competition · death · Fear · fitness · health · motivation

Pain and the Human Playground (a mini review)

We watched the first episode of a fun documentary series at my house the other night, The Human Playground. It’s on Netflix, narrated by Idris Elba. There’s a book project of the same name released to coordinate with the Netflix series.

Cover of the book The Human Playground: Why We Play

We watched the first episode, Breaking the Pain Barrier which included a marathon in the desert, bullfighting, a brutal bicycle race, and ice swimming.

What was striking was that three of the four athletes featured were women

The first was Amy Palmiero-Winters who raced in the Sahara Desert, in Southern Morocco in the most painful marathon in the world, Marathon des Sables, French for “marathon of the sands.” It’s a six-day, 156-mile-long ultramarathon, equal to six regular marathons. One marathon a day for six days over blazing hot sand and yet there are hundreds of participants each with their own personal reasons for taking on this very painful challenge.

Needless to say we weren’t tempted and I’m still shocked that there are that many participants. It’s not the back to back marathons that make it look impossible but the conditions including the bright sun, the heat, and the scorching hot sand.

You can watch the documentary or read An Amputee’s Toughest Challenge Yet: Her 140-Mile Run in the Desert in the New York Times to find out more about Amy Palmiero-Winters’ motivations.

Amy racing across the hot red sand of the desert

Next up was cycling and the story of the famous very dangerous Paris-Roubaix race and its first women’s event.

The episode follows Ellen van Dijk, one of the first women to ever compete.

Why is this race so dangerous? It includes sections on ancient cobblestones, the bicycle’s worst enemy. This race is so bad it’s called the Hell of the North. There are numerous inevitable crashes and broken bones and damaged bikes. It looks terrifying to me.

Ellen van Dijk with mud and dirt on her white jersey and helmet and her face

The episode also includes the story of a woman who swims below the ice in bone chilling temperatures. And there was a dude who did some sport that involved risking his life dodging horned animals while unarmed. I confess I tuned out about during that bit. Not because the athlete was a man but I’m not a fan of sports that involve animals in combat.

Back to the theme of pain and suffering.

Now I’ve written about athletes and pain before. See Are athletes masochists?, Greetings from inside the pain cave, and Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance). Also Sam thinks about pain, endurance, and performance (Book review in progress).

And I’m someone who has enjoyed her fair share of punishing workouts and pushing myself. That said, this show did not really help me understand the athletes who seek out the extremes. The ice swimmer’s story involved recovery from sexual assault and she sought out very painful (and very risky) extreme cold swimming as a way of dealing with trauma. But I worried she was going to die beneath the ice from passing out from the cold the whole time I was watching her swim. I thought, “get a therapist!”

The scorching sand marathon? No way on earth. And even the bike racing–the least deathy of the activities and most in my wheelhouse–didn’t appeal even though the worst case outcome involved broken bones and not death and there is skill involved in not crashing. The bike race and the horned animal avoiding sport at least looked like there was more skill involved than just your body’s ability to endure the extreme conditions but still, no way on earth…

Watch it and let me know what you think.

I asked Sarah who watched with me if the show either helped her understand the athletes’ motivation or tempted her to undertake such painful and dangerous sports. She’s promised me her two cents in a separate blog post.

Stay tuned!

Dancing · Fear · fitness

Dancing Alone

I am interested in how dancing connects us with others, such as when dark dancing provided a community for dancers during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, dancing with others can also inhibit us, especially when we fear that others see us as bad dancers out on the dance floor.

Today, my post today reflects on the people who need neither community nor coping mechanisms—they dance boldly and fearlessly to music around others, even if they dance alone.

Woman in red dress twirling alone on a coloured rug
dots dancing alone on a busy pattern” by supermattzor is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Dancing with himself

Recently I was at an outdoor country music festival stage show—supporting a friend who was supporting her partner who was in the band. The set started for about 30 people sitting or standing in the warm sun.

Soon I noticed someone dressed in cowboy hat, jeans, and boots who had started dancing at the side of the stage. He looked about 80. He was the only person dancing. I gestured to my friend over to him, and she said, “Oh, that’s Bev. He always dances, no matter what music is playing.”

I learned more: Bev has special notoriety among local musicians for coming out to so many shows and always, always dancing. Bev has even been featured in a music video by my friend’s old band.

