I buy a lot of books. I plan to read them, but work and laundry and friends and phone get in my way. Which is to say that I get in my own way. I’ve got several piles of bought-but-not-read-yet books near my nightstand, and I thought I’d share some with you. This selection may be of interest to FIFI readers, but also readers in general.
In no particular order, here’s a small selection of books I’ve bought that I mean to read or re-read this year:
Lands of Lost Borders: a Journey on the Silk Road, by Kate Harris. It’s a bike travel story, which I love. In this one she and a friend bike in remote parts of China. I’m extra-interested in reading this because I’ve mountain biked with her (she’s a friend of friends). She’s Canadian, just FYI for my friends north of the border…
Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life, by Darcey Steinke. This memoir and commentary on menopause offers another way to think about changes in our lives, which I’m paying a lot of attention to these days. Also, all this blogging has put me on a path to do more creative non-fiction writing, so I’m reading more memoir and personal essays. Maybe we all are– there’s so much to learn from getting a glimpse at the inside of someone else’s life. Blogging scratches the surface of that, and I’m interested in what’s in the layers below.
Fearing the Black Body: the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, by Sabrina Strings. If you decide to read one book on this list, read this one. I’ve started it, and will spend some dedicated time with to this book. Its main message is this: the ideal of slenderness is, at its very core, racialized and racist.
I had bought this book a while back, but got distracted by other things and other books. Then, I listened to an interview with her by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom on the podcast Hear to Slay (which is now the Roxane Gay Agenda, worth subscribing to on Luminary). I’m sold, and I bet you will be, too.
Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, by Lynne Cox. In addition to being in the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, Lynne has an asteroid named after her: asteroid 37588 Lynnecox. I don’t think I know anyone who has their own asteroid namesake. Sam and maybe other of our bloggers have read this, and the reviews are good.
Pelvic Liberation: using yoga, self-inquiry, and breath awareness for pelvic health, by Leslie Howard. Even though Leslie doesn’t (as far as I know) have her own asteroid, she’s done a lot of work developing and teaching yoga practices aimed at improving pelvic floor health. NOTE: I’m not claiming that yoga will cure whatever ails us in our pelvic regions. There are lots of health care professionals out there, and I’m not one of them. What I like is that the book contains loads of illustrated yoga poses, many of them supportive, along with explanations about benefits and how to incorporate them into my regular yoga practice.
Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, by Kate Manne. In this book, Kate reveals how misogyny and toxic masculinity enroll all of us through comprehensive socialization. She also offers ways to identify and shift our modes of thinking about who’s entitled to what to expand girls’ and women’s power. This book was written after her brilliant Down Girl, a philosophical analysis of misogyny. I’ve read Down Girl but not yet gotten to Entitled. Now’s the time.
I also heard about this book on the Hear to Slay podcast interview with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (maybe you’re getting the idea that this is a good source of new and interesting ideas…) It’s an anthology of short pieces by 60 women at the forefront of the climate movement. The work is divided into sections called Root, Advocate, Reframe, Reshape, Persist, Feel, Nourish, and Rise. We meet familiar names and new voices that honor and mourn losses, but also call us to save places around us, both big and small.
I could go on, but this is good as a start (both for me and for y’all).
Readers, have you read any of these books already? Have you bought them but not read them? Do you have any books you recommend for us to read this year? Please do let us know. I’m always up for book recommendations.
Christine blogged about hers first. We’re both big fans of our hats with bluetooth headphones built in. I think I even bought mine after reading her positive review because it turns out we were both struggling with the same thing–finding fully charged headphones and a hat and a dog leash, poop bags, and a dog (okay the dog part is easy). It was starting to get in the way of taking Cheddar out for a walk between meetings back when I was working from home.
Having one fewer thing to find was just what the doctor ordered. Also, between glasses and headphones and in the worst of the pandemic, masks, my ears were just too busy.
If you’ve got a 🐕 you’re out walking two or three times a day. Now luckily I’m not the only person walking Cheddar. I find with my painful knees I need something to distract me from pain while I’m out walking. Audio books do the trick.
Lately I’ve been making my way through everything Tana French has written. Some of her work I’ve read and some of it I’ve listened. Good both ways but they are excellent audio books. Currently listening to The Searcher, see image below.
