an opportunity for the girls to show themselves just how much game they’ve got.

All the playing has paid off. Liv’s good. She plays on the best club team for her age. In the summers though there’s no club team, so Liv participates in the local soccer camp. And it was there this summer that Liv’s commitment to and understanding of her sport was tested in a new way.

The girls were playing Around the World, a fast moving drill that mimics game conditions and tests a player’s ability to shoot on goal from different angles. Girls rotated in and out of the goal keeping position, as they chose. Liv was up and took her shot on goal. June, the goalie, a Hope-Solo-in-training, tried to block Liv’s ball with her wrist and broke the growth plate in her wrist. Or at least, that’s what Liv learned later. At the time, June stopped playing, but the no one knew how serious her injury was.

The next day, neither June, nor her older sister, Martha (a friend of Liv’s) showed up to soccer camp. And when Liv called Martha, to ask if she’d come over to play, Martha said she was going to the doctor with her mother and June, to check out June’s wrist, which was probably broken, maybe from soccer camp. Liv hung up the phone and dissolved in tears, telling Jane, “I KNOW I broke June’s wrist.” Jane called June’s mother immediately, to confirm the story.

Despite Liv’s distress at the phone call, later that day, Liv went over to Martha’s for a sleepover, and June acted as if everything was fine between them. It wasn’t until the next morning that things got strange and uncomfortable. At the swimming pool with Liv and Martha and her cousins, June started to act like her broken wrist was Liv’s fault, after all.

Even if it’s been a long time since you were ten-years old (as in my own case), I bet that, like me, you can still remember at a cellular level the pain of being shunned by other girls, no matter how brief the moment. Hell hath no fury and all, well that applies equally to girls as to women. I would not wish it on anyone.

Liv retreated to her mother’s side to recoup her mojo, and Jane recommended she text her club team soccer coach, Noah.

Noah has coached Liv’s club teams for the past two years. His philosophy is to coach the whole person, not just the athlete, and he well understands the leadership and independence he is instilling in his young soccer athletes (his “little warriors” as he calls them), particularly the girls. One of his practice (and game) rules is that a player is never supposed to say, “I’m sorry” on the field, during play. Something I can imagine girls having trouble with, since we’re socialized to apologize for any aggression. After all, a proper girl isn’t aggressive, right? Ha.

An aside, Natalie Angier offers up this perspective, in her book, Woman: An Intimate Geography, “Aggression and depression sound like two different, even polarized phenomena, but they’re not. Depression is aggression turned inward, directed against the self, or the imagined, threatening self.” So perhaps one reason for the significantly higher incidences of depression in women is our propensity to apologize for any aggressive tendencies we might accidentally manifest, say, on the soccer field.

Of course, the girls on Noah’s team can say sorry afterwards, but so long as they are playing clean and fair, there’s no apologizing mid-flight for the accidental hurts inflicted. It’s sports. It happens. Noah’s rule saves a lot of time and breath.

Liv texted Noah that she had taken a shot on goal and broken the goalie’s arm, asking him what she ought to do. Noah texted back, “Get her an ice pack,” and then, “Can’t wait to see you strike the ball when you get back [for the club team season].”

Word got around the soccer camp community about the incident. One coach said to Jane, “If Olivia were a boy, she would have been hoisted on the other boys’ shoulders.” But another coach made a backhand comment to Liv about breaking June’s arm.

Liv has had some bad moments, though once she’d texted with Noah, she never revisited any guilt or uncertainty about her blamelessness. That was solidly past tense. She’s glad, too, that the summer soccer camp doesn’t overlap with the club team, so its unlikely the story will get around the gossip mill. It’s just easier if she doesn’t have to answer, “You broke her arm, really? Was it by accident?” And she is sure of this: “I felt bad, because June was hurt, but it wasn’t my fault.”

Liv says the incident won’t hold her back in her game. Three cheers! That’s playing soccer like a girl.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Workout With Purpose

We workout for all sorts of reasons—maybe we do it to de-stress, or to lose weight, to get stronger, or to be healthy, or for all those ends and others. All good reasons, but beneath this first layer of forces driving us out onto the roads or trails, into the pool, to the yoga studio, or the gym, resides a sub-layer that is the deeper core of meaning we bring with us into everything we do. That is: we nurture our physical, emotional and spiritual health, so that we can live our best life.

As integrative physician Tieraona Low Dog, MD, of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in an article in Delicious Living, “When you make health the goal rather than viewing it as a resource, it’s easy to get stressed out, rigid, and narrow-minded. Health is what helps you live the life you want—it’s a resource, not a destination. (my italics)” She is talking about the negative stress we can bring to the very act of working out. For example, working out to get thinner, and beating ourselves up every day we’re not thin enough (never mind, by what media-mediated standard we might be judging the result); or working out to get stronger or faster, but in the process actually wearing ourselves down and getting super-cranky.