Jenn Marino & the Hearts – Got Me Movin’ featuring Bev Camp

Not dancing but watching

Watching Bev shuffle out moves like a one-man line dancer, I thought about the (very few) number of times I was brave enough to be the first one up and dancing. I get my itchy feet from my parents, who have always loved music and for years enjoyed two-stepping and square dancing. But the risk of being seen as the weirdo dancing by herself has, more often than not, kept me rooted in my chair.

Some guy in front of me pulled out his phone, training it on Bev rather than on the band. When the guy noticed me noticing him, he smiled and gestured towards Bev in a conspiring way, like I should agree that Bev was making a spectacle of himself dancing alone, so it was ok to record him.

Before the set was over, Bev had moved closer to centre stage, continuing to dance as if he didn’t even notice anyone else was there. We all noticed him, but nobody joined him.

Dance like no one is watching

I didn’t speak with Bev, but I guess that he doesn’t dance at live music to make a spectacle of himself. Bev is there for the music. Maybe he does it to maintain muscle strength and agility, or maybe he just no longer fears what other people think. Maybe Bev doesn’t feel he as if he is dancing alone: his dance partner is the music.

Perhaps dancers are gawked at and teased by those who want to dance but lack the courage to do so. I am still not always able to (as the platitude goes) “dance like no one is watching.” But I will cheer on Bev and others like him, and maybe enjoy the music a little bit more, knowing there are beautiful, brave people who don’t need anyone’s approval to just go ahead and dance.

advice · Dancing · Fear · fitness · media

Bad Dancing

FIFI bloggers have shared many beautiful and uplifting posts about the aerobic, aesthetic, historical, cultural, and social aspects of their dance and dancing.

But I want to talk about bad dancing. Not defining what is bad dancing (too subjective, or in the case of trained dancing, too specialized). Rather, I want to consider how we respond to the fear of bad dancing in social situations that can creep on the edges of our minds before, during, or after we dance.

Dancing, the media, and us

If you’re of a certain age, a single one word brings to mind the epitome of “bad dancing”: Elaine.

Elaine dancing, from Seinfeld.

If you’re not quite at that age, but close, here’s second word that sums up dancing so bad it’s good: (the) Carlton.

Carlton dancing, from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Both tv sitcom clearly characters find joy and freedom in their dancing. Yet, these scenes also capture some not uncommon worries about dancing: folks laughing behind our backs without our knowledge (like Elaine), or being seen and judged when we dance (though I realize that race, class, and culture ground the joke of Carlton dancing to a Tom Jones song as well).

The media not only reflects but can also amplify our worries. Elaine’s scene reminds us that wedding and parties are places where dancing is a social expectation. We might start to compare our dancing with the many mainstream media celebs and performers who dance with more style and grace (thanks to professional training). Also, there are TikTok dancers around to remind us how much money we are not making from our own dancing.

I bet my non-existent jazz flats that—even those with actual dance training—most folks at some point have wondered whether they were a bad dancer, or if others might have thought so. Just last week, after a fun house dance night with about 12 people I avoided watching the phone videos that were shared around because I didn’t want to watch myself, or see others watching me.

Am I a bad dancer? Part I

How do we respond to fears of being regarded (or regarding ourselves) as a “bad dancer,” or at least not a very good one, when dancing in social settings?

There are lots of ways, most of which fall somewhere between the Elaine (totally surprised/defensive) and Carlton (hyperaware/embarrassed). Read on to see what strategies you have used, and let me know what I have missed.

  • You can seek out ways to reduce your inhibitions to care less about how you (or other) feel about your dancing. “Liquid courage” is a common method. There’s even a study that suggests that if you find the “platform of effective intoxication,” alcohol can actually make you a better dancer.
  • You can choose ironic dancing, an exaggerated form of dancing that is intentionally self-deprecative, as this DJ describes. (Think the Robot, the Sprinkler, or any other passé dance craze). Some may interpret your ironic dancing as making fun of not yourself but them on the dance floor.
  • You can accept that you are not a trained dancer, but dance anyway—just for fun, relaxation, or exercise. Perhaps you are someone with the congenital condition known as beat deafness, in which you cannot distinguish rhythm or move in time to it.
  • You might get constructive and practice dancing, as suggested by the advice in this Steezy blog post: take time watch online dance lessons, practice in front of a mirror or in safe places with friends, and take in-real-life dance classes.
  • You may embrace your dancing as a form of resistance or protest—to white/middle-class/ableist dance norms, the hyper-regulation of bodies, and other forms of systemic injustice. I will never forget for the first time watching Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) in his music video “This is America” (warning: violence)—his dancing had me re-thinking my assumptions about what dancing is, who dancing is for, and why dancing is such an important form of representation and resistance in BIPOC communities. (See this Atlantic article for more.)