Audio books have helped me increase the amount of fiction in my life. Sarah and I listen to books in the car while we drive back and forth to Prince Edward County. But mostly I listen to books while either cleaning the kitchen and/or walking Cheddar.
It’s helping me make progress with my Good Reads reading challenge even with my return to working in my office.
She was the first woman and the first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, which she did in 1999. She was also the first woman and first American to ski to the South Pole and the first woman to climb the Lewis Nunatak in the Antarctic. (See Wikipedia for more.)
McClure is a university president (Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky) and the author of A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean.
The Menopause Manifesto isn’t a manifesto. It would perhaps have been better for Dr. Jen Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible, to follow her previous branding and call this second book something like The Menopause Bible – which invokes a lot of information and story about which there is the need for interpretation, debate, and critique as a key part of faith.
I am really excited by the increasing number of books and blogs talking openly about hormone transitions of all sorts, and how they can be made less bad. I’m a feminist who studies transformations in medical practice, and I came into this book ready to cheer for anyone attacking medical sexism, especially the specific form that sexism takes in how it talks about menopause. I’m a nerd and I love there being uncountably many books about stuff I’m interested in. I’m an easy sell!
So, I’m disappointed in how strongly I cannot recommend this book to you. I was about to write, “to you feminist readers of this blog who think critically about fitness, many of whom are nonbinary, or trans women, or fat, or disabled, or asexual, or cancer survivors, or not parents, or all those things at once.” But really, having to put all those caveats in means that pretty much wherever you land on these matrices of experience the book will stab you on one of your other vectors of awesomeness.
My impulse to say: “If you’re thin, cis, straight, monogamously coupled, have had no problems having and bearing children, never had chemo related early menopause, and if you’re otherwise are this book’s normal, you can read this book” is actually really awful. I know that the particular brand of liberal feminism that means you can write a whole book, with the best will in the world, as though all the rest of us are sidenotes, actually doesn’t help even people in the supposed centre of the frame.
And I believe that Gunter really, really means well! She has taken on Goop around its antiscience grifting, the Toronto Star about bad medical reporting, and regularly engages various randos on the internet about health generally. The Menopause Manifesto has some great parts. Gunter is very sympathetic to taking hormones, especially in the perimenopausal years when they can actually help with vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats, for example), and so she has detailed accounts of various hormone options and what they do. So those chapters will be helpful if you’re in perimenopause, having those symptoms, and interested in hormone therapy to help with them – it explains a lot.
The other very great part of the book is a list of signals for when to walk out of a doctor’s office around menopause stuff, because these things indicate that they are either quacks or so behind the science as to be potentially harmful to you. That list includes:
salivary hormone level tests
hormone level testing to guide therapy
recommending only hormone therapy and not the other things that can help menopause symptoms
prescribing topical progesterone cream to offset the dangers of transdermal or oral estrogen
selling supplements or products.
(Re this last one, here is your reminder that it’s always a good time to read or reread Middlemarch and to reflect on the long history of people trying to practice integrity and care, including in and around medicine.)
But one of *my* signals for when to walk out of a doctor’s office, unless there are really really specific conditions that actually involve weight, is when they say:
To solve these [waves hand] health problems, you should lose weight!
Gunter does this All. The. Time in this book. It’s SUPER WEIRD! Even when she’s talking critically about how sexist weight loss advice is, she reproduces it.
Doctors in general have a tragic axiom lock around weight – they struggle so much to look at fat people and treat our actual health, even when they know that fat isn’t the reason we’re in their office. They can say in one breath that standard measures, like BMI, are unscientific and useless and in the next breath reiterate just slightly updated versions of dodgy, unscientific pap about fat. Gunter goes for “visceral fat” and waist circumference.
Many doctors, Gunter included, go on from using bogus measures of fatness-as-illness to suggest weight loss as a good remedy for what ails us (in this case, menopause). In a book so critical of pseudoscience and from someone aware of the problems with generalizing health advice from a single person’s experience (Gweneth Paltrow might have good personal results from jade vaginal eggs, but she oughtn’t market them), it’s so odd to see Gunter recommend that her readers do what she does as though it will work for us.