I would take this resource-not-destination thought another step further, and point out that if you are inclined to feel that we are here for a purpose, and that part of our raison d’être is to make the world a better place (after all, what else could it be? Certainly not to make the world a worse place, right? Besides, what better way to feel that we have agency in our lives, than making a difference in our world), then having the resource of our good health and well being is a key ingredient in our ability to fulfill our purpose.

Pilar Gerasimo, in her Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-Up World, goes further still. She says that being healthy is a revolutionary act by which we reclaim our vitality that is both our individual right and our collective responsibility. Big words those—“right” and “responsibility.”


How we are in the world matters. How we approach our workouts is just one aspect of how we are in our lives. Not a separate aspect, mind you. We are one person, consistent within ourselves at our essential center.

Lest this all sound a bit high-minded and unattainable, I’m not talking about becoming Gandhi, quite the contrary. I am referring to the small things, the every day things. Most action we take has the power to make the world a better or worse place. How we treat the people around us. Did you smile at the barista when you got you’re a.m. coffee? Or were you scowling for your caffeine, your mind already hours ahead into your day? The very energy we bring to our life affects those around us, and ripples outward. You know what I’m talking about—those people who make you feel good, just by being around them (and their opposites). And when we are strong and healthy, how much more likely it is that we have that positive energy to spread around. That’s who we want to be. And in the end, that’s really why we workout.

Sounds heavy. But in fact, adopting this perspective can bring an incredible lightness to your workouts. Instead of feeling the pressure of the goals you may have set for yourself (that you may be fixating on, or beating yourself up about), you are lifted in the updraft of energy that purpose creates.

You can also find this on Huffington Post.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Vote, Run, Lead

I was privileged to meet with dynamo activist Tiffany Dufu this morning, whose bracingly organized mind and big ideas on women's leadership had me glued to my chair while she talked. And I tried not to interrupt too much with questions and my own views on how sports fit with her flow.

Tiffany is the President of The Whitehouse Project, which, as you may now guess, means the "run" in the title of the blog post does not refer to the kind of run I'm usually talking about...but have no fear, I'll bring it all together (the function of my somewhat one-track mind). The Whitehouse Project has for the past decade, through its Vote, Run, Lead program, identified, encouraged, educated, trained and generally set women on their way in politics. New initiatives coming will focus on leadership in other key arenas, like business.

One of the difficulties women face on entering politics is their often innate (genetic? socialized?) aversion to public declarations of ambition. Not just, "I want to do this." But also, "I'm the best person to do this." As Tiffany said, it's as if women believe in the Santa Claus of affirmation, like somehow if we do a good job someone will notice and pat us on the back, without us ever having to call attention to our efforts. We know how well that works out. Where is that Santa guy?

Politics teaches women how to own their ambitions. And if you've read my blog before, you probably already know where I'm going with this. But I'll go there anyway. So does sports. There, I said it, again. Because we're not out of the woods, and reminding is reinforcing, until owning our ambition is encoded into our very DNA. Sports (and involvement in politics) helps shift our consciousness from "maybe someone will notice me over here, tucked in the corner," to "here I am and I want this."

You can vote, run (for office), lead, or you can vote, run (on the roads or trails), lead. The important part is to know, own and capitalize on your strength. That means putting your skin in the game (i.e. vote), owning your strength (i.e. run) and mining the value of your strength (i.e. lead). We're here for a reason (here as in, on this earth, in this world). Let's not waste our time waiting for Santa to show.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Gift of Not Finishing

Last week I set out with my partner to do a 20-mile trail run in the South Yuba River canyon, from Little Washington to Purdon Crossing. There would be some elevation gain -- okay, 6,000 feet to be exact -- but we took the optimist's path, and set that detail aside. True, we arrived late to the trailhead (okay, noon on a blazing, 95-degrees-in-the-shade day and oh yes, there was quite a bit of non-shade on the trail). And between us we only had three liters of water. You wouldn't be wrong in thinking that we had taken our optimistic thinking too far, perhaps even into the realm of trail running for dummies.

Now when I have a goal in mind, I can get a little dogged (like, canine-sinking-his-teeth-into-a-toy-to-never-let-go dogged). Not to mention that we had cars parked at each end of the hike, so the exigencies of transportation created an added incentive. I wanted to finish.

By mile six things looked less than promising. The map was studied. The words "campsite" and "road" at one of the trail junctions flashed like Times Square billboards...more than eight miles further along. Running became run-hike-run, which became run-hike-hike-hike-run, and then hike. I wondered (however fleetingly so, it is not to my credit) about the appropriateness of leaving one's running-partner-in-extremis by the side of a road, and running the last five miles alone, just so I could "finish."