Am I a bad dancer? Part II

Upon re-watching Elaine after her let-loose dance scene, I didn’t find myself sharing in her friends and employees’ teasing. Rather, I wished Elaine would have taken her own advice from her wedding toast: “Here’s to those who wish us well. And those who don’t can go to hell.”

In her post Bad Dancers?, dance and fitness instructor Karen Kiefer writes, “A dance floor will always have people with different styles and knowledge levels about dancing: which doesn’t mean they are good or bad dancers, just people enjoying themselves for an evening.”

This is a reminder to you (and me): when you have an Elaine and Carlton-level love of dancing, don’t ask the question—because then the answer doesn’t matter.

Fear · martial arts

Stepping Up To Lead At TKD. Finally!

I am pleased to report that after a mere thirteen years of Taekwondo training*, I am finally virtually unfazed by being asked to lead the warm-up for my class.

a GIF of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants standing in the Krusty Krab restaurant with his arms raised over his head. The text below reads ‘Victory Screech’
Out of consideration for the other students, I only screech internally. Image description: a GIF of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants standing in the Krusty Krab restaurant with his arms raised over his head. The text below reads ‘Victory Screech’

If you recall, my post for International Women’s Day was about my challenges with stepping up to lead in that specific way and how important it is/was to me to get past those challenges.

So, back in March, I had decided that the way to get over my reluctance was to 1) lead the class for several weeks in a row- so I would be able to get used to the feeling and 2) make a lesson plan in advance to reduce the risk of going blank while I was up in front of everyone.**

And it totally worked!

I didn’t even end up leading the class every week that I was planning to – I was sick one week and my instructor led the entire group together another week. It was still enough time to get used to being up in front of everyone, to find my own groove with instructing, and to prepare enough lesson plans and warm-ups that I can use at any time.

a GIF of Moira Rose from the TV show Schitt​‘s Creek. She is wearing a referee’s uniform and she looks as is she is admonishing someone. Text below reads ‘One must prepare for any event.’
Image description: a GIF of Moira Rose from the TV show Schitt‘s Creek. She is wearing a referee’s uniform and her expression (lips pressed together, eyes looking to one side) looks as if she is admonishing someone. Text below reads ‘One must prepare for any event.’

I have to say, I like knowing that I am prepared and that I won’t feel overwhelmed by being asked to take the class. In fact, two weeks ago, I was asked on the spur of the moment to take the class and as I stepped up onto the small stage at the front I realized that I wasn’t uncomfortable at all.

That was exactly what I was hoping for when I made my plan for March.

In June, I am going to be testing for my 4th degree black belt, a rank that means there is a lot lot more teaching in my future. I am grateful to know that the ‘trick’ to making myself more comfortable with that really is to prepare and to practice.

(Yes, this is the same ‘trick’ I apply in every other area but it had never occurred to me to apply it at TKD.)

A GIF from the show Power Rangers Dino Fury that shows an outdoor shot of a woman clapping her hands. She has long brown hair and is wearing jeans and a pink shirt over a darker pink ​tank top. Text below reads ‘Amazing Trick.’
A GIF from the show Power Rangers Dino Fury that shows an outdoor shot of a woman clapping her hands. She has long brown hair and is wearing jeans and a pink shirt over a darker pink tank top. Text below reads ‘Amazing Trick.’

Do you have one area of your life where you can’t quite bring the same oomph that you bring in other areas? Have you found a way around it? Were you able to transfer a skill from somewhere else?

*I’m being funny here, or at least trying to be. My fear of taking charge of the class has only been an issue for the past few years since I wouldn’t have been asked or expected to lead the class for most of the early part of my training. Previous to the past few years, I might have been asked to lead a small group or to lead students who were behind me in my training but my reluctance to step up in front of the whole group – my peers and students with more advanced ranks – was a relatively recent issue.

**Taekwondo is practically the only time I fear going blank on stage. I tell stories, give speeches and presentations, and do workshops regularly and while I might feel a bit nervous, I don’t worry about going blank. I guess that because TKD involves coordinating what I am saying with what I am doing it adds an extra layer of stress for me.

climate change · covid19 · Fear · fitness

Oof… Things are Hard right now

I honestly didn’t know what other title to give this post, and I’m also not quite sure where it’s going (nowhere, is probably where).

