femalestrength · feminism · fitness

How My Father Raised a Fit Feminist … Without Intending To

Tomorrow is five years since my father died. Despite the worldwide pandemic in progress (and how irresistible and necessary it is to write about), I’m dedicating today’s words to the ways in which my father shaped my fitness and my feminism.

I’ll start with this: my father was a pretty traditional man. Born in 1942 in Saskatchewan, he was raised in an observant Jewish home. My grandfather, a gentle soul, worked in the department store his father owned. My grandmother was the energetic current the rest of the family plugged into. An artist, mainly a painter, with a few sculptures thrown in for good measure, her métier never took precedence over family. Her studio was in the scary basement. Before she married, she got her Masters in Economics. She got a job at the Bank of Canada. This was the 1930s. When she decided to get married, she burned the sole copy of her Master’s thesis and turned her back economics. She was radical-Kondo long before that craze. She kept up her intellectual curiosity though, always taking my grandfather to classes in philosophy and other light (haha) disciplines.

With a mother like this, my father believed in the intelligence and capacity of women. At the same time, he never took women quite as seriously as men. An intelligent woman always risked sliding over the line into a ball breaker or shrew. He ruled over our household in lordly fashion. As a white man of privilege, he assumed his particularities were the way it should be. He dictated meal times and the precise manner in which we should fold towels, roused us early (even on weekends), doled out allowances to my mother, who held everything together on the home front, which was no small feat with three children (as many families confined together are finding out afresh these days).

Baby Mina (that’s me!) with my parents

While he never questioned my intelligence or right to a career, the only other member of our family whose intelligence he trusted was my youngest brother’s. Still, we take what we can get and my father gave me enough credit for my mind that one of the few things I don’t doubt about myself (in that this-is-how-I-was-raised-DNA-deep-way) is my capacity for thinking. I know that most men are absolutely not smarter than I am. As smart, of course. Smart in different ways, of course. But not smarter. This is one of the cornerstones of my feminism (there were also a lot of strong and smart women in my life—including my mother and my grandmothers). But this is about my father. A profound thank you, Dad.

As for fitness, my father loved to cycle (all geeked out with the dentist-like-mirror attached to his helmet and enough tools and bike bits to rebuild his bike and anyone else’s who happened along). Other people might put titanium screws in their bike to shave off some miniscule amount of weight. My father didn’t care how extravagantly large his bike bag got. He was a rolling bike shop. I rode with him then and still love biking. He recalled us running together, too. He claimed to even remember the day we went to Gibbons Park (in London, Ontario) and I outran him for the first time. Apparently, it was also the last time he ran with me. I wish I remembered that. But I’m happy to have the implanted memory of nascent speed.   

Yet, when I feel his presence now, it’s neither running nor biking, but when I’m cross-country skiing uphill. My family cross-country skied together, but certainly not regularly. The first time my father joined me on a solo ski was the winter after his death. I was climbing out of the Euer Valley (at TDXC in Truckee, CA), my heart punching against my chest like a prisoner in despair, I felt my lips contract into the shape of an O, heard the bubbly intake of saliva through my teeth in the exact way my father did, when he was pushing against a wall of effort (physical, mechanical or mental).  And in the same moment I became aware of thoughts that weren’t mine, that were his, “I can do this.  Hang on a second.  I almost have it.  If I can just …”  As if my brain had been temporarily appropriated by him, but I was aware of the theft and could bear witness to it.  From time to time, his signature intake of concentrated breath still finds me when I’m cross-country skiing.

At the end he chose not to pursue radiation, because it would have impinged on his quality of life more than any extra weeks were worth. The treatment was going to take away his sense of smell and taste (just as a start). He couldn’t bear the idea of losing the revel of his too-early-in-the-morning-for-anyone-else-in-the-house-trying-to-sleep-and-instead-waking-to-the-sound-of-milk-being-steamed cappuccinos. He lived longer than predicted, even if he’d had radiation, and he enjoyed his capps until the last couple of weeks.

