Stress Fantasies

It is no secret to anyone who knows me: August is my least favorite month.  This sentiment has everything to do with the annual opening of the fall semester. To put it in perspective, August is the tax season of Residence Life (I’m sure any accountant reading this blog will fully appreciate what I’m saying.)

In August, when things blow up at work and I find myself either in the office or working at home/the coffeeshop evenings and weekends, I find myself fantasizing a lot. In fact, every quiet moment finds me longing for something I can’t have or do in August.   One definition of fantasy is “…the free play of creative imagination”. However, these stress fantasies are both strange and a little embarrassing, because their content is…not right. One should never give one’s imagination license to play freely and then come up with…

…laundry. I can’t believe I fantasize about taking the time to run multiple loads of laundry through my basement machines. Mostly, in August, I decide what I want to wear the next day and before falling into bed throw a load made up of exactly that – including the underwear, socks/stockings, and outer garments – into my washer. In the morning, the whole load dries while I shower. I dress in scalding hot garments, standing on the cold cement floor.

…sleep. Sitting at my desk after RA training activities, slogging through the entire day’s emails, I dream about sleeping. I imagine myself crawling into bed in a dark room and…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

…falling down the stairs. Ok, this is my dark fantasy in August. They say visualization works – athletes use it to successfully achieve their physical goals all the time. This is the month every year when I visualize myself falling down the library steps when my arms are loaded down with binders, balls, and coffee. I see it happening in my mind, then tell myself that this is an effective technique only if I actually WANT to fall. And I don’t, because I can’t be assured I will hurt myself in a manner that would require me to get more bedrest.

…going to the bathroom at the moment that I actually need to.  Let’s agree, no one should ever have to fantasize about this.

…winning the lottery. Enough said.

In past years, August has managed to derail my good exercise and eating habits. Suddenly, there are not enough hours in the day, and the management of work-related concerns leaves me exhausted and stressed out. This is a terrible one-two punch to the core of my healthy lifestyle. This year, though, my exercise habits are well enough incorporated into my life that I am finding time time for exercise regardless of the rest of the schedule. I feel stronger and more energized as a result. Yes, the sudden availability of a wide variety of delicious yet nutritiously damaging foods is a temptation (the dining room reopens, RAs and other staff bring treats, we bribe – I mean thank – them for their hard work with icecream and candy). Luckily, I am tempted one day and able to manage appropriately the next, so I am hopeful that I will be able to maintain recent losses.

Now that I think about it, perhaps I do have one appropriate August fantasy: the one where I survive the month feeling confident, strong and healthy. Perhaps this one will come true if I visualize!

too late

Last Saturday, I knew I was about to head into a stressful few weeks, so I planned to take it easy in the morning: a pot of coffee and some magazines while I enjoyed the cool temperature on my patio. Seemed like a perfect idea. Have you ever had a moment when you were happily moving through your day and suddenly, WHAM! you slam up against something that, unexpectedly, takes you to a place you never intended?

As I read an article recommending summer reading, and offering reviews of a variety of books to fit different summer moods or locales, it happened. The book being reviewed was You Are Free by Danzy Senna, a collection of eight stories, each of which “…surveys the dangerous fault line between parenthood and remaining childless.” The reviewer goes on to quote Livy, one story’s protagonist:

“And sooner or later all women know this,” says Livy. “You won’t know what it was you gave up until it is too late to recover.”

As soon as I read that line, it was too late for me to recover my emotional equilibrium. My mind was suddenly full of things I gave up and realized, too late, that I wanted. That beaded mask I made; certain relationships; my sense of self as an adventurer. Gave away. Gave up. Gave up on.

So, there I was on a lovely Saturday morning, on my patio in my pajamas, crying into my coffee.

Then I remembered something important: I am not my past.

I’ve watched too many movies about the perils of time travel, and the chaos that would result from even the tiniest change, to attempt to go back. And revisiting past choices with regret is like picking at a scab – viscerally satisfying in that moment, perhaps, but not good for the healing process in the long run. So, I do know what Livy says all women eventually know. But I also know this:  if it is too late to recover, it is definitely too late to cry about it. Especially on a beautiful, tranquil Saturday morning.

August 18, 2011

Another inch in the right direction! I could not be happier, given that it is August – a stressful and crazy month each year. Many years, August derails me with regard to both fitness and weight loss. I am determined that it not do so this year.

A Solo Hike

The beginning of the Cedar Crest Trail.

