Thursday, June 7, 2012

Thoughts on Learning to Swim

Everyone who knows me knows I work out. A lot. But what might surprise a few of you is I hate cardio machines. Stair climbers? No way. Elliptical? Errr, no thank you. Treadmill? Or shall we say, dreadmill? What's worse, is the most geographically convenient gym for me plays the worst, most mindless television ever invented (we'll leave my rant on the "real" housewives for another blog). Hence my quest for non-cardio machine forms of cardio outside of running began. And there's one place in the gym where the Kardashians can't invade my senses: the pool.

The only problem that existed with this new work out strategy was that I did not know how to swim. Well, I could flail around in water and not die, and I wasn't afraid of the water, I just had no clue how to make it from one end to other without a flotation device of some kind. So I decided to invest in some lessons at the local Y.

On the first day, I showed up to class ready to go. I was excited to learn something new, and I was confident I'd be swimming with just a few tips. Not so. The instructor gave me a kick board, and by the end of one length, I was panting like my German shepherd in August. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me: how is it possible I can run, but not swim? Why was it so dang hard? I left feeling discouraged, miserable, and exhausted. The next two lessons followed in a similar way: drills with the kick board, a large floating barbell, and failed attempts at swimming one measly length. By my fourth lesson, I was very close to giving up. Each lesson felt like torture, like I was reaching for something I could never attain. I had to reach deep down for a piece of strength just to get in the car and get to the lesson.

As it turned out. that was the lesson in which I swam my first full length via front crawl. I left feeling exhilarated from knowing I had pushed myself physically to do something I was not able to do even the day before. From there, there has been slow and steady progression. I'm still not very fast or very good at the front crawl, but I can get a few laps in before I need to recover.

One thing I realized during the entire process is it had been quite a long time since I had learned to do something brand new and physical. Learning to swim challenged my coordination, my physical strength, and my heart and lungs to the point where I feel refreshingly tired yet accomplished when I'm done. It reminded me of how little our culture seems to value taking on something brand new and how we lull ourselves to some kind of hypnotic state by allowing others to entertain us. I encourage everyone to try something new, and really learn it. Don't be afraid of things that seem difficult or things that seem out of your reach. You will surprise yourself.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Thoughts on a Wishbone

Everyone wants more than they have, hence the superstition of wishing we have in our culture. Wishing wells, Genies in lanterns, seeing a shooting star... you name it. There are probably hundreds of random events which prompt us to "make a wish" for something more. Not surprising, there are also tales in our culture of people who "got what they wished for" which has led to the cliche "be careful what you wish for." 

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to participate in wish-making and extracted the wishbone from a slow-cooked chicken. For a couple days, I moved the bone around the kitchen with indecision of my non-existent wish. I found it remarkably difficult to wish for anything, because everything I want comes with an unfamiliar set of responsibilities. How am I to know if I can rise to a challenge being totally unaware of what that challenge might entail? Or maybe the difficulty was in the fact that I have no trivial wishes. All things nominal, such as ice cream or attending a concert or eating a cookie are all things I can and will do when I choose, and no wishing is necessary. Similarly, all my basic needs are met so no need for wishes there either.

When I finally decided what I really wanted to wish for, I was ready. I enlisted Ryan to help me break the tiny bone, and he said to me, "I don't need to do that, I already have everything I want." Great. All that thought put into my wish and the only person who could possibly be affected by it already is wishing for nothing more. To hell with it, I figured. I silently made my wish to myself, closed my eyes, and pulled on the bone. When I opened them, the larger piece was between my fingers. If our culture's mythology is correct, my wish should come true.