Shortly after he died, I developed a passion for macchiattos, which are really just a miniaturized version of a cappucino. I’m not a coffee drinker and never had one of my father’s cappucinos. But once a week now I love the indulgence of that tiny shot of espresso with a dot of foamed milk on top. I have appropriated his pleasure for myself, an homage to his tradition. A pleasure I will savor with immeasurable gusto when I can next go to a coffee shop. Because the thing is, I can’t drink my macchiato takeout. It has to be in the adorable little cup. Ideally, it’s a super charge treat for end of day with my partner before going out with friends. I’m willing to wait for the full experience, on the great day when we are allowed to mingle again.

In the meantime, sending wishes to all for health and a safe physical (but not social) distance.

Dancing

A Zoom-ing Dance Party

Yesterday I danced for more than an hour with 387 other people to high energy club music … via Zoom. It’s the virtual version of a dance party I went to in New York City called The Get Down, back in the olden days (a few weeks ago … before all this). What I loved about the party IRL was that it started at 7 p.m. every second Thursday. My partner and I could dance to exhaustion for 90 minutes to a driving beat, with a disco ball and people decked out in glitter (or not), go out for dinner and still be home at a reasonable hour on a weeknight.

Obviously, dancing with a couple hundred other people in a sweat-slicked environment is no longer feasible. So, Tasha Blank, the spiritually-curious DJ extraordinaire who founded The Get Down, took the party online last week. My partner and I were uncertain, but we signed up for the inaugural session and enjoyed it enough to sign up again this week.

Computer screen dance party, DJ Tasha Blank is second from the left in the top row

There’s no doubt, it’s a trickier business creating a virtual dance party environment. The shared energy infusion is harder to access. You can get an idea from the computer screen above of what the “environment” looks like. Yesterday there were 16 similar pages to scroll through, to take a peek at everyone else.

Tasha opens and closes with a grounding meditation, which helps to align us across space and time. Then there’s the great music. And, for me, seeing everyone in their own environment—pets, kids, parents, bedrooms, kitchens, funky lighting, outdoors, dressed up, dressed down, possibly undressed (those who don’t turn their cameras on??) fuels an energetic intimacy that propels my dancing. As does my sequined headband.

Mina dancing in her living room in the afternoon sunlight

I’ve had to make the mental adjustment to daylight dancing. A friend asked if we shut off the lights to dance. Well, no. The lights aren’t on yet. Because we’re “sheltered” out in Truckee, California at the moment. The afternoon sun is streaming in the windows. We don’t have blinds. Today the UPS guy showed up while we were dancing. Fortunately, he doesn’t even knock now, because he doesn’t want to see us in person. I left the package outside until we’d finished dancing, on the unfounded theory that COVID19 doesn’t like below freezing weather.

I love dancing pretty much anytime. The release. The freedom. The joy.

We’re not talking about joy much these days. At the same time, if we can find joy in the midst, what a gift. I’m enormously grateful for the chance to dance with my partner, slough off some anxiety and reconnect with the music in my body.

Dance with me! And let me know, if or how you’re finding slivers of joy.     

Fear · gear · yoga

First Time Ever Surfing

I’ve never boogie boarded. I’ve never really body surfed. I’ve never skateboarded. So, when friends convinced me to take a surf lesson a couple of weeks ago in Costa Rica, I was flat out scared. Surfing felt like going straight to the big time, without any warm up in small venues. It was no help that my friends were proudly showing me scrapes, cuts and bruises on their legs and lips. Yes, they were all big smiles and it’s-so-fun and you-should-try-it. But was it really fun? (If you’re a Bojack Horseman fan, you can read that last sentence with Mr. PB’s voice.)

I wasn’t scared of the inevitable humiliation of being a beginner. I am more proud of being a beginner at my age (53) than I am embarrassed by my total lack of skill trying something I’ve never done. I was scared of injury and in my worst pre-lesson moments a vision of being conked out by a surf board and drowning presented itself as a possibility, alongside all the other theoretically lesser bodily harms. Pain was a factor, yes. But more than that, I didn’t want to be out of commission for all the sports I love (and consider to be my mental health support). Especially, as I’d be getting back from Costa Rica in time for my last weeks of cross-country skiing, likely until 2021.

But … I like to think of myself as a gamely person. Also as someone who doesn’t run away from every fear she has (I’ll sit with my fears in meditation sometimes). I said yes, to prop up that particular aspect of my self-image.