Where is all this going? Bettina wonders. In the image, a forest road lined by bare trees disappears into thick fog.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Over here in Europe, we’ve got our eyes turned eastward in horror. We pack boxes of baby items, nappies, cereal, fruit purée pouches, and face masks, and send them off in a lorry in the hopes they will reach the desperate people who need them. We wonder whether we should start stocking up on non-perishable goods and have a survival backpack ready to go just in case. At work lunches, we talk about whether we should be ready to flee to a different country, and if so, which one (Canada comes up a lot). And we try to guess whether Putin will stop in Ukraine, and what will happen if a Russian soldier so much as puts one little toe over the border of a NATO country. We wonder if, in the face of a never-ending pandemic, global warming, and war just one country over, bringing a child into this world was really the right thing to do.

Thinking about fitness, or doing fitnessy things, doesn’t come easy these days. It feels shallow to care about whether I will achieve 222 in 2022 (probably not). I catch myself thinking, “what if war happens and we have to survive outside or flee on foot, and I’m as unfit as I am right now?” But at the same time, when I can get myself to move, it helps. It distracts me, it gets me out into the sunshine (finally, a hint of spring!), it gets me away from the onslaught of horrible news coming at us from all angles right now. An hour in the pool makes me feel invigorated. A short Yoga with Adriene session makes my body feel less stiff. And a long walk in the sun with friends makes me feel more optimistic.

And then our very own Sam shares an article on Facebook entitled “What to do when the World is ending”, and I realise that, as hard as it seems right now, and as much as I want to curl up in a dark corner, close my eyes and stick my fingers in my ears, I will continue trying to take agency and working to build a good life amidst all this chaos. Thanks for sharing that article, Sam, it was exactly what I needed the other day.

Fear · femalestrength · hiking

When a Long Hike Becomes an Ultra Hike: How Fear and Strength Make Friends

This past Saturday, my partner and I set out for an 18-mile (30 km) hike from the Castle Peak parking lot at Boreal (near Truckee, CA) to the Mt Lola parking area (near Sierraville). As the hike is a point-to-point, we prepped by parking a car at the finish on Friday. We set out at 7:45 a.m., looking very much forward to 6 or 7 hours of hiking and a dip in the lake just past the halfway point and another in Independence Lake after we finished.

We’d done the route once before, three years ago, and had happy memories of the effortful day. So, we had only the most rudimentary of paper maps with us. No apps or maps downloaded on our phones. After all, we weren’t novices to the trail and it wasn’t as if the mountains or lake could have changed locations. And the route was simple, follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to the Mt Lola junction. Take a right. Follow the only trail past White Rock Lake up and over the top of Lola, then down the other side. We’ve hiked the “other side” of Lola many times as up and down. Familiar turf.  

We found our groove quickly. My partner and I have hiked together a lot and we both enjoy a brisk pace, with a minimum of stops. We passed through familiar spots of the hike, noting with pleased surprise at how much sooner we seemed to be getting to them than we’d expected. As we passed through Paradise Valley, my partner commented that it should only be another mile or so to the Lola junction. He also said that if we got to a traveled road, then we’d gone too far. We hiked on. And on. And on. We crossed a few dirt roads, most of which were clearly logging roads (i.e. untraveled). One had a sign that said “Entering Zone X.9”. We didn’t remember the road, but dismissed it as untraveled. After all, we didn’t see any cars on it as we passed by. We climbed up and over an exposed ridge. We looked back at Mt Lola and kept hiking. We expressed doubt. My partner, who likes to quantify things, said he was 10% uneasy. I was I-don’t-know-what-percent uneasy. We rationalized. We downgraded our assumed pace. We immersed ourselves in denial.

Also, I was annoyed at myself for still not buying a full brim sun hat for hiking. We passed people wearing peaked caps and hoodies as protection against the sun (not just the sun, California Sierra Mountains sun). Every time I felt its hot glow beating against the side of my face, a surge of resentment about my inadequate sun protection coursed through me. Also, I was hiking with a camelback, which had a new 1L bladder, 500 ml less than my previous 1.5L bladder. I was mad at myself for not bringing enough water. Also, I was wearing trail runners that I’d only worn one other time and I wasn’t liking them as much as my standard faves. I had a little hot spot on one of my heels.

Finally, when it seemed incredible that the junction was still ahead of us, we asked the next person we saw. A young woman, a solo northbound PCT through-hiker we caught up to (impressive!). She had an app.