When we reached the road, at just over four hours and 30 minutes into the progressively slowing run-hike, I knew we were finished, and that what we'd done was more than enough. It was then, when I dropped my 20-miler chew toy, that I found the balance in the day.

The road was un-trafficked, in an area that brought to mind Deliverance (cue the banjo!), as unfair as that comparison likely is to the actual residents. We passed a couple of roads (or driveways?) leading off into the dense and uninviting woods. The next house, set back in the woods, was at least visible. At the gate, a tiny rock was painted with the words "inquire about our guest cabin." Was the cabin referred to the structure with the tin sheet roof and the caving-in walls, set some 25 feet from what seemed to be the house proper? Was there even a door on the cabin? Was the sign ironic?

And how about the large dog cage, empty of dog? I imagined a menacing one called it home. Already I was picturing big teeth, saliva dripping from the bottom of the dog's chin as it prepared to attack. I walked down the drive toward the house with trepidation. No dog. Just two little cats, heads popping up and then bounding away, tails pointed skyward. I knocked on the rickety screen door. A woman in her mid-fifties answered with a friendly smile. She offered her phone -- a landline -- to call into Nevada City, the nearest town, for a taxi. The area was off the mobile phone grid, naturally. She went back to cutting hearts out of a spot-patterned bed sheet. Still a bit worried, I asked after the dog, who was no longer, she told me. I breathed an internal sigh of relief.

But there was the pig. I had time. The taxi we'd called wouldn't arrive for at least half an hour. The women led me into her bedroom, adjacent to the kitchen where I'd come in, there, lounging and snorting at the end of her bed, on her own crib mattress (complete with sheets and extra bolster pillows) was Ruby, a 160-pound Vietnamese pot belly pig. Seventeen years old, arthritic and ailing, Ruby was a former service pig. She had visited hospices, hospitals and schools in her prime and had sported the pig-fashions of the day. I crouched down to pet and chat with Ruby. I looked at her baby book, which included a younger Ruby in a Sugar Plum Fairy outfit.

Inside myself, I felt a fresh flow of energy, as my internal rhythm re-calibrated from the truncated exertion of the run to this new, unlooked for experience, finding the adjusted harmony in the day.

In addition to the introduction to Ruby, the woman offered me stories: that retired miners liked to spend the summer at the nearby campground panning for gold in the South Yuba River, the very area which was the source, as she told me, of the wealth that had built San Francisco; that raising organic, pastured chickens to lay Omega-3 enriched eggs is hard work, best done by the young; that pig rescue organizations have a job on their hands (pigs start breeding at four months and are essentially as prodigious in their procreation as rabbits, much to the shock of casual pigs-for-pets owners); that her area (though not she herself) was the supplier of most medical marijuana to the Sacramento area, hence the unwelcoming cast to most of the properties around.

When the taxi arrived, 45 minutes later, the driver parched and unimpressed by the condition of the road, I was sorry to leave; and not sorry at all to have not finished the run. Despite my dust-caked legs and the twigs in my hair, I felt clean and refreshed. A day I might have viewed as a failure had been an unprecedented success.

We didn't force the run. Like water encountering an obstacle, we flowed around the challenges, finding the most natural course for that day.

The felt experience of that South Yuba day was like I was back on my slackline (like a tightrope -- follow the link to see what I mean), which I've been playing with, and perhaps it was the familiarity of the sensation that made meeting Ruby possible.

I've been practicing walking backwards on the slackline, also turning around, though I'm hardly beyond beginner in the forward walking department. What I've noticed in all of my efforts, is that I can literally feel, physically, in my body, how getting frustrated foils my intent, how I can only execute a maneuver once I let go of the angst-y need to succeed.

One more vivid example of that physical-mental feeling in action happened one day as I rode my mountain bike home from the grove where I usually slackline. The ride is not particularly technical, but then I'm low-skill mountain biker. There's one particular rock, maybe the size of a cushy, upholstered footstool, that's been menacing me since forever (okay, for the past three summers). The trail winds around the rock in a sharp-ish turn, flanked by thick tie-your-bike-up mountain shrubbery. I have always balked at the last minute, and put a steadying foot down. But this one day, as I approached my rock-nemesis, I was feeling a nice post-slackline calm. What was the worst? A tumble in the bushes? A chain ring in my calf? Been there. Done that. I glanced at the rock and it seemed to soften, the path seemed to widen, and around I went, and have done ever since. No force. Just flow.

To me that experience feels like slowing down my energy, by which I don't mean sapping or diminishing my energy, rather I mean gathering my energy inward, moving toward my center, my place of balance, a state which can never be achieved through pushy frustration.