That’s how I found myself prone on a surfboard on the beach, pretending to paddle with my arms and then push up quickly to a standing position. So easy on the beach. Kind of like a quick-quick transition from yoga’s chataranga pose to warrior one, with cupid-like arms.

Oh, and if you’re a surfer, I will also mention that I’m goofy. Yes, my goofiness pre-dates surfing, but now it’s been certified.  For non-surfers, that means that my back foot on the board is my left foot. To determine which foot is your back one in surfing, launch yourself into a sock-slide on a smooth floor and notice the position of your feet. Right foot back is regular. Left foot is goofy.

All this beach practice was one thing. You will not be shocked to learn that it’s a whole different story in the water.

Since there are no pictures of me surfing and I didn’t want a random woman from Unsplash (also–what’s with all the giant breasts and tiny bikinis when one searches “woman surfing” on Unsplash??), this is a picture of Tamara surfing bigger waves than I did (by Cat Slatsinsky). I interviewed Tamara for my book and this picture is in it.

Nosara is supposed to be one of the easiest places to learn how to surf. From my vantage point of absolutely no expertise, that sounds plausible. Over the course of my first hour on the surf board, I stood up and surfed to shore four or five times. When I say “surf”, I’m using that term loosely, to describe what might not be immediately identifiable to the outsider as surfing. Picture everything in frame-by-frame slo-mo on tiny waves and you’ll have an idea of my version of surfing. An exhilarating challenge, yet also just playing. Plus, ocean. Plus, deliciously physically tiring.  

Yes, I fell off the board more than I stood on the board. Yes, I seem to still be discovering bruises I hadn’t noticed and can’t remember exactly which mishap caused them. Not to mention the carpal tunnel syndrome ache in my left wrist from guiding the board through the waves walking out to where I was going to theoretically catch a wave. And yes, I was scared each of the two more days I surfed. But not scared enough not to do it.

Because my friends were right; I reveled in the total liberation of the novice. With no expectations of how things should be, the experience of right now is super charged. Every victory is epic.

I will surf again. Some extra items I’ll acquire before then: a water-worthy hat with a 360 brim and a chin strap; ultra-zinc-y sunscreen for my face and the backs of my hands; water shoes to alleviate fear of sharp shell cuts; maybe even a surf shirt that isn’t too big.

Because I found the surf shirt I wore at my apartment a while back, after so many guests had come through that I claimed it as my own, instead of contacting every different person to see if they’d mislaid a surf shirt (why had they even brought it on an NYC trip? Surf shirt owner—if you are reading this and it’s yours, happy to send it back. I only wore it three times for extremely light surfing).

To offset total novelty, I also did a lot of mat yoga in Costa Rica (I say “mat” because these days I usually I do aerial yoga, easier on my hamstrings). How could I not? Nosara is overflowing with yogis. I took my first class at The Gilded Iguana, where I was staying. The studio was small and gorgeous, reminiscent of a glass-enclosed tree house. Disconcertingly, the class ended up being private, because I was the only person to show up. In this land of yoga, the studio was so new that it hasn’t caught on yet (check it out if you go!). That was an intense class. Then, on the instructor Violeta’s recommendation, I went to two other classes at different places, with teachers she loved. At the first class, packed with 20 and 30-somethings, in full yoga retreat mode, I was initially daunted. They would all be so much better than me. They were all so young. Then I thought, wait, I’ve been doing yoga since before they knew how to walk. The classes were excellent—one with Emily at Bodhi Tree and the other with Zack at Harmony. The studios were beautiful, shaded, open-air, wood-floored oases. The wind was up during one class and we practiced to the soothing clicks of bamboo trees knocking against one another.  

By the time I boarded the plane home, every muscle in my body was exhausted. That’s a good vacation, for me. 

Yesterday, I was out cross-country skiing, one of my absolute faves (no offense surfing). When I got to the top of my most-loved climb, I paused to take in the view and breathe, and once I’d caught my breath, breathe in some gratitude for the gift of the ski.

fitness

How Running Helps Me Find My Bearings

I spent last weekend in Springfield, Missouri, teaching a couple of theatre workshops and seeing a staged reading of one of my plays. Of course, I prepared for the workshops. But I also prepared for a Saturday morning run. Whenever I’m going somewhere new, even if only for a couple of days, I love to get out for a run. That sliver taste of a place helps me get my bearings, not only geographically, but psychologically.

