Happy birthday to me! Approaching the end of 50

I’m settling into my fifties. The big 5-0 birthday is behind me and today I turn 51.

Frankly I was feeling a bit low key about it. There’s no big parties for birthdays that end in “1.” My father is seriously ill and it’s hard to muster up the party spirit. But I did have a very lovely birthday bike ride with the usual suspects, Nat, Susan, and David, Jeff, and Eaton yesterday.

Rob still isn’t up for longer rides, post knee injury. Instead, Rob and the kids met us up at the Pinery where some of us camped overnight.

Tonight there’ll be cake and ice cream in my backyard with my parents.

Here’s some of the early arrival gifts. Thanks Susan, Susan, Sarah, Sarah, and Stephanie. And Gavin too, who commented that my friends need names that don’t begin with “S.”

Thanks everyone! I’m sensing a theme.

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Crossing a threshold in sports—one woman’s watery accomplishment

This summer I’ve been regaling blog readers with tales of my re-acquaintance with kayaking. One of the things that I love about kayaking is that it’s an activity you can do without much instruction, for whatever length of time you want, at whatever pace you want. It also gets you outside, on the water, moving along under your own power. Kayaking in any body of water at all makes me feel a little bit like I used to when I was 10 years old, riding my bike around my neighborhood; I felt liberated, autonomous, the open road (or water) wide open for my exploration.

All this is true.  BUT: when you start to do some sport, you quickly find out that in order to progress to the next level of activity, you have to pass some thresholds. Passing them may require special training, mastery of techniques, strength, speed, stamina, etc. And of course gear.

I talked a little about this in my blog post last week comparing cycling and kayaking. Both sports have a fairly low threshold for beginners—that is, you can do it without a lot of technical know-how. Basketball and tennis, on the other hand (at least in my experience), require some specific skills in order to play a game. I never learned how to do a lay-up so my basketball career never got off the ground…

We all know this—different sports have different-shaped learning curves, and the effort it takes to get to the next point on the curve (the next level of play or participation) varies a lot. As an athlete, being aware of 1) what the learning curve for your activity is, and 2) how much effort it’s going to take to meet your goals for that sport are both pretty important. I’ve learned, for example, that bike racing (road races and crits) for ME would require a level of training that’s just not feasible or desirable for me. However, fun road rides are both feasible and desirable. Competitive squash is also within my reach, given my available time and fitness and skill levels.

Over time, we all readjust our sports and activity goals, often because of time limitations and changing physical constraints, but also because we want to have new or different experiences. One thing I’ve noticed is an increasing desire to experience nature—in the woods or on the water—whenever possible.   Hence the renewed interest in sea kayaking.

This summer, after a long hiatus from it, I’ve been out on rivers and lakes and even saltwater estuaries in recreational and sea kayaks, and it’s been sublime. But one big goal has remained: kayaking in the ocean. That’s where the sports threshold issue reemerges.

In order to kayak safely in the ocean, with waves, currents, tides and changing weather, you need a bunch of skills. Some of them are technical—you need to be able to read, understand, interpret and plan trips based on tide charts, information about currents and the coastal geography of the area and weather forecasts. You also need some paddling skills for maneuvering the boat, like bracing and edging.

And of course you need to be able to get back in the boat if you happen to turn over in deep waters.

rescueThere are two kinds of rescues you learn in sea kayaking—the assisted rescue and the self rescue. The assisted one is where you get back in your boat (from deep water) with some help from a person in another boat. Turns out this isn’t very hard—with good instruction, everyone can do this using one or other of the many techniques available. But the self rescue seems more daunting—you have to get yourself back in the cockpit of your boat while treading water in the ocean, maybe in high seas.

Again, there are a couple of different techniques for self rescue, and I’d done one of them a long time ago. But I had been avoiding trying it again, out of sheer fear of failure. After all, the last time I did this was 15 years ago, and I’m older and feel less confident of my strength and abilities.

But if I want to kayak in the ocean (and do cool kayak trips with my friend Janet), I HAVE TO DO THIS.