In my entire adult life, until today, I have never managed to go for a long hike in the woods by myself. I have started to, a few times, but always turned around in fear before I managed to go very far. No, I am not afraid of the woods. I admit I am easily startled by even small wild animals, but that isn’t why I have feared such hikes. Some of you know I can be a bit clumsy, and this might be a good reason to avoid heading into the woods solo, however, even the fear of injury hasn’t been the thing that stopped me.

I don’t walk alone in the woods because I am afraid of men. More specifically, I have been afraid of finding myself alone and isolated with a passing stranger who might seize this moment of vulnerability and take advantage of it. Or a couple of passing strangers.

I have had many arguments, with myself and others, about whether this is a realistic fear. I have debated the relative merits of curtailing activities in order to feel more secure (thereby holding myself back from fully experiencing things that might enrich my life) OR of taking a more courageous stance and going full steam ahead in spite of fear. In spite of what I have learned to think about as a woman in this world – that I might be easy prey for someone stronger than me.

I have been working to fear less in my life. And today just seemed like a good day to set forth on my own. I felt trepidation. When I experienced a bout of vertigo upon stepping too close the edge of a rocky cliff, I worried that I might be incompetent to hike alone on a ridge-top trail! Twice (in the same spot, headed out and back in) I encountered a beaver who was as startled to see me as I was to see him.  The only other people I encountered in the woods today were men, also out enjoying nature alone (well, one guy had a baby snuggled to his chest). I tried to cross paths with them confidently and with trust in my heart.

It was beautiful, cool and crisp in the green woods. So quiet I could hear trees creaking in the wind. So still at moments that the shy blue dragonflies hovered all around me, nearly alighting on my toes a couple of times.

Holding still, you can't see his gossamer wings!

A few hours after returning from my hike, I sat chatting in a friend’s living room. She asked if I had told anyone where I was going, when I would be back. She scolded me for not doing so, and shook her head at my impulsive trek. I could only agree with her.

And yet. There was a moment on my solo walk, breathing deeply in the loveliness and solitude, when I felt such happiness that I literally broke into a run. Me. Running. Not in fear, but in joy.

Resting on a trail-side bench.

When compassion fails

One night recently, I was at a social gathering at a public venue, when my friend said, “Hey, Jen, did you recognize the guy who just served you at the counter? It’s your favorite student of all time!” I had not, in fact, recognized the man in question. Regardless, he is someone I will never forget: the only student I’ve ever worked with for whom my loathing and anger was so complete that absolutely no compassion existed in my heart for him. None. He was a liar, abusive to others, incapable of considering anyone else’s feelings, a bully, and – I felt sure – a sociopath. In all honesty, the only student I’ve ever claimed to hate.

Years have passed since he was a student. In the intervening time, whenever his name was mentioned, I’ve felt a residue of the negative feelings he inspired in me. Former students often ask, “Was I the worst student you’ve ever had?!”, and my answer is always, “Not even close,” because this other guy so clearly owns that label. So, when we were once again in the same room, I watched him surreptitiously. And was surprised to feel…nothing.

On one hand, it was good to know that the lingering feelings of rancor in my heart were no longer an active emotion. Rather, they were the ephemera left by long-remembered experience. On the other hand, it allowed me to think: what would our interactions have been had I attempted to express compassion for this young man when he was a student? Is it possible that one or both of us would be different people today had I been able to find empathy – something that I’ve been able to offer to most people with whom I interact – in my heart for him?

The easy answer is no. Nothing would have been different, because he was determined to act out in the aggressive manner he did. Compassion would have been laughed at, seen as weakness to be exploited. Indeed, I watched that happen with others who approached him offering friendship or care.

The much harder to accept answer, the one I reluctantly come to each time I parse it, is yes. I don’t know, and will never be able to say, whether compassion from me would have had a positive effect on him. But I know in my heart it would have positively affected me. It is so easy to slap a label (sociopath, for example) on someone and call your responsibilities toward that person done. I was careful to fulfill my professional responsibilities with regard to this student, and I tracked it all in reports and letters to him and to my supervisor. But I know I made a choice to forego my responsibility as a fellow human being out of anger and dislike. The fact that my feelings were activated by my care for those suffering from his actions was how I justified my choice. In hindsight, I know that is simply a way to let myself off the hook.

Why am I sharing this? The very day I saw my former student, was the day I posted on this blog that “love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in this world,” (lyrics from a Martina McBride song), and expressed my gratitude for compassion offered to me by friends and perfect strangers alike. It was not lost on me, as I sat looking at this stranger I had once interacted with, that I had not offered him as good as I’ve gotten. Mercy and compassion allow us to give back to the world some of the good we’ve been given. It isn’t supposed to just be offered to those who’ve granted it to us, a kind of karmic tit-for-tat. If I hope to add to the atmosphere of good in this world, and I do, the only way is to bring good where none previously existed. To offer compassion in response to aggression or apathy. To offer love when hatred has been put on the table.