She says, “Admittedly it’s a work in progress and I’m not recommending this approach for anyone. But experts say that journaling is a low-risk intervention that can help with weight loss and weight maintenance” (83). Which experts? Where are the studies? And it’s jarring to have her acknowledge that weight loss advice is sexist, and political, that weight interventions overwhelmingly fail, and proceed to give the usual pablum weight loss advice in the chapter “Metamorphoses of Menopause” (Watch what you eat! Cook at home! Don’t eat ultra-processed food!). I’m here to say, I’ve done or do all of these things and I’m still fat! And I’m good with that!
The standard move here is to follow “I’m fat” with “and I’m really healthy!” But appealing to health as a foil for the “it’s bad to be fat” line is just another trick. Many of us are never going to be not sick, and all of us deserve solid help for problems with menopause, fat or thin, sick or not.
“Obesity is a medical condition, but it’s one of the few in which we assign or imply blame to the patient. It’s also one of the conditions where medicine generally provides the least amount of guidance and support. What if we treated people with cancer or high blood pressure the same way? Can you imagine a world where a provider would give the diagnosis of breast cancer, imply it was the person’s fault, and then send her out into the ether to find help?” (85)
So, you can see that Gunter thinks that people should have more and better support around fat. But, as readers of this blog know well, obesity is not a medical condition – fat is not a disease. Even if it were, the precise approach to fat that Gunter here excoriates is pervasive in the book, not just in that chapter. Weight loss is suggested as a remedy for almost every problem perimenopause and menopause might throw at you, and it is named as a potential beneficial side-effect for almost every medical intervention Gunter recommends. I was going to try to give you pages to avoid if you want to get some of the helpful stuff from this book but not be sent down a fat-hating, body-surveilling wormhole and I’m afraid I got overwhelmed. So, general content warning, I guess.
But then content warning for so much more. I know I’m harping on this, but it really is shocking how Gunter is able to identify sexist medical inaccuracies and perpetuate them in the same breath and in the name of feminism.
Aside from leaving when medical professionals talk go first to fat, I have a couple of other signals to walk out of offices – when people go to evolution to explain health advice they’re giving me, when all their heroes are straight and cis, and when they have no disability analysis.
These are more signals that make me wish I’d walked out of this book, but, well, I guess I can offer you my experience. It is just hopelessly, deeply, pervasively committed to a particular understanding of evolution that grounds the worth of menopause in a narrative of “the grandmother effect” (a real and good thing, just not something that we should limit our explanatory scope to). This narrative pervades the text in a way that brings along with it a whole cluster of things around reproduction as the point of human existence, bundled with a whole bunch of stuff around evolutionary fitness. Making menopause a good thing because evolution just tangles us back up in eugenic narratives of personal fitness as a subset of the health of the population. This sucks.
The Menopause Manifesto is deeply straight. Its normative subject is someone who is going through menopause in her forties to fifties, with a uterus and overies, who is having sex with cis men. I feel it really minimizes cancer and decisions people might make around cancer risk that do not ignore other problems postmenopausal people face, such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
All of these grate the more because Gunter references misogyny over and over, and she is able to identify the sexism in her archive even as she reproduces it. It is actually very possible to write a book about menopause that does not do these things – Heather Corinna has done so just this year!
I think that all of us should be demanding books that apply to and help women think about their experiences but that at the same time resist gender oppression generally. Acknowledging that non-binary people exist and go through menopause, acknowledging that trans men exist and go through menopause, that some people have had early menopause because of cancer or other medical treatment, acknowledging that not everyone wants to have vaginal sex, that not everyone needs to have a pregnancy test, and so on – these things actually help us fight sexism and oppressive gender norms. (Sophie Lewis’s book Full Surrogacy Now! offers a parallel example to Corrinna’s What Fresh Hell is This?, giving a political analysis of pregnancy without restricting it to women. It’s possible, and great!)
So, closing sidebar, not the point of the book but a plea for more science. Anyone who menstruates and weight lifts who I know probably has been interested in studies about lifting and menstrual cycles. There is data that training hard during your follicular cycle, the bit between when you start bleeding and when you ovulate, has strength benefits. I remember my aunt Karen Moe Humphreys, a two-time Olympic swimmer, gold-medalist in the butterfly, who has been a fierce and impressive athlete her whole life and continues to get stronger in her sixties, reflecting on her strength gains post-menopause and saying that she wished people would research this more.