So last Wednesday, Janet and I headed to Rockport, Massachusetts, to kayak in the ocean. This place looks exactly the way you might imagine new England coastal towns might look. That is, like this:

rockportThe outfitters wouldn’t let us take out ocean kayaks without demonstrating experience in rescues, but since Janet can do a self rescue in no time flat, and I can do an assisted one, they let us head out to sea. So off we went, picnic lunches stowed in dry bags and bilge pump and paddle float strapped to the decks.

There was some hazy fog along the rocky coast, so we stayed reasonably close to shore, avoiding the many outcroppings of rocks. The lobster fishermen were also trolling in the shallower waters, checking and resetting their lines, so we had to be vigilant. Actually, I’m pretty sure they’re used to kayakers and are adept at not colliding into them, but better to give them wide berth. After all, they’re working.

It was exhilarating and also a bit scary paddling in waves and deep water along a hazy, foggy, rocky coastline. I knew the chances of turning over were slim, and I knew I could get back in the boat with Janet’s assistance. Still, that vague uneasiness lurked in the background. Sigh.

We pulled into a beach for lunch, and some women obliged us with a photo.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.04.07 AMAt that point I decided to face my fear and do what I had been avoiding for weeks: time to practice the self rescue.

I told Janet I wanted to try the scramble self rescue (also called the cowboy rescue, but Janet prefers the former name). It looks like this.

Yeah, right.

Having no other excuses for delays (all the lunch had been eaten and beach pictures taken), we took the boats out into the bay, where the water was deep enough but the waters were calmer. Janet did her self rescue first—nothin’ to it. Here she is, smiling astride her kayak.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.06.13 AMNow it was my turn. The moment of truth. ACK. Well, the only way through it is to do it. Here I go—over into the water.

solo1We cheated a little—Janet actually emptied the water from my boat and turned it over. This prepped me for hauling myself back in. I tried getting on from the back, which didn’t work at all. But then I approached the boat from the side, and then centered my chest over the back of the boat. Like so.

solo2Then I had to inch (and I do mean inch) myself onto the back deck, pulling myself, kicking my legs, all the time keeping low and making sure my legs stayed in the water. Janet was coaching me from her boat the whole time, which was a huge help. She also documented it for posterity. Here I am, posing for a photo and pondering how to get myself back in the cockpit, which at the moment, seems very very far away.

solo3Then comes another hard part—sitting up without tipping the boat over. Again, you have to keep your legs in the water to act as stabilizers. Here I am, so close to the cockpit, but with a final challenge before me—move butt over seat back and into cockpit.

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Well, who knows how this happened, but it did. Here I am, marveling at my inexplicable but undeniable return to the cockpit of my boat, celebrating with a swig of water.

solo5And then a funny thing happened. When we set back out into deeper ocean to explore the nearby south coast, I felt… great. More confident, more at ease, more able to enjoy the waves, the open water. Oh boy. I had crossed a threshold.

It’s important to note that kayakers have to practice these rescue and other techniques in a variety of conditions (say, in rougher seas and in open water) to be really confident and adept. But with this accomplishment I was on my way.

So readers, what sorts of sports and activity thresholds have you crossed? What thresholds are you looking at now? I’d love to hear more about your experiences.

Greetings from inside the pain cave

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Three things got me thinking about sports training and pain again.

The first was a series of ads for indoor training videos, Sufferfest. There’s something about indoor training whether it’s on your bike on a trainer or on an erg, or rowing machine, that’s particularly brutal.

And finally some female faces.

The second was a lively discussion with a friend on the age old question of whether being a masochist helps with sports performance. My answer, yes.

The third was this story,  It’s true! Triathletes are tougher than the rest of us.

Triathletes can tolerate more pain than the rest of us, a new study confirms, which helps explain why they would swim, then bike, then run, all because they want to and not because they are, perhaps, being chased by a bear.

That’s interesting on its own, but there’s more: Researchers say that understanding how athletes can withstand the pain of a grueling endurance event may eventually lead to potential treatments and therapies for people with chronic pain.

“It’s a very masochistic sport,” said Jenna Parker, who was the top female finisher in the New York City Triathlon in July. She was joking, but only kind of. “I guess to some extent, I always wondered what it is that makes people able to compete at a high level in athletics. Obviously there’s something that’s different that makes us able to push our physical boundaries in a way that other people can’t.”