I have no idea if there are time-frames involved with wishbone wishes like there are with, say, birthday cake candle wishes. The wish I chose wasn't one of grave change requiring some unlikely act of God, but something that I'm hopeful will happen over the natural course of my life. I may have to wait years to find out if this wish comes true, but if wishes and luck are in any way connected, that will not be the case. Naturally, there will be consequences if this wish comes true. But, if the right choices are made along the way, it will serve to strengthen rather than hinder... and outcome I can only wish for.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Thoughts on Being a Race Spectator

I've been actively training for and running in races for the past five years. It all started with a couple of little 5Ks, then I discovered a fabulous coach and group to run with and my running career blossomed into a series of 10-milers and half marathons. While I'm not a "competitive" runner by any means (except against myself), I have learned to be consistent, persistent, and that bad days are still o.k. days if you get one foot in front of the other. And, I've become an addict. The end of each race is the beginning of training for the next, regardless of what hurts or what other life activities may deserve some of my precious training time. Upon recognizing this, I made a New Year's resolution to not race this year. "Not racing" does not mean "not running," only that I'm emphasizing cross-training more in an effort to keep me running for longer into my life.

For the first couple months of the year, this wasn't so bad. I've never been one to sign up for a winter race. But when registration for a popular St. Patrick's Day race was opened, I started to feel the pull to sign up. In fact, several of my running friends had registered and more than once I was asked if I was going to be there. Was I going to register? No. Would I be there? Absolutely.

St. Patrick's Day came with an unusual amount of sunshine and warm air, and I packed up the dog and found an intersection roughly halfway on the course. My own racing reminded me how tough that middle section can be, and it is often void of spectators save race volunteers. The lead runners flew by, strong in their focus and indifferent to my "Looking good!" cheer. But as the crowd of runners increased, so did the level of fatigue and exasperation I saw on their faces. While I was mostly looking for my friends, I started cheering for everyone. It felt sort of silly to be one person standing alone while clapping and hollering words of encouragement, until runners I didn't know started to thank me. This only encouraged my obnoxiousness, and I continued to clap and cheer. By the time I saw my friends, I was deep into spectator mode and I felt a surge of pride for each of them as they took steps toward their individual goals.

Watching the race was more fun than I thought it would be, and maybe it helps that I know what the runners are going through. Some of them are racing for the first time, others have set time goals, and others still may be having a bad race and just need an uplift. Having run so many races myself, I've experienced all of those scenarios. For the rest of the season, I intend spectate more races, maybe volunteer for a couple. I might have given up racing, but not the race.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Thoughts on Knowing Nothing while Having all the Answers

I've been studying T'ai Chi for nearly seven and a half years. I know several forms, both "solo" and "partner," have attended retreats, and even given workshops of my own. One might might think I know a thing or two about T'ai Chi. The knowing I do have has been a long, slow hike up a very tall mountain, containing obstacles, switch-backs, and an almost menial pace of progression. During class today, I'd had a moment where my solo form felt a little clumsy and I thought briefly to myself of how little I really know about the long form, and I really ought to take a private lesson or two have have an expert show me my insurmountable amount of errors. On one hand, my waist and legs know what is expected of them, on the other my mind is often surprised when an ankle twitches with lack of balance or my shoulder twinges with tension. Why, after all this time, do these things still happen?

Not fifteen minutes later during the same class, we were asked to do an exercise in pairs, and my teacher paired me with a woman who was just finishing the form. He said to her, "If you have questions, you can ask Karen. She has all the answers." Now I know he didn't mean that I know everything, and in our school to hear a statement like that is a very high compliment. The only way I knew to answer it was with a modest smile and proceed with the assignment, but internally I was laughing at irony known only to me. How funny to experience one moment where I feel I know nothing, and another minutes later being told I know a lot!

The whole experience reminded me of reading a book called Mastery by George Leonard. He discusses an idea known as "the mastery curve" in which steady progress is made, there is a slight reverse, and a long plateau. The pattern repeats itself indefinitely. In a later chapter, he describes a phenomenon known as The Plateau, a place where any one learning any skill will eventually find themselves. It is the place where, if it is not a talent one is truly interested in, a person will fade away from learning that skill. Leonard elaborates to say our society values the end goal, that all we do is based on getting something (a degree, a better job, a bigger house, etc) rather than placing a value on the hard work between goals. He writes,

"We are taught in countless ways to value the product, the prize, the climactic moment. But even after we've caught the winning pass in the Superbowl, there's always tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow... The question remains, where in our upbringing, our schooling, our career are we explicitly taught to value, enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?" (pgs. 39-40).