After some consultation, expanding and tweezing the map on her phone, she said, “The junction is 5 miles back.”

IMPOSSIBLE. My mind screamed. I didn’t even feel capable of talking to the young woman anymore. My partner said thank you and good bye to her with great cheer. I was fuming. Why hadn’t I brought the good map we have at home? Yes, it unfolds and is huge. But still. Why hadn’t I thought to download an app? Or even look for one? What kind of self-reliant feminist was I (especially compared to the daring, app-savvy woman we’d just met)? This, in addition to my sunhat and water self-criticism.

As we passed them, we asked two more groups of backpackers if they’d seen the Lola cut-off. No one had. Sidenote: We actually didn’t see any other day hikers. Everyone we asked had apps and assured us the junction was 4.2 miles, then 3.2 miles back. One woman even showed us a picture of the bridge 2/10ths of a mile from the turn off. We knew exactly where it was. Each time, my partner was cheery and friendly with the backpackers. And each time people said things like, “Oh that happened to us yesterday.” Or, “Think of it as more time outdoors.”

I was way too frustrated to be as friendly as I could-have-should-have been. I wanted to say things like, “I don’t f@#*&ing need more time outdoors. Don’t you dare presume to know what’s good for me. I’m not just a jock. I want to read my book, too.” And other such unhelpful thoughts. At one point I sat down on a rock and declared myself done and unable to go on and that my partner should just continue without me. My partner assured me that we would make it. I refused to be cheered. Even though another part of me knew he was right, that resilient voice was getting way outshouted by the catastrophizer. Let’s call her, Apocalyptica.

We filled up on water at a high mountain spring. My partner gave me the rest of his water, which restocked my supply. And then refilled his own from the stream. We had no tablets or filter. He reasoned that it was better if only one of us got sick from the water, if that was going to happen. Thankfully, I can report at this distance of days from our hike that he’s fine! I’m grateful for his taking the risk. And for his calm throughout.

At a certain point on our way back, the resilient voice started to get some airtime. Let’s call her, I-Got-This. Apocalyptica had had her fun and was willing to let someone else take the microphone. I-Got-This reasoned that my partner and I were both strong enough. We had enough water and food and there was no still no pressure to finish. Even with 10 miles extra, we would be home well before dark. Sure, the hiking might get uncomfortable. But hey, wasn’t that what being strong was for? Plus, just think of how rock star we would feel when we finished. Soon, I-Got-This was the only voice I heard. She reminded me of the ultra-marathons I’d run. Yes, they were in 2011. Even better, I-Got-This assured me, this was a golden opportunity to renew the feeling of accomplishment I’d had when I did those runs.

When we hit the crucial bridge, we slowed way down. Our eyes combing the ground. And there it was. A weather worn grey wood sign lying on the grey dusty ground at a bend in the trail. So easy to miss. We changed its location to make sure the next hikers wouldn’t be misled. The path we wanted was nothing more than a thin filament threading through the long grass. Not many people take the cut off. We didn’t see another hiker for the next 7 miles.

What a relief! Just finding the right trail was shot of adrenaline. I-Got-This was dancing. Even Apocalyptica was grooving. She gets her thrills from the possibility of a catastrophe, not from its actual occurrence. I would have busted a move, too, but I was conserving energy. We still had 8.5 miles to go. A mile later, we found the rock we’d eaten lunch on the last time and ate lunch. Took a dip in White Rock Lake. Heavenly. Putting our shoes and socks back on after a dose of cold water was the balm we needed to recoup our spirits for the climb up Lola; an extended effort, which saves the steepest part for the top.

White Rock Lake–from the shore, halfway up Lola and the top of Lola.

Oh, wondrous summit! We lay down on a flattish rock for 10 minutes to replenish. Ate a salty chocolate granola bar. Then set out for the last 5 miles. All downhill. Every twist and turn and change of terrain comforted us with its familiarity. At the sight of our little red pickup truck at trail’s end, we yelped with relief. We. Were. Exhausted.  

The day wasn’t over. We had an hour drive to pick up our car at the starting trailhead. Then we mustered a final drop of energy for ice cream by Donner Lake: Mountain Mint Chip for me; Truckee Trails flavour for my partner (that’s a vanilla with peanut brittle and chocolate flakes). This is ice cream’s calling. To nourish body and soul.