Am I beating myself up over mistakes I made much earlier in my life? Not really. I’ve made so many, even I am aware this is just one of them. I can’t go back and change how those interactions played out. But I can learn a lesson when one slaps me in the face (yep, pretty much an apt description of my academic experiences, too!). I share it here, not because I grew up Catholic and have a need for public confession. Rather, I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, I will hold myself accountable to practice my life accordingly. When compassion fails, my ability to be my best self fails. So does my hope to help create a better world.

August 11, 2011

I love stepping on the scale, not knowing what it will say, then looking down and seeing movement in the right direction! Even after all this time, that is a little thrill for me.

Summer in a Pie Shell

I made this delicious pie for dinner on Sunday. It serves eight, so I had plenty left to share with coworkers for lunch on Monday. We had a lunch picnic on the conference table in my office, celebrating the tastes of summer despite the fact that our fall is in full swing as we prepare for the new crop of residential students!

I made this recipe for the first time last summer when I had a house full of hungry family. I followed the original recipe (thyme, tomatoes, corn, etc.) exactly then. It was delicious. But I have to say, I liked it better this time, with a few modifications.

First, I used a frozen piecrust. Much easier, and still tasty. Instead of thyme, I had fresh basil which I cut into ribbons and added liberally in place of thyme. The recipe called for 1 cup of fresh corn kernels. The first ear produced less than one cup, and the second ear was huge. I ended up with about 1 3/4 cup of corn, and added it all. I had farm grown, fresh-picked red and orange tomatoes, and alternated them in the recipe. I also threw in a little fresh mozzarella I had left from a tomato-basil pizza (in addition to the cheddar called for in the recipe). With all of the fresh corn, there was an added silkiness to the custard, and it took about fifteen minutes longer to bake – whether that was the juicy corn and tomatoes or my oven, who cares? The wait just intensified my hunger.

The first forkful was like taking a bite out of the best of summer. Yum. So glad I revisited this one!

A RAGBRAI Story – Part 2

(When we left the story at the end of Part I, the Mustangs were living it up at the beer tent in Homestead, Amanas: sweat-drenched but smiling, and just a little cocky about being “almost done” with the day’s ride)

And so the Mustangs mounted up and began what can arguably be called the most important part of the experience. Tricia and I decided to ride together, and this was the pivotal decision of the day for me. The ride from Homestead to Oxford, a 5.8 mile stretch, was a little hilly, but do-able. Tricia and I commented on the beautiful scenery. It must not have been too difficult a ride if we were still noticing something other than our burning quads and gasping lungs.

As we pulled into Oxford, the party was in full swing. It certainly appeared that many riders were already celebrating the completion of a successful ride. I was flagging, but surrounded by that happy, upbeat atmosphere, I felt reasonably confident I would finish. I not only wanted to finish the 75 miles, I also wanted to be able to say I rode every foot of it. I understood that there is no shame in walking up difficult hills, and that many riders do so. But I wanted to stay on my bike.

Within minutes of leaving Oxford for the last (17.7 mile) leg of the ride, I was questioning my determination. The ride from that point forward was one long, steep hill after another. After another. After another. As we approached the crest of another hill, I could hear the riders in front of me cursing, as they caught sight of yet another hill in front of them. Groaning and cursing. But I also heard a paraplegic rider pedaling with his arms, saying to another cyclist, “We’re gonna do it!”. An older gentleman, passing me by and saying, “That’s it, take your time!”. I heard Tricia, waiting for me at the top of the hill saying, “You’re doing great!”

Hill after bloody hill. I thought I was in hell. A rider passed me, carrying a passenger who was playing the guitar. An ADULT passenger, whose only contribution to the effort was music!  A guy in a cape rode by, as did a bride and groom whose helmets were embellished to look like a top hat and veil. Ok, maybe not hell exactly. More like rural Iowa on an acid trip.

Hill. After. Bloody. Hill. Partners and team members were practically pulling each other up the hills with their words of encouragement. One young girl apologized, “I’m sorry, I have no legs.” But her teammates wouldn’t hear of her stopping, and I saw her three hills later, still riding.  Solo riders were cared for, as well, though. One woman, stopped at the side of the road tinkering with her bike was asked multiple times, “Do you have what you need?”  Strangers looked on us with compassion, including a lovely family with hoses who sat at the crest of a particularly difficult hill. I begged them to spray me with the cool water. At several consecutive driveways, families were shouting, “You’re almost there! Only six miles to go!” I’ll never be able to thank any of them for helping me get through.