Building tops in downtown Springfield, Missouri against a blue sky, with sunlit reflections

My Google search history would give away a lot of running in [fill in the blank] searches. Online I found a disconnected, but extensive-looking, greenway and bike path system sprouting out from the downtown. I visualized the left turn out the door of my hotel, taking a right onto the bike path noted on the map and taking a left onto a paved path that ultimately led through a couple of parks.

Running in a new place on a surgically-short trip, like this one, meant that I couldn’t bring any significant outfit change. The running shoes take up a lot of space, never mind the layers of winter gear. And I don’t like wearing my runners for anything but running, so they don’t double as workshop wear. To economize on space, I decided to wear socks the first day that I could run in the next morning and wash my underwear by hand at night. Yup, that’s not a lot of physical space saving. Still, I felt lighter. I was happy to bring fewer clothes, too, because I know I need a run more than I need a second pair of pants. I run to explore. Also, to clear, reset and focus my day. To feel at home, away from home.

I was out on my run by 7 a.m. on Saturday. At -3 Celsius, the morning was a colder than I packed for, after all my planning. I asked the hotel’s morning clerk which way to The Link, that was the name the map gave for the nearby bike path. My research showed that it was two blocks away. He had no idea. So, I asked for my North-South bearings instead and headed out the front door with great confidence … and never found any sign of the bike path. I didn’t want to stop and pull out my phone to cross-check and consult maps, it was too cold and I didn’t have a lot of time (that’s why I did advance research!). Undaunted I headed south toward the greenway I was aiming for. The distance turned out to be longer than expected and the cold started to cling. I switched from aiming for a particular destination to enjoying the neighbourhoods; the soft and frosty poofs of grass I could run on alongside the sidewalk and the glimpses of life on porches—a cat grooming, a woman in her seventies wearing pink plaid pajamas leading her frail fully-dressed husband on his walker out for some fresh air.

I didn’t have the run I expected, but it didn’t matter. I moved. I improvised. And I set the stage for the day.

The workshop was an intense, fun improvisational playtime with the students and one of the theatre profs. Over lunch we talked about theatre making. A thin sheath of the morning run’s chill stayed with me. Every time I became aware of it, I got a little shot of extra energy.

Afterward, I retreated to my hotel room to lie like a cat on my bed in the sun and read a novel. I spent the afternoon with Madeline Miller’s Circe, so many lifetimes exiled and alone on her island of Aiaia (I highly recommend it!). By the time I roused myself to go out and forage for an afternoon snack, I’d caught a case of maroon-ment from her retelling of the story; a delicious alone feeling. I sat in a charming coffee shop (The Coffee Ethic), having a macchiato, one of my fave decadent pleasures (there’s something about drinking from a tiny little cup, not to mention the rare caffeine, since I’m not a coffee drinker); eating a soft little ball of cocoa powder, chocolate chips, peanut butter and coconut; watching the pale stone Heers building across the downtown square turn pink as Circe’s father, Helios, the sun god, rode his chariot home. I sank into the contented surprise of being in this place.

A 1987 drawing of Circe, by Erte

One side note from my time in Springfield, Missouri. The women students I worked with happened to mention that the university gym does not allow women to workout in sports bras only. Men can be shirtless. This little factoid injected some fresh radicalism into the sports-bra-only costumed physicist characters in the play reading.

Our strength continues to challenge!

femalestrength · habits · motivation · new year's resolutions · skiing · training

Just Trying—For A Zesty Start to 2020

A few years ago, my cross-country ski mate moved to Montana. We had developed a relaxed, yet ferocious, approach to our shared ski workouts—lots of hard work and lots of chat time. My perfect workout partner. After she left, I lost my mojo.

I almost didn’t notice. For the first couple of years I was dealing with the run up and the aftermath of surgery for a neuroma in my foot. Not that I had to take any significant time off; it was more that the pain prior to the surgery dampened my enthusiasm and then I didn’t quite trust the absence of pain. Even as I write this, I know that my diminished energy for skiing was more to do with losing my partner-in-energy-for-fierce-workouts than it was related to the surgery.