Yes, we agreed that we felt pretty darn proud of ourselves for our 28-mile (46km) hike. And, we agreed that we would have been very happy (equally happy?) with the hike-as-planned; plus, we would have avoided a decent amount of agita.

Still, in these early days of reflecting on the hike, I’m glad for the experience. With each of these conversations between Apocalyptica and I-Got-This, IGT grows stronger and surer of herself; Apocalyptica more willing to step aside. Apocalyptica will never quiet completely. If she did, I’d miss her dramatic flourish in my life. But I sure do appreciate her growing accord with IGT. Together they prepare me for our ever-uncertain future.

cycling · Fear · fitness · racing · Zwift

Sam goes WAY out of her comfort zone

If you know me as a cyclist at all, you know that climbing is so not my thing.

I could insert lots of pictures of me walking my bike up hills. But I won’t.

Tonight was the last race in a Zwift series in which I’d been participating. Race series like to mix it up so no one kind of cyclist is favoured. Some weeks are hilly, some weeks are flat, and some are mountainous. You probably guess where this is going.

I’ll ride flat. Whee! I’ll even ride hilly. But I tend to give a pass to routes described as mountainous. Tonight’s route was even called The Mountain Route. It’s 29.5 km but with 682 m of climbing. Ouch.

The Mountain Route

There was a lot of chatter in our team about who was and who wasn’t going to do the race. I tried the “I’m washing my hair that night” line but I was encouraged to give it a go. We’d cheer each other on on Discord. It would “fun” they said.

In the end, I tricked myself into it, telling myself I could quit if it took me more than an hour and a half.

And I was heartened by encouraging words from teammates during the ride. Sarah also cheered me on and brought me cookies as I got to the last climb up to the radio tower.

I did it and I finished and I think I came third in D category. Well, I think I came third. I can’t say for sure because Zwiftpower is down. Zwiftpower is the race results site for Zwift races.

It was, for me, a long steady effort. It was also proof that I can climb even if it’s not my favorite thing. Sometime over the next few days I’m going to check out some of my in real life climbs and see how they compare.

Oh, I got some new Zwift badges. I got the 100 km an hour Daredevil badge for descending the Epic KOM. And in the warm up before I got the badge for exceeding 700 watts in the sprint which I couldn’t resist.

I will sleep well tonight even with all of my now usual pandemic fretting and worrying.

Night all!

I’m glad I got way out of my comfort zone and did a challenging thing.

Here’s a few more race photos:

eating · Fear · food · overeating

Food Scarcity as a Trigger, with a pot of lentils as an aside

CW: discusses food and eating behaviors, with references to dieting, food restriction and overeating

Do you find perceptions of scarcity triggering? I do. Food scarcity in particular, even the belief that it might become scarce at some point, can lead me to make self-soothing decisions like buying extra “just in case.”

I’m not truly hoarding food, but I’ve definitely got an especially well-stocked pantry at the moment. And chest freezer. And refrigerator.

And I’m settling into old habits like baking bread in batches, so there’s always some fresh sitting on the counter. Last night, when I made rice, I made a double batch. Now, I can freeze half of it just in case. And maybe now my lizard brain knows I will have rice, even though I already knew that, since I have several pounds of dry rice sitting in my pantry. But apparently, that primitive part of my mind needs the reassurance of cooked rice in my freezer right now.

I recognize that this is not a rational response. It is not in response to actual scarcity, but its perception. It’s true that when I go grocery shopping, I don’t have access to quite everything I want. However, suitable replacements are often available. My grocery store has instilled 2-can per purchase limits on precooked beans, and there are no dry beans to be found other than lentils, so I bought a couple pounds of those. My pre-pandemic meal preparations had me consuming 2-4 cans of beans a week. This week, I’m eating lentils. I have enough. But I can feel some uneasiness that I’m using them, like a part of me wants to just keep them on the shelf so I’ll know they’re there. I bought a whole, frozen turkey when there wasn’t any chicken available on one grocery trip. But I don’t want to cook the turkey. I want to keep it in my freezer, so I know I’ll always have a turkey.

This feeling of scarcity has led to some unplanned eating, too. It’s not so very different than the imposed scarcity that chronic dieters put themselves under. When we feel restricted, we tend to lash out and overeat eventually. Sometimes not so eventually. I am NOT restricting what I eat, except to recognize that when I eat something, then it is no longer available to eat! And so I suspect that is sometimes leading to me doing the counter-productive thing of eating ALL THE FOODS. I suppose I’m storing it in my body in preparation for the hard times.