Here’s my past posts on the topic:

Food Matters

IT takes a human to turn ingredients into food.

It takes a human to turn ingredients into food.

It takes a lot of time to make sure a family is well fed. I try to eat fresh ingredients and unprocessed food. It’s cheaper and it tastes good. The challenge is it takes a lot more energy and time to make that pound of carrots into Lightly Curried Carrot Soup (doesn’t it look yummy in those mason jars?) than it does to buy a tetra pack of pre-made soup. I live with two teenage boys and a high energy life partner who eat about 3,500 calories a day. We basically cook for 8 at any given meal and there are rarely leftovers. Thing is, on weekends where I’m out for a long ride or evening I’m trying to hit the pool all that prep time is a a big pain in the kiester.

This past week I was madly typing up assignments for a distance ed course I’m trying to finish. I had a few hours of overtime at work and some social commitments with friends. No workouts, no time.

My oldest son is now sixteen and asked if he could help me out during my crunch time. My partner has entered a busy time at his paid work, spare time is sparse on the ground. I gladly accepted the offer and he made amazing dinners all week as well as baked goods. It was a wonder to come home to meals and a clean kitchen.
It’s not lost on me that the times when my partner was a grad student he cooked the majority of the meals, now my work schedule is the more contained and flexible so the balance has shifted. Many of my woman identified friends have never had a reprieve from the majority of meal making, I’m fortunate and yet it still irks me to be on the hook for all the groceries and meal planning. It’s very Simone de Beauvoir baking and bringing tea to Jean Paul Satre and his friends. It chaffs my neck that even in a family that thinks about these things the external forces at play re-inforce this gendered division of household labour.

The benefit for my son is a sense of pride in contributing to the family’s well-being while honing important life skills like making meals. For my partner and I, it is a little less running madly about. You can’t workout without nutritional support but that time to make the food eats away at the time available for other kinds of wellness.

I’m very lucky my son has begun to realize he has more available time than the grown -ups do (Thanks to playing Simms3 but that is another story) to help the family function. The food matters a great deal to all of us. The more we can make it the less we spend on it and the more money we have for doing fun things like walking, biking, swimming…and occasionally running.

What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer (Guest post), #breastcancer, #cancer

MLG“You’re the happiest cancer patient I’ve ever seen.”

I was having coffee with a psychotherapist friend, and her words caught me off-guard. I thought I was handling my breast cancer diagnosis well, but I hadn’t realized my attitude was remarkable.

Most people I know are scared of cancer. Scared of hearing about it, scared of getting it, scared of fighting it, scared of losing their lives to it. There’s been a lot of cancer in my family, and it’s taken the lives of one of my grandmothers and my father. I’ve seen what cancer can do to a person. I’ve seen my father shriveled up to a brittle rattle of skin and bones, in constant pain, all hope gone.

I know what cancer can do.

But I’m being completely honest when I say that from the moment I was first diagnosed, I was not worried about my cancer. Instead I’m upbeat and positive – even joyful – about my future. Aside from some fatigue in the days leading up to my double mastectomy, I’m living a full life and enjoying the things I love, like walking in the woods, working out, meeting with friends for coffee, and working on a few extracurricular projects I’m passionate about.

Is there something wrong with me? Am I suppressing fear, anger, or grief?

After some reflection, I’ve realized that my attitude towards my cancer probably has a lot to do with my personal beliefs, and my aikido practice.

I am completely addicted to aikido. I’ve been studying this martial art of self-defense for a year-and-a-half, and I attend four classes per week. I don’t have anything like a balanced sports life. It’s aikido, and the stuff I do that supports my aikido (like physiotherapy for my aikido injuries, gentle walking, gentle yoga for flexibility, and some bodyweight exercises for strength).

I’ve written about why I love aikido here on this blog, and my feelings have only gotten stronger over time. But I never realized how much aikido has changed me until my friend told me I was a too-happy cancer patient.

Unlike most martial arts, aikido doesn’t teach you how to attack – only to defend yourself against attack. You blend with your attacker’s energy and redirect it, so that the encounter leaves both of you unharmed.