When the ski season started this year, I noticed for the first time how many moments I told myself that I wasn’t fit enough anymore to do a workout from years past. For example, I used to ski up certain gradual hills using V2 (the most powerful skate ski stroke; think of it like the hard gear in the big chain ring on a bike). Now, I was intimidated by the prospect. I told myself that I shouldn’t even try until I got in better shape. Now, that’s a vicious cycle.

Then, skiing on December 31st, I suddenly realized—what am I doing? Just try, I told myself. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You can’t finish the effort you started? What does that even mean? I’m the one who decides when the effort is done. I’m the one who decides whether I made a good effort or a not. And, if I never make the effort, then I can definitely keep telling myself I can’t.

So, in the middle of my ski, I just tried. I alternated V2 with the moderate ski stroke I normally default to. The next day, January 1, as I was finishing my ski, I got inspired. First day of the year, more, first day of the new decade, try on a new attitude. Plus, I was buoyed by my effort the day before. As I approached the hill where I used to do V2 intervals, I decided to throw in one interval. Just one. Just try. The hill was SO hard. I almost coughed up a lung, as a friend used to say. I got to the top. My technique was a mess. I was done in. I felt that nice glow of accomplishment.

I’m starting to thread back in bits of workouts from the days with my ski pal. It feels good. Fresh. Exhilarating even, as I feel the fizz of enthusiasm returning. As always, the experience makes me question, where else in my life can I just try more? Just try feels forgiving. More about the intention than the outcome. I’m less daunted. I’m less likely to judge myself, when trying is the key to my pleasure, not accomplishing a certain speed.

On January 3, I did the whole interval workout I used to do. V2 up the gradual hill. Fast as I can around and down the other side. Double pole on the barely-discernible-uphill back to the start of the loop. Six times. Just enough energy left for some ski dancing in celebration.

I feel an uptick of overall life optimism from my new and renewed attitude on skis; a zesty feeling I wish I could bottle for the less pleasant days. But life’s operating instructions are pretty clear: Best Enjoyed Now.

Will do.

What’s on your Just Try list?

aging · fitness · habits · holidays · motivation · new year's resolutions · season transitions

Words and Challenges for the New Year

Four days in, I’m still adjusting to this fresh start of a decade. We’re living in the 20’s now. A decade that makes me think my word for the year should be … ROAR.

My cousin introduced me to this word of the year practice about 10 years ago. Our guest blogger, Anne Simpson, wrote about her Word of the Year a few days ago. The idea is to distill your hopes, dreams, ambitions and challenges for the coming year into a word. What’s the one word you choose today to describe the year you are aiming for? A word that aspires to something greater, but doesn’t set you up for disappointment. A personal word that captures both who you are already (and you are just dandy the way you are!) and how you can refine that existing excellence. A word that will inspire you for the 364 days to come.

Vortex of black letters on white background
Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

Last year, I had some pretty definitive plans for 2019 related to one of my plays and my book that was publishing in July. I wanted to remind myself not to get too caught up in expectations. I also challenged myself to meditate every day. My word was PRESENCE. In 2018, I was immersed in book writing and my personal challenge was to not shop for clothes or shoes for the whole year. My word was ATTENTION. 

A quick note about these challenges I mention. I’m not one for resolutions. Or maybe I just don’t like the word, in the context of the New Year. There’s something about resolutions that always feels like someone/something is chastising me to do better. And I was never very good at sticking to resolutions. But I have developed a habit of setting myself a challenge for the year. And, weirdly, I generally manage to stick to my challenges. Could just be that the word is more motivating. My challenges are usually ways of being that I want to try on for size, with no commitment to extend after the year is over. You can bet I’ve shopped for some new clothes since 2018 finished.

This year feels largely unknown and fluid. Scary. I have some specific events I’m looking forward to–talks I’m giving in Princeton at The Present Day Club and San Francisco at The Battery; another reading of my play at Missouri State University; plus a new workshop series I’m planning with a friend of mine. I don’t know what any of these will lead to. I don’t know what my big project for the year will be. A new book? Another play? Rolling out the workshops? Plus, there’s my challenge for the year—no buying anything (except books/tv/film) on amazon. I may also go back to an alternate month no-shopping practice, because the prospect is peaceful to contemplate.