These behaviors have long been a part of me–the uplanned eating and the food storage. Friends and family members have teased me for as long as I’ve been an independent adult for my tendency to can and preserve mass quantities in the summer and fall. I can freeze, dehydrate, can, bake, ferment and pickle with the best of them. For as long as I’ve had the resources to do it, I’ve kept 20-30 pounds of flour in my pantry. I keep bulk nuts in the freezer, and dried apple slices, candied orange rinds, and every kind of jam and jelly you’d ever want on my shelves. Every year, I put up apple and pear sauces and butters, whole seckel pears, pie apples, berries in wine pie filling (amazing!) and whatever else floats my boat. I have the habit of putting something on the grocery list the minute I open up the last back-up, so there’s always an extra bag of sugar or canister of oats. All of this was true right up to before our world was put on hold.

And yet, I still do not feel secure. I can see it in how I’m doing math every time I reach for something in the pantry. If I open this jar of berries, that leaves me only 2 more jars, how long can I stretch those out? Can I make them last until berry season again? Will I even get to go berry picking this year? If I make coq au vin for dinner tonight, that will be the last of the chicken breast in the freezer; will they have more this week, or should I plan on cooking something else so I can keep some chicken in the freezer?

I do not like feeling triggered in this way. I like to feel like I’m in control, and when I’m triggered, my more primal self is in the driver’s seat. And, of course, the fact that there are so many important things out of my control is in its own way triggering. I know, intellectually, that it’s going to be ok, but I wish there was a way to reassure my lizard brain of that fact. For now, I’m going to head down to the pantry and gaze upon my stockpile of homemade applesauce and try to contemplate abundance.

In case you’re eating lentils this week, too, here’s a recipe. It is loosely based upon one for Lentil and Barley Stew from the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook (Jean Hewitt, 1971), which was a staple of mine when I was a vegetarian. Today’s version has ground turkey in it, which you could completely omit and still have a lovely dish of lentils.

Lentil Stew with Turkey

one. In a large, heavy duty stock pot, sauté in a couple tablespoons oil and/or butter:
1 diced onion
4 large carrots, diced
4 stalks celery, sliced
1 tbs dried rosemary
4 cloves minced garlic
1 bay leaf

two. When the onion is soft, add 3 lbs. ground 93% lean turkey. Break it up with a wooden spoon so that it isn’t in big chunks.

three. Once the turkey is fully cooked and no longer pink, add
1 lb. green or brown lentils (not the red or yellow kinds that cook down into mush)
5 cups water, stock, broth, or a combination thereof
2 15 oz. cans diced tomatoes, with their juices

four. Bring stew to a simmer. Lower heat, cover, and cook at a low simmer until lentils are fully cooked, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

This will be 9 2-cup servings for me, so I plan on portioning it out and setting some aside for my freezer so it’s available when I need a quick lunch, or you know, so I have it just in case.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found making fermented cabbage and using her bodyweight in lieu of picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .

Image description: A large pot of lentils, ground turkey, and vegetables. Maybe not very pretty, but it tastes delicious!
advice · death · disability · Fear · health · self care

8 Lessons for Living with Uncertainty From a Perennially Vulnerable Adult

I get it. You’re facing down the barrel of your mortality right now, and the mortalities of your parents, grandparents, children and other people you care for. It sucks. Random, horrible things can happen and change your life forever. Or end it. But this isn’t news. Life can change in an instant, and it can be completely out of your control, and that has always been true. The only difference is now you are being forced to face the reality you could comfortably deny as long as your life was banally humming along. Welcome to my world.

At the age of 24 I went from a healthy, active person to someone with a disabling, life-threatening immune condition. Random chance, totally bad luck, threw me a curve ball that kept me in the hospital for a month, left me missing a big chunk of one lung and unable to walk up a flight of stairs without assistance. I spent 8 months on high-dose Prednisone and three years after that on weekly chemotherapy drugs to keep my body from attacking itself and killing me. I hate stories about how some horrible cancer diagnosis “was the best thing that ever happened to her” or how some terrifying ordeal “helped him have gratitude for the important things in life.” I don’t think my immune conditions (I’ve developed more over the years) have made me a wiser, better person. But I have learned from the experience, and I’d like to offer you these potentially comforting observations I’ve noted along the way.