Some beginners struggle to give their full energy to aikido practice with a partner (Sam has written about this here), but for me this is one of my favourite parts of aikido. There’s a particular kind of technique where you’re encouraged to “enter” the attack that’s coming towards you – to intentionally move in to meet the attacker’s strike. I love this kind of practice best of all.

When I see my attacker raise his or her arm, I propel myself forward with lightning speed to connect and blend with their striking arm, and offer up one of my own fists to their face as a distraction, before throwing them to the ground. I can’t describe how thrilling this is – to leap intentionally into harm’s way, knowing that you can avoid being hurt by moving quickly in the right way. There’s something so satisfying about being proactive in a risky situation, and I love it.

I found a lump in my right breast in early June. I also noticed that my nipple was turned inwards, and that the skin on one side of my breast dimpled when I raised my right arm. I’d read enough about the warning signs of breast cancer to know that all of that was potentially not good news. I waited and watched my breast for a menstrual cycle, to see if it would change, or if the signs would go away, and they didn’t. During that time I also read a lot about breast cancer on the Internet.

When my lump didn’t go away, I went to my family doctor and she recommended a mammogram and ultrasound. Those results were inconclusive, so a biopsy was ordered. By the time I got my biopsy results a couple of weeks later, I’d read even more about breast cancer, including most of the information on both the Canadian and American Cancer Society websites. I can tell you how breast cancer is staged, and about all kinds of benign breast lumps. I read about lumpectomies and mastectomies (and decided that if I did have cancer, I wanted a double mastectomy). I read about genetic cancer and cancer survival rates. I read about reconstructive surgery (and decided I didn’t want that).

So when I was finally sitting in the doctor’s office and the words that came out of her mouth were “I’m afraid it’s bad news,” I wasn’t taken by surprise or shocked. I just did what my aikido practice had taught me. I entered the attack.

One thing I’ve learned in the weeks since my diagnosis is that every cancer patient’s journey is unique. There’s no right or wrong way to fight cancer, and I respect every cancer patient’s personal reactions. There’s nothing wrong with being devastated, or sobbing for days, or shaking with fear, or screaming with rage.

But here’s what I know: Entering the attack feels amazing.

This is the first of a three-part series on breast cancer, sports and body image.
Part 2: Why I’m happy about getting my breasts cut off
Part 3: My pre-surgery boudoir photo shoot

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You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

A Very Big Little Paddle

I have been going to Algonquin in late August for a back country canoe trip for the last 8 summers. Usually I go with my friend Sarah and we are often the only women pair that we encounter on our trip. Three summers ago, at the end of the season, I bought a Swift Algonquin 16 Kevlar Fusion Canoe. It has Carbon/Kevlar Gunwales and weighs 36 pounds. I blogged about the freedom that gave me here. Last year, Sarah couldn’t come and I took Sam. It was the first time I’d been “in charge” of a trip and between that experience and a feather light canoe, I was ready to take on more. What kind of more? Well, how about me, my two teens, three friends (Sarah, Sam and her daughter) and my 71 year old mother?


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My mom has been saying for the past four years or so that she has always wanted to go on a real portaging canoe trip. When I came back last year, empowered by the freedom of that canoe, I knew I could make it happen and “it had better be sooner than later”, as my mom has observed.

My mom isn’t your usual 71 year old, although she is actually much like the folks who hang out at this blog. She came to fitness in her middle years and has been consistently active ever since. Her main thing has always been Pilates and the great thing about that system is it’s ability to scale up or down, depending on capacity, injury or illness. She has a trainer she has known for years who keeps her going. I told her as long as she could get in and out of the canoe and walk a path, she could do it.

She accomplished so much more. She carried some stuff and paddled pretty hard. She credits her swimming with giving her the strength to paddle like she did. She got in and out of the tent in whatever way worked for her and she was constantly thrilled by the whole thing.