Riding up those hills, mostly I was just thinking, “Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling.” But it was impossible not to marvel at the people around me who were pushing through. Every shape, size, fitness level. Every age. Bike riding is adaptable to all kinds of ability levels, and people with more to overcome than weight and an inactive past were continuing on. Riders whose whole purpose was other-centered (raising money for HIV-AIDS, for a cure for Diabetes or Breast Cancer) were pushing themselves up and down those hills, too. It reminded me that the zeitgeist of RAGBRAI is part rolling folk festival and part pilgrimage. And in this reminder was the realization that I was participating in the kind of experience that, most of my life, I would only have watched from the sidelines. This wave of committed, possibly crazy, humanity helped to carry me forward when I began thinking I couldn’t keep going.

And then, unbelievably, we crested and in front of us was Melrose Avenue! I couldn’t believe it – Iowa City, about to turn the corner into Coralville, our destination. There was jubilance all around us. Waiting for the State Patrol to give us the right of way, another rider’s radio was blaring Vanilla Ice – and Tricia and I broke into spontaneous dancing astride our bikes. Someone in the crowd yelled, “You go girls!”. The State Patrol officer danced with us.

We turned into a lovely downhill run, the road lined with welcome signs from the colleges and universities with officially registered teams. And then, in the midst of celebration, the final test. One more long-ass hill. I almost cried. Other riders were giving up, dismounting in larger numbers than at any other point on the ride. If Tricia hadn’t been there, I might have been one of them. It took every last reserve to ride that hill. And it was slow going. But Tricia and I rode it together, and when I pulled ahead as we coasted down the other side, I waited for her to catch up. She called, “You don’t have to wait”, but I told her, “The hell I don’t! There’s no way I’m crossing the finish line without you.” How could I, when her encouragement and friendship had just pulled me through the last 17 miles?

The finish line was designed to look like the arched entrances to Kinnick Stadium, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, with the road painted like a football field. Layne and Kristen, the most awesome and patient road crew ever, were waiting and watching. When they caught sight of us, they jumped up and yelled and cheered, Layne filming us coming in.

I’d like to say that I was overcome with joy, but the truth is, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, dehydrated, hungry and I hadn’t peed in nine hours. I was incapable of joy in that moment. We stopped, and waited for Layne to join us with directions for where we were meeting up with the team. When she arrived, she pointed up the hill in front of us and said, “Go up there to the second stop sign and turn right.” I looked in that direction, and to my shame, burst into tears of frustration. I said, “I cannot ride up another f-ing hill. In fact, I can’t get back on my bike.” Layne hugged me and said, “Its ok. We’ll walk together, and I’ll push your bike.”

I owe a debt of gratitude to a huge community who made my RAGBRAI experience a day I will never forget: The people of Iowa who opened their homes, hometowns, and hearts to the massive river of riders. The cyclists, themselves, who were compassionate comrades on the quest to achieve personal goals. My fellow Mustang riders (especially my girls: Sarah, Colette, Wendy, and Tricia) without whom I would surely have failed – whose love and support held me up throughout the long day. Layne (and her parents for the loan of their truck) and Kristen, the road crew who loved us enough to spend a day waiting, cheering, manoevering through traffic and congestion. They didn’t have the payoff of endorphin highs or self-congratulations at the end – just thankless jobs and a long, sweaty day. The Lange Family, who hosted a reception/party for all the Mustang riders in Coralville, welcoming stinky sweaty strangers into their lovely home.

Each person in a long list vital to the success of the whole. Vital to my success.

The community story is not a story I was expecting, because until I was there, it wouldn’t have seemed possible. There is a lot of hype and mythology surrounding RAGBRAI. Turns out, a lot of it is true. But the magic of it, in my opinion, comes down to love.

I know, some of you just groaned, reading that! Here she goes again, you’re thinking, reading too much into every little experience. I’ll accept that criticism. But I will also say that I am no Pollyanna – ask Tricia, who saw me at my absolute snarliest at the end, after successfully completing the day. Ask Layne, who saw me tensely coiled at 5:20 a.m. when I was worried about the derailers on our bikes being  smashed as we loaded the truck. No Pollyanna visible in those moments, I assure you.

However, throughout the ride, there were moments when I was able to be outside my own fear and self-doubt enough to really see the events and people around me. Those moments were emotional – and more true than the fears. At one point in the day, a rider towing a boom box passed Tricia and I, blasting Martina McBride’s “Love’s The Only House”, one of my all-time favorites. That day, I swear, love was a big enough house to shelter all 10,000 bicyclists.