All in all, I feel open. Excited. Super daunted. And sometimes a little frustrated, because shouldn’t a woman in her 50’s be looking forward to a steadier, more settled year? That’s my voice of insecurity having her say. But she does not get to decide my word! So, given all that, what is my word?

I like ROAR , but that’s not it.

Here’s my always evolving list of possible words: illuminate … grow … strong … steady … being …  belonging … becoming … run … light … recharge … strong … vitality … engaged … present … discerning … happy … incandescent … yes … flow … curiosity … change … renewal … reliability … radiance … spontaneity … pleasure … simplicity

I like the potential these words embrace. This is a year about expanding and making space. I want to get to the end of 2020 and feel like I’ve tapped into new personal resources.

In that spirit, this year, I choose BECOMING.

What’s your word or challenge?

motivation · running · training

How To Make Running in Paris Fun and Challenging

I’m just back from two months in Paris. Running in Paris is a challenge. The Bois de Boulogne has lots of dirt trails and is decently big, but to stay close enough to run there regularly too far from everything else I want to do. There are many other parks, but they are all small or smaller and involve a lot of loops to build a run of anything longer than 3k. We rode the Velibs (social bike system) up to the Buttes Chaumont (a fave park) one Sunday and ran 4 loops; along with a big crowd of runners and other weekenders. The Buttes is the only good place to find hills. Sure, you could run around the streets of Montmartre, but the traffic (foot, bicycle, scooter, car etc…) is not my cup of tea.

By process of elimination then, when in Paris I stay near-as-possible to the Seine and run along the banks. This is lovely, of course. Running past Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Grand Palais, the Eiffel Tower, even the mini Statue of Liberty (one of our weekend destinations for a longer run)—what’s not to like?

Well, not to be a sourpuss, but there are no hills at all, it’s concrete or, worse, cobblestone. Running on cobblestone is charming for a week and then it gets less so. I give thanks for the grace of every run without a trip-and-fall.

Still, I love running in Paris, because I have a set of fun and challenging routines, unique to that city.

First, there’s one-legged stair hopping to start and finish each run. Shortly before going to Paris a few years ago, I was at a cat circus with an eight-year-old. As we cooled our heels out front of the theatre, waiting for the house to open, she was hopping up and down the stairs. I tried to join her and discovered that hopping up a set of stairs is no joke. This was a provocation. I decided I should work on my stair-hopping, on the theory it might give me some extra spring for running. The next week, I was running in Paris, with its endless stairs up and down from the banks of the Seine. On a whim, I hopped up one of the staircases on one leg. To be clear, the first time was more of an attempted hopping. Since then, I’ve incorporated stair hops into my regular routine in Paris (though not in NYC, where I’ve never found the right staircase). It’s a mini HIIT (high intensity interval training) moment before I get into to the rhythm of the run.

The second unique-to-Paris addition is the monkey bars. On most runs, I pass a set of monkey bars, where there are usually some groups doing various strength workouts. I do a one-way pass at a hand-to-hand hanging traverse. It’s only 8 rungs. Exhausting. This year on my last run I managed, first time ever, to traverse there and back. Thrilling.

But my favourite Paris routine is the little exercise yard by the Seine, in the sculpture garden near the Jardin des Plantes. My partner and I call it our “health club.” We spend about fifteen minutes doing a circuit. The “machines” operate using body weight and the ground is covered with a slightly springy substance, making it a nice surface for pushups and such like. Then I do one more set of stair hops (topping the workout with a cherry) and run the less-than-a-kilometer home.   

The health club is what I miss most when I get back to NYC. I’m not a member of a gym, so I don’t have much chance to do formal strength training. Instead, I rely on aerial yoga, the little bit of weights in spin class, and a few lunges and pushups at the end of most runs. I long for such an exercise yard somewhere in Central Park or Riverside Park. An adult playground! If anyone reading this has clout with the New York City Parks Department …

It’s such a treat to have the special extras of my Paris running routine.  I look forward to the different pace. The change recharges my energy.

I’m back on my home turf in Central Park now. Relishing how the familiar routes feel fresh and exhilarating.

What are your new routines for “away” workouts?