To connect this with my experience today, I have to say I'm not sure where on the mastery curve I might be. Sometimes knowing one is wrong or unskilled is a sign of progress in and of itself, but I'm not sure how that reflects any amount of true progress on my part. At what point do the clouds in my mind lift, does tension fade, and I cease having doubt of my own knowledge? Does it just happen in some indiscernible way, as my Astrology teacher often asks, "when does a kitten become a cat?" In the meantime, I hope I would make both Sifu Ray and George Leonard proud in saying I am in love with The Plateau. It is the near-daily practice, coupled with a school where all learning abilities are honored and respected, that has kept me hiking up this mountain.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Thoughts on Escapism

The very word "escapism" can evoke a negative connotation in our society, as we often associate it with excessive behavior of one sort or another. But I think it's a necessary fact of life, one we all need to maintain balance against the demands of families and careers. When I'm escaping, regardless of the method, I feel a grand sense of relief, that there is another way to exist outside of stressful deadlines and the demanding cube environment. It makes those days worth it.

After just one vacation day from work, I find myself blissful with domestication and family. Cubicle life is worlds away as I clack at the keys in a tidied living room amongst sleepy pets, enjoying the smell of simmering chili I realize how easily I could lose myself in the keeping of the house, and how odd that the very jail cell women fought to leave is the same one I seek to return to as I flee from a different sort of prison. I could just as easily lose myself in a novel, or a movie, or a nap...but today I escape by simply being here in the present.

During the week, I find it nearly impossible to do anything productive. My mind and sensibility are totally wiped clean from a day in the cube, and the need to escape into something simple grips me with an unspeakable strength. On the good days, I escape into a workout or a walk with the dog, where I am able to wear my body to catch up with the weariness of my mind. On bad ones, I find myself escaping into a bottle of wine and television, unable to do anything except passively forget the stress and absorb the onslaught of primetime's mediocrity.

A day like today serves as the perfect middle ground between the two, where I am able to escape into my home, leaving my energetic imprint on it as I wipe away dust and fill it with healthy food smells. I am surrounded by contentment as cat and dog doze and music plays softly on the stereo. I know that next time I'm chained to the cube, I will stare out the window and remember this moment, escape back into it and hopefully retrieve the feeling it brings.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thoughts on Forgetting to Write

Earlier today, a co-worker and I went to the Open Book for a cup of coffee and I found myself telling her about how I used to take classes there. We chatted about writing in general, and I realized it's been a while since I've written here. I resovled to write a new entry tonight, and when I opened my blog I was horrified it's been nearly three months since my last entry. Three months? That's a quarter of a year. I wonder if I've grown out of writing, and why it has fallen so low on my list of priorities.

I came to the conclusion that there are some areas in life that either take up more energy than I would like them to or more energy than I anticipated when taking them on. My career is the first energy hog, sapping up more hours of my day and more electricity in my brain than I care to admit. It has reached a point where my mind has as much life at the end of a work day as double A batteries have by the day after Christmas. Finding the energy to write this entry is taking some effort: I made myself sit down to write rather than head to bed with a steaming cup of sleepy time tea and a thick Robin Hobb novel.

Energy hog number two is my relationships. None of my relationships are negative (anymore) and I love everyone I spend time with dearly. From my boyfriend to the dog to happy hours with co-workers, I enjoy every second of being with them all. But I can't write and socialize, or write and walk the dog, or write and go on a dinner date at the same time. Hence, the writing doesn't get done.

Balancing the career and relationships on top of the third energy hog, self care, is quite the game. By "self care" I mean physical fitness, tai chi, meditation, cooking...all the things I make time for in order to enhance my health and well-being. Take today, for example. I worked a very full day, took the dog for a run, made homemade chili and corn muffins for supper, cleaned up, and then and only then did I make time for this blog, the first entry in months. I feel out of practice and unable to channel the sentences as readily as usual. I want my writing back.

I don't count on hundreds of people clicking the link on FB I am about to post, but if you do read my entries, I have a small favor to ask. Tell me to write. Even if you hate it. Remind me how much I enjoy spilling my thoughts into the blogosphere, and they will spill. I have many more thoughts to share.