Gunter, and everyone else writing about menopause, talk often about how perimenopause can involve higher levels of follicule stimulating hormone circulating in our bodies – but they do not make the connection to work on weight training during our follicular cycles as helpful. Rather they take it as given that menopause will make us weaker, less muscly, more fragile, no matter how much we exercise. So, I’m interested in someone doing more science on this, but in the absence of good studies, I’m personally going to decide that perimenopause is a good time to get incredibly strong.
And whatever you’re deciding to do with your perimenopause and menopause, I just want to say that you can do it just as you are, and you deserve help and care that doesn’t hate on any part of you.
Bio: Teacher, writer, SF nerd, functional potter, queer, currently obsessed with doing handstands in middle age. Author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and working on a book called Collecting Our People, about getting together to solve big problems in which we are complicit.
Awhile back I posted about an amazing book I was reading A Pearl in the Storm. It’s a memoir (the subtitle is “How I found my heart in the middle of an ocean”) and an adventure story about rowing solo across the Atlantic. Lots of themes in the book about growing up as young athletic woman in a country and at a time when that wasn’t allowed or encouraged will resonate with readers.
The musical version of the book just opened this summer: “Tori Murden McClure was the first woman – and the first American – to successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean. She succeeded in 1999 after an attempt in 1998 was foiled by a hurricane. Her vessel? A 23 foot rowboat she had built and named the “American Pearl.” The story of her accomplishment has inspired the new musical “Row” – with a book by Daniel Goldstein and music and lyrics by singer-songwriter, Dawn Landes.”
And, drumroll please, Tori Murden McClure has agreed to a blog interview! I’ll be interviewing her at the end of September.
SEND ME YOUR QUESTIONS! I have lots of my own, but I’m also collecting questions for the author (now President of Spalding University). We connected through blog guest and fellow feminist philosopher Lauren Freeman who it turns out is a neighbour of the author. Thanks Lauren!
I loved her story and I recently found out that she’s the neighbour of a feminist philosopher who reads the blog. I’m going to interview her email and post here so if you have any questions for this remarkable woman, pls send them my way.
There’s a lot to love about the book. I’ve been reading it pretty much non-stop. I love the way she weaves in her life story with her harrowing journey in a very small boat amid some intense weather and big waves. Early chapters also tell the story of McClure’s earlier adventures. She was also the first woman to ski to the South Pole.
Also of note, especially for the academics out there. You might relate to McClure’s discussion of her decision to swap her life boat for books to take on the journey. I also loved the food recommendations she received. If you’re starting in good health, it’s okay to eat like a teenager for 3 months. The peanut M and Ms came on the trip.
I found Tori Murden McClure’s story of growing up defending her disabled brother from abuse at school more harrowing than the tale of rowing across the Atlantic. Parts of that story needed a content warning in a way the rowing adventure did not. The assualt story in Chapter 6 was especially difficult to read.
In a different way it was also hard to read the author’s account of the conflict between her early athleticism and being a girl. I suspect many blog readers will relate.
You might also enjoy watching the TED talk A song for my hero, the woman who rowed into a hurricane: “Singer-songwriter Dawn Landes tells the story of Tori Murden McClure, who dreamed of rowing across the Atlantic in a small boat — but whose dream was almost capsized by waves the size of a seven-story building. Through video, story and song, Landes imagines the mindset of a woman alone in the midst of the vast ocean. “
Why yes, since you wonder, I am writing this short review at 4:13 in the morning because of perimenopause. Maybe you’re reading it in the middle of the night for the same reason! If so, I am here to tell you that the Heather Corinna’s new book What Fresh Hell is This?will make you feel better than you do right now, and you should get your (perhaps sweaty, cranky, bewildered) hands on a copy asap.
Written by a nonbinary, rad, smart, funny, sex-educator, this really is a game-changer in a field of books that try to be helpful and relevant but end up just recapitulating tired gender-binary, straight, fat-hating, ableist sexism. In place of so much that makes us sad, What Fresh Hell is This? offers practical, supportive, buffet-style advice for meeting perimenopause and menopause with kindness, feminism, and science.