The hardest part is the not knowing. It took about half a year before I had a diagnosis. Even with a diagnosis, the prognosis was up in the air. At one point I was told that I had only a 50% chance of living past 5 years. Later on, I was told they really didn’t know, there was just too little data to base any predictions upon. I believe that knowing is always easier than not knowing. How do you live your life day to day when you can’t plan for the future? You will make very different decisions when you know that something is temporary than when it may be indefinite. Coming to a place of accepting that you don’t know, living in the moment while planning for the future is the best balance I can suggest. For me, I have had to learn over the years to consider my barriers and limitations as flexible unknowns–I have to push against the boundaries to test them–is this a real limitation or simply something I feared would limit me? It’s a constantly moving target, and I’ve learned to be flexible as situations have changed.

Your life is at increased risk. You can get used to it. In fact, if you are going to get on with your life, you have to get used to it. We can only hit the pause button for so long, and then we need to get back into the swing of things. You will need groceries, a paycheck, a new pack of underwear. I live my life every day with the awareness that my condition can come back. Every time I have a cough, I have to consider, “Does this feel more serious than just a cold? Am I being irresponsible if I wait it out before going to the doctor?” Every little aberration in how my body moves and feels carries a heightened awareness to it, and yet, I don’t go around constantly anxious about my future. I notice it, I pay attention, and then I move on. Most of the answers to my questions come with time and patience. If you can avoid insisting on instant reassurance, you will find that you fare better.

Most people facing their own mortality don’t have the benefit of a social circle that understands. Don’t take it for granted. When I got sick, I was alone. Only about 6000 people in the entire United States have been diagnosed with the condition I’m facing. Not to mention, my peers at the time of 20-somethings could not even kind of relate to my ordeal. Lucky for you, pretty much everyone around you is dealing with some version of the same fear right now. You can support each other because you understand your shared uncertainties. On the other hand, you are at higher risk than I was for “social contagion.” The downside of collective awareness is that your anxieties can compound upon each other, fear can beget more fear, and as social animals, we are built to mirror each other’s emotions. Compassion and empathy are important, but I encourage you to temper them with calm and mindful acts of support.

It isn’t helpful to let the current situation dominate your thoughts. Practice the discipline of reframing your thinking, and you will experience less stress. This would be an excellent time to limit your exposure to social media, too. You don’t need other people’s fear speaking voices in your head. For those of you who like that woo-woo shit, feel free to increase your focus on your “gratitude practice” right now. Me, I’m going to limit my exposure to the news and increase work on some neglected projects around the house. This seems like an excellent time to begin planning my basement remodel. This sort of intentional shift of focus gives me something productive to put my energies towards rather than stirring up fears of the unknown.

On a related note, don’t let fear be your guiding principal. Consider making important decisions when your mind is feeling more calm–like right after a good meal with some satisfying, slow-digesting carbohydrates in it. Your fear-based decision might be making people like me less safe, if it means you switch to antibacterial soap, for example, and increase the likelihood of superbugs. The panic that has led to emptying store shelves isn’t doing the community any good, either. Consider finding other ways to take care of yourself than giving in to the hedonic needs of your fear.

If someone near you gets sick, when it is safe to do so, literally embrace them and return them back into your life. I developed mysterious lung symptoms and a persistent, low grade fever just about the same time SARS was in all the news. When I was released from the hospital, we didn’t know why I had nearly died, but we did know it wasn’t an infectious process. Despite this, I was treated like a pariah. No one would hug me, hold my hand, pat my shoulder. People would literally take a step back when I told them what had happened to me. It was like they were afraid that my near-death would rub off on them. It was exceptionally isolating in an experience that already left me alone in so many ways. So I ask that you please, please, welcome back the folks who become sick. Love and support them, touch their hands, kiss them on the cheek, and help to reintegrate them back into your world.

You don’t know what’s going to get you. That’s always been true, you’re just now having to face it. I used to feel like I knew better than most people what was likely to kill me. However, even when my condition was quite severe, I still could get hit by the proverbial bus. That hasn’t changed, and it’s true for all of us. None of us know what is going to get us in the end. We can’t live our lives dancing around the edges, hoping nothing will ever take us down. We have to live the best life we can with the life we’ve been given. Uncertainty will always be a part of the equation. Part of making the best of it is keeping that in mind and keeping it in perspective. That’s how I live my life every day, and I encourage you to do the same.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again, and wondering when the gym will be closed, in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .

Photo description: Two wrinkled hands, one bare and one with a black and white checkered sleeve, holding each other over a leather background.
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.