Mom by her tent

Mom by her tent

The element of that trip that struck me most was how we experienced a mutual appreciation of each other that we had perhaps left unnoticed for many years. Like all moms and daughters, there have been “interesting times” between us. While most of that trash has been put out, the real understanding of where each of us are in our lives right now was not always at the forefront. But on this trip, she got to see a skill set of mine that was newer to her and I got to see how hard core she could be. I also got to give her time with her grand kids and grand dog that was super high quality. I got to feel like a good daughter and she got to feel like a good mom and grandmother.It’s not that we haven’t felt that before, but this experience somehow intensified this feeling between us.

It helped more that a lot that I had fantastic, supportive, hillarious friends with me. Sam and I drove our matchy matchy cars (Priuses)  with our matchy matchy canoes on top (she has a Swift Keewaydin 17, also with Carbon/Kevlar gunwales, although mysteriously heavier feeling at 47 pounds). Sarah and I had our competitive control freak moments. It’s only fair. She taught me everything I know about canoe tripping so asking her not to have an opinion is kind of impossible. Mallory kept her mother in line, on track and in the canoe (mostly, except the time she wasn’t). The children spoke actual words to us, a lot! And read books, paper books! My kids are usually delightful but this trip gave them an opportunity to step it up. It helped that they were actually having, you know, FUN. Finally, there was my Super Dog, Shelby. She has grown into a truly impressive canine canoe tripper. She stays still in the canoe, carries her own stuff, keeps away the chipmunks and is available for belly rubs at any random time.

shelby

This trip accomplished the kind of thing that you hope a trip will. It was epic on every level, the beauty of the place, the friendships and family and the smoothness of execution. It was a trip I could only do because of the investment of time in strength and skill that everyone of us made in our lives, especially evident in my mom. I hope it sets a good example for my kids but I will try not to pressure them about it. After all, both my mom and me waited until we were closing on 40 before we woke up to the possibilities our lives could hold if we started to mind our bodies. Yes, an epic trip. We might do it again next year. . .

If Women Ruled…Sports Boards…

Many of us have heard the famous hypothesis that “if women ruled the world, the world would be a more peaceful place.” Whatever you think of that claim, something similar is now being said of sports.

A research study out of Australia says, “More Women on Sports Boards Would Reduce Corruption, Doping.” As a feminist philosopher and member of a department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, I’m always intrigued by claims like this that suggest women would do better than men. I’m often wary because the suggestion that women are ethically superior to men makes an essentialist claim about women’s moral superiority that I doubt can be borne out by the evidence.  Is there something in women’s genes that make them more ethical? I doubt it.

So it was heartening to read that the researcher, Catherine Ordway, doesn’t think having more women on sports boards would improve things because women are more ethical. Rather, according to this report in the Canberra Times, Ordway claims that:

It was not because woman were “more moral or nurturing” but because diversity on boards tended to break up “group think” – the more diverse a board in the gender, culture and backgrounds of its members, the broader the mix of ideas and creativity, she said. It was also more likely that people would ask “the tough questions”. But there was limited value in simply appointing women from the same backgrounds as the men – instead, boards should look for diversity.

This claim that diversity breaks up “group think” has been presented in different forms by feminist philosophers over the past few decades. In the context of acquiring new knowledge, feminist philosophers have claimed that a more diverse group of thinkers will come up with more diverse questions because of the very different perspectives they bring to the table and the different experiences from which their interests and questions arise.

It’s interesting to see a similar hypothesis play out in a sports context. We won’t really know if Ordway’s right until we see a shift in the composition of sports boards:

She supports the push to have more women on the top sporting boards – with the Australian Sports Commission running a name-and-shame style system where it names boards with fewer than 20 per cent women on their boards.

Its latest report names archery (17 per cent), boxing (14 per cent) and the Australian paralympic committee (10 per cent) as having fewer than 20 per cent women in January 2015.
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The sports commission’s target is for women to make up 40 per cent of board members of the top 15 sports boards, and Ms Ordway said the target was likely to make a difference not only to the number of medals won by Australians but also to integrity – meaning less doping, match-fixing and corruption.

You can read more about this research here: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/more-women-on-sports-boards-would-reduce-corruption-doping-says-researcher-20150825-gj74ct.html#ixzz3jyUTu4Sd

Meanwhile, what do you think? How different would sports be if women occupied more seats in the power structures?