The book starts with a great, short history of how messed up and sexist treatment of perimenopause and menopause have been in western medicine (easily skippable, as Corinna notes, if you just want to not think about annoying things). Then it gives a clear run-down on hormones, why they are complicated, and why their changing affects us so much. (I had no idea that there are four kinds of estrogen that bodies produce? One of which is only produced if you’re pregnant, and it is made by the fetus’s liver? How wild.) But in this part, Corinna begins their reframing of the assumed subject of perimenopause with an ease that feels casual and comfortable as you read it, although it is clearly a political decision enacted with rigor.
The “proper subject” of menopause is often implicitly imagined as a straight nondisabled white cis woman who has had kids and worries about getting fat, wrinkly, nonreproductive, and moody. Corinna writes for that woman, for sure, but she is not the central subject from which the rest of us deviate. So all throughout this book there are regular people who have had or do have uteruses and ovaries, and who enter menopause suddenly because of chemo or oophorectomy or hysterectomy, or using T, or other things.
There’s an excellent supplemental section at the end about how trans women and people with testicular systems experience menopause. Being disabled, queer, and nonbinary is not exceptionalised, and Corinna marks how racialization and poverty shape the conditions of life through which we enter menopause.
I just can’t express how relaxing it is to be able to read a book about perimenopause and not constantly brace for or read around heterosexuality, fat-shaming, and ableism, a book that acknowledges racism as a structuring condition of our lives.
But then mostly the book is just helpful about perimenopause. Corinna explains the whys and hows of various things that can happen: Vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats), mood shifts and mental health upheavals, cognitive affects, chronic pain flares, and changes to digestion, skin, bleeding (of course), and sexuality.
The bulk of the book, which goes through various kinds of experiences people have with perimenopause is grounded, thoroughly researched, and measured. I learned a lot, including about things that I thought I had settled views upon, like about whether hormone therapies are good or bad. On that front, I didn’t know that the studies that convinced me that menopausal hormone therapy was harmful and bad didn’t actually focus on the people who might benefit most from short-term combined hormone therapy – they were done on people who were postmenopausal, on average 63 years old, and with an aim of preventing long-term health problems. And I didn’t know that testosterone can be used as part of a menopausal hormonal treatment plan.
Part of what’s so great about WFHIT? is the steadiness with which it explains that the transition to not bleeding will be personal and specific, but that we can still know things about it. And it has really good suggestions in a frame Corinna calls “Ya Basics” for thinking about managing stress, sleeping, moving our bodies, finding social support, and quitting smoking. They offer sometimes irritatingly helpful advice while acknowledging that it’s sometimes irritating to be offered helpful advice. But they’re still offering it and honestly they’re probably right.
Readers of this blog are probably like me, people who think about a lot of things and who feel like we know some stuff. It is so strange and nourishing to read a book that shows how much more stuff there is to know about something that anyone who has or has had a uterus and ovaries will go through. I feel almost embarrassed at how relieved and affirmed I feel, having read this book, and I recommend it to you. And I hope you get some non-sweaty sleep.
Bio: Teacher, writer, SF nerd, functional potter, queer, currently obsessed with doing handstands in middle age. Author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and working on a book called Collecting Our People, about getting together to solve big problems in which we are complicit.
I’m an academic and a voracious reader. You can tell very easily what my interests are at a given time by what I’m reading about. I like to know a lot about the things I do. I’m often puzzled by people who aren’t curious in this way.
It’s not quite true any more that each new passion begins with a trip to the bookstore. There’s the internet after all. But at some point, I start buying books.
Oh you can follow/friend/whatever me over at GoodReads.
But equally, when passions fade and life stages change, I don’t want these books taking up space on my shelves. For years I co-taught a course on progressive themes in Christian theology to my church congregation. When I stopped I donated the books to our church library.
Ditto all the books on parenting small children. Ditto all the books on pregnancy and childbirth. All donated to places where they might come in use.
In my new neighborhood in Guelph there are three or four small curbside “libraries.” Some people call them “free libraries” but I’m not sure why. Regular libraries are also free. I think of them more as places to give books away. Near me the book giveaway boxes hold everything from gardening books and contemporary mysteries to old textbooks and yet more copies of 50 Shades of Grey.