And that physical feeling, practiced over and over, gets in some sense dialed in at a cellular level, and slowly, slowly translates into life itself.

You can find this blog on Huffington Post, too...

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's Not About a Better Body

I have tried all sorts of different workouts in my time—in addition to all the outdoor things I partake of, from running and cycling (off and on road), to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking, to kayaking, rock climbing and swimming, I do yoga and what’s variously called Physique57 or Bar Effect (or Core Fusion, or Nalini) classes. In what feels like another lifetime (during my law school years), I was an aerobics instructor. And I’ve tried all sorts of gym classes (despite my non-membership), from kickboxing, to step classes (yes—that goes back some years), to pole dancing and Zumba.

Some of these pursuits promise to make me longer and leaner, to re-shape my body to the ideal—I wish. Actually wait, really? Is that really why I’m engaging in a particular activity? Other activities promise me a calmer mind and Gumby’s hamstrings. The first sounds pretty good, the second sounds implausible, unless I’m willing to give up running (not!). Some of my sports make me no promises. My mountain trails have never spoken to me about their intentions for my body, or at least not that I know of.

What I do know is that far too many workouts are pitched as answers to the mythic pursuit of the perfect body. Mythic—because the very idea of perfection is a myth: Perfect by what or who’s standard? Society’s? By which we mean exactly what?—media generated images of beauty?—By which what I really mean is media manipulated and distorted (aka falsified—I mean you, Photoshop and your ilk) images of the unreal.

How can we possibly think that there is one standard of beauty, when we know (we really know) that each one of us is an individual with our own particular tastes? You think steak is the perfect food and my pick would be hummus. You feel perfect in pink and I feel best in black. You define musicals as the perfect entertainment and I’m not happy unless I’m crying in my theater seat, no soundtrack please. You get the idea. It’s no different for bodies.

To pursue perfection is a trap, a rat maze with no escape. Perfect is a confining concept, one that holds up a rigid not-every-person’s-ideal as a benchmark for all of us.

Instead, I propose we think of the pursuit of “excellence” over perfection. Excellence is individual, though paradoxically, also less subjective. That’s because excellence comes from inside ourselves, it is our mastery of the particular field we have chosen. It is investing our efforts at our personal maximum level in pursuit of our best self, holding our own selves to the highest standard. And this excellence is far different from perfection, that more confining concept, which implies the best of the best of the best, as defined by the whole entire world.

As Carl Jung said, “Perfection belongs to the gods; the most that we can hope for is excellence.”

So to burden our workouts with the end goal of achieving the perfect body is to pursue the impossible dream. Not because you can’t do it. Because the end goal does not even exist!

Uh-oh. If our goal is a chimera, where does that leave us?—On the couch with a box of chocolates? (Not that I don’t love my couch and chocolate). Of course not, or at least, not until we’ve finished our workouts.

We simply cannot be working out just for better bodies. The good news is that deep down we’re not that deluded. Studies have shown that women who are encouraged in a workout setting with the carrot of positive reinforcement about the health and happiness benefits of their exercise are far more likely to enjoy and stick with a workout. Whereas workout settings, which use the stick of negative self-image, shaming the participant into thinking she needs a smaller bum, thinner thighs or a flatter stomach, foster recidivism.

Why we workout matters.

Here’s why I do.

At one level, I work out because I want to be outside, rain, snow or shine, to feel the elements against my skin and know the seasons are changing by the taste of the air I’m breathing; because I want to be strong, to test my mental and physical endurance, to show myself what I’m capable of; because I will not go gentle into that good night, as the poet Dylan Thomas says; and so I can lounge on my couch in a state of well-earned-body-tiredness and eat those chocolates.

At another, deeper level, my workouts brings me great joy and that is reason enough. I am feeling pleasure in my very fibers, the pleasure of sweat, of effort, of turning “can I?” into “I can.” The other morning, running alone in “my” mountains, I started to wonder if my eyes were playing tricks on me. The trail in front of me was streaked with bands of unexplainable light. I blinked, wondering if something was in my eye. Then I realized that what seemed to be coming from inside my eye was actually the sunlight reflected off the veritable web of early morning, as yet undisturbed, silk spider filaments, which criss-crossed my path at ankle level. I was suddenly filled with such gratitude for the privilege of experiencing such beauty and my luck at being physically able, that I spread my arms wide and shouted nonsense-happy-sounds. Don’t worry, no one saw or heard, so you don’t need to be embarrassed and pretend you don’t know me.

The next time you are engaged in your active pursuits, stop a moment, feel the “why” of why you are doing the workout. As Eckhart Tolle recommends in Power of Now, scan your physical-emotional being and ask, am I happy? I hope the answer is yes. If not, find the workout that gives you that answer.

This post can also be found under an alternative title on the Huffington Post.