I recently added to their collections, with my old running books.
I started running in my late 30s. It never really suited me but I loved it. I went from 5 km to 10 km to aiming for 20 km. I got speedy, it’s true. But I also had two stress fractures.
In my forties and in my run up to fittest by fifty, I kept distances short. I ran playing soccer. I sprinted at CrossFit. And I ran doing short distance duathlons.
Now I’m waiting for total knee replacement surgery for both knees eventually, one more urgent than the other. I won’t run again unless I’m being chased by a bear or exiting a burning building. There’s no need to train for that and so away go the inspirational books.
If you live in Guelph’s Old University neighborhood you can find the three great books in our book giveaway boxes. I liked them all.
And I’m hoping some new beginning runner or triathlete gives them a read, puts on her running shoes, and is inspired to give it a go.
I have been following Jessamyn Stanley on Facebook and Instagram for a while. I enjoy her candid posts about how she is feeling, pictures of her in yoga postures and other great photos.
My fangirl status definitely leveled up when I got to enjoy this great video 30 Minute Yoga Sequence for Total Beginners. Jessamyn starts off matter of factly talking about props and maybe you can’t afford blocks. It was the first yoga video that addressed material and financial issues that can affect many folks at different times. Plus, she has this kind, matter of fact delivery that really works for me. Regular readers of this blog know many contributors are fans of other youtube yoga instructors. I’ve tried them and really gave other folks a go but I never really felt that those videos & instructors were for me so I kept coming back to what I could find by Jessamyn.
I was checking out her website http://jessamynstanley.com/ when I realized she had published a book. Friends, I am late to the game as it was first published in 2017. I knew I wanted to financially support an athlete & instructor that brings a lot of joy and wisdom into my life. I highly recommend if you are benefiting from anyone’s content that has products or services to invest in them too 🙂
So the book arrived. It’s a softcover of 222 pages filled with beautiful photography, personal stories and Jessamyn’s take on the Eight-limbed path of yoga. Each chapter ends with a section called “Questions Asked by (Literally) Every Beginner Yoga Student” that resonated with me.
From an exercise/posture/asana perspective there are detailed instructions on 41 poses with accompanying photos of 4 models in addition to the author. Jessamyn reminds us that yoga instructors and practitioners are more diverse than the pop culture image of a thin, white, young woman. She focuses on our inner journey that postures help us get at.
Jessamyn also includes several flows based on what the reader might need and then recipes for combining flows for a longer practice. These are prefaced by personal stories that are both uniquely hers while tapping into those universal experiences of the full range of human emotion. It’s a powerful combination.
I appreciate her joyfulness in the pictures and her writing. Jessamyn addresses the tough stuff about modern yoga and calls us in to try.
She is also an impressive athlete that has achieved a mastery of many postures. The books tag line is “let go of fear, get on the mat, love your body”. That’s a pretty inviting and encouraging call to action.
This book was what I needed to re-energize my at home practice. I last blogged about my practice back in June and it went off the rails in August. I refocused on walking but I needed something to help get me back into a daily yoga practice. This book was just what I needed.
For details on how you can purchase a copy for yourself or someone you adore check out the details here.
I’m not gaining any compensation or benefit from this book review other than sharing my appreciation for a great instructor.
Have you read a book that helped you re-engage with your yoga practice or workout routine? Let me know!
What’s different this time? We’re inviting you to join us. Read along and put your contributions in the comments. It doesn’t need to be a lot. A few sentences, a few paragraphs, whatever you’re moved to write.
This was a hard chapter for me to get through but that’s my issue, not the author’s problem. I am not the right audience for the discussion at hand.
Chapter 7 was about the motivation, benefits, and mindset for doing endurance events.
I am not wired for endurance events. I am not even wired for considering endurance events.
This may be, in part, due to my ADHD issues with time perception (lots of things already feel endless to me – I don’t need to take on extra ones) but also, I have a visceral negative reaction to the descriptions of the pain and suffering that are part and parcel of these events. I cannot wrap my mind around someone undertaking them on purpose. Even the descriptions make me frustrated and angry.
Is this a logical reaction? No.
Does it make any sense at all? Nope.
Would I try to talk you out of doing an endurance event? Also, no – because that’s your business. However, if you tried to talk to me about an event like that, I would probably have to stop you so you could find someone more positive to talk to about it. I wouldn’t want my issues to put a damper on your excitement and accomplishments.
McGonigal says that that what separates ultramarathons from masochism is context and I am just going to have to take her word on that.
Anyway, all of that being said, there was useful information for me in this chapter.
I appreciated the observation from hiker and author Jennifer Pharr Davis that you don’t have to get rid of pain in order to move forward. This idea has bounced up for me in a variety of contexts in the past and while Pharr Davis is primarily talking about physical pain, it also applies to other types of pain as well. I find comfort in the idea that sometimes you can have challenging circumstances AND still keep putting one foot in front of the other (literally or metaphorically.)
I did feel some connection to adventure athlete Terri Schneider’s discussion of her exploits. She describes how pushing her body to its limits felt joyful and how she felt freed from expectations about how a woman ‘should’ behave. As a martial artist, that resonated with me. I do enjoy a tiring class or belt test and I have definitely felt like I was stepping outside some ‘shoulds’ by taking pride in my punches and kicks.
However, the biggest feeling of connection and resonance for me started when McGonigal was describing her own experiences with wall climbing. Her description of a metaphorical ‘reaching-out’ to others for support when she couldn’t quite muster up her own faith made sense to me. And I enjoyed the resulting discussion of interdependence and how being able to offer and receive help is an added benefit of certain types of exercise.
After gritting my teeth through most of the descriptions (again, this is my issue, not an issue with the writing nor an issue with the people described) I was happy to have found this section at the end that let me relax into familiar territory and ideas that resonated with me.
McGonigal explores the mystical world of the ultra-endurance athlete in Chapter 7. The stories chronicle pain, suffering, determination and hope. These are lofty sentiments, sincerely expressed and wholly appropriate to explain the process of achieving super-human feats.
But what about the rest of us? I, for one, don’t plan on running 100 miles, cycling across country in less than 2 weeks (check out the Race Across America if you’re interested), or hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. What is there for me to take away from these stories?
We are many of us endurance athletes, but of a different sort. Committing to a practice of running, swimming, walking, cycling, lifting, playing, training day after day, year after year, is most definitely endurance activity. We deal with aging, injury, illness, natural disaster, job loss, divorce, and depression. Life events can send us into distraction, despair, cynicism, and loss of agency.
Don’t leave yet! Here’s the good part: endurance is all about acceptance and hope. Acceptance that where I am is not the end, but rather a point along a line (maybe an undulating one) that leads me through my relationship with my body. The hope is for completion of segments of that line—new personal bests, recovery after injury or illness, or finding a new normal amidst a backdrop of very non-normal circumstances.
Endurance athletes like those McGonigal talks with strike me as special creatures with niche talents and unusual psychological makeups. They are cool to watch and hear about. For most of us, though, being an endurance athlete looks like life: get up, eat breakfast, put your gear on, pump the tires, and set off. You don’t know what it’s going to look like or feel like. But it’s what you do. That’s endurance to me.
Again, I liked the stories best. If there’s a reason to read this book, that’s it. There isn’t enough detail here about the studies that are mentioned to satisfy a reader who cares about research. That said, I’m not interested in challenging McGonigal’s claims and the stories are inspirational on their own.
A confession, while I am not an ultra-marathoner, endurance is in my sports repertoire. I’ve ridden my bike some pretty long distances. I liked that McGonigal’s discussion of ultra-races includes the community and connection aspects of such events. I’d never be tempted to ride my bike alone 660+ kms but I’ve done it lots now as part of the Friends for Life Bike Rally fundraising ride with hundreds of other cyclists. Recently I reviewed a book about a woman who rode around the world and for her, it was global community that sustained her.
But I know that’s not true for all endurance athletes and I wondered if some of the solo sorts might feel left out by this chapter. Cate has blogged here lots about her solo cycling adventures, also major endurance events, and while they’ve never tempted me, I know she’s not alone in craving that kind of radical independence.
Have you been reading along? What did you think? What bits of this chapter spoke to you?