A RAGBRAI Story – Part 1

A Saturday afternoon, July or August, 1978, Loveland, Ohio (just outside Cincinnati). Flipping through the television channels, my father and I start watching a documentary. It is about a bike ride across the state of Iowa – our home state, which we still love. More of the family wanders in while we watch, and by the end of the show at least my Dad and I are convinced: RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is the coolest thing ever. We SO want to do it (never mind the small fact that neither of us rides our bikes voluntarily.)

##########

8:15 a.m. Friday morning, July 29, 2011. My friend and training partner, Sarah, and I crested a hill on Highway 6, outside of Grinnell, Iowa. Morning fog was just burning off the cornfields covering the rolling hills which spread off in every direction. We looked at each other, grinning, but also misty-eyed. A brightly colored river of people on bicycles, its current weaving and undulating, was visible for miles ahead on the pavement that lay before us. We were finally riding on RAGBRAI!

For every rider on RAGBRAI, there are two narratives: one that is purely individual and another which is all about community. The individual narrative is about the motivation, preparation, and determination required to successfully complete what can be a physically grueling test of endurance (even for someone, like me, only riding one 75 mile day of the week-long event). In all of my training rides, every mile I rode leading up to that morning’s start in Grinnell, I thought that this individual story was the story. I was completely inside my own head.  Had I progressed far enough away from the 350+ pound sedentary couch potato I once was to successfully complete this challenge? At 50? For me, this individual story is an important one – but it pales by comparison to the other narrative – the one about community that took me by surprise and brought me to tears numerous times throughout the day.

The second story began at 5:16 a.m. when I was standing in my driveway, in my bike shorts and Mustang jersey, trying not to freak out because my ride and the other bicyclist embarking with us, weren’t there yet. Then I heard a honking horn and my friends, Layne and Kristen, shouting “Yeah, Mustangs! RAGBRAI here we come! Woo Hoo!” Did my neighbors appreciate this serenade? Doubtful. But it brought a smile to my face. We loaded my stuff, and my friend Tricia’s, into the back of the borrowed pickup truck, then rendezvoused with the two other trucks loaded with our team and their bikes.

Once we arrived in Grinnell via gravel roads (the main access to town was blocked due to RAGBRAI), it was time to wipe off the road dust, pump up the tires, and meet the rest of “Team Mustang” at the park in town. Before leaving the park, our “road crew” got out the sharpie markers and wrote on our legs, telling the other 10,000 riders that I was celebration turning 50. Talk about a birthday celebration – nothing like having hundreds of birthday wishes shouted to you by passing strangers! Anyway, at 8:02, it was time to mount up and take off. We rode through town to the cheers and well-wishes of Grinnell’s citizens.

There are so many details of that day etched in my mind. I would love to share them all, but in the interest of time, I will share those which most illuminate the story about community. My friends Colette, Wendy and Tricia chose to participate on the ride primarily to join me in the celebration of my birthday. They, too, have their own individual narratives about the ride, but I know that they chose to put themselves through the experience in support of me. Sarah spent countless hours with me, the slow-but- slowly-improving rider, leading up to the day. While we were separated on the road, it helped to know that, somewhere in that sea of polyester and spandex, were people who love me.

We met up with our support team again in Marengo (the halfway point) for lunch and some much needed companionship – not to mention rest. I was daunted by the morning’s ride. Not ready in any way to give up, but very unsure if I had the reserves to finish the day. Truthfully, after the initial happiness of seeing the group together again, we were all a bit sober – having discovered that the day would be harder than we anticipated. But the hour we spent, eating and laughing on a stranger’s front lawn, reminded us that we were in it together, no matter how alone we necessarily were in pedaling our bikes. We left Marengo in a pack of matching blue and gold jerseys, to the cries of “Go Mustangs” from passing cyclists.

After lunch, I lost Tricia, who had been my riding partner most of the morning. I rode the entire first leg of the afternoon on my own. The road from Marengo to Homestead, Amanas, was a long, flat one. It wound through a valley so beautiful that I could not believe my good fortune – no hills AND the best of Iowa to look at! My spirits lifted, and I was so overcome by gratitude, I pulled out my phone and called my parents in New Mexico just to tell them how amazing it was. I wanted my Dad to know that we were right, back in 1978 – RAGBRAI is the coolest thing ever!

Heading into Homestead was a long hill, but I could hardly complain after the miles of flat terrain just completed. I shifted into low gear and took as long as I needed to crest the hill. Just as I did, my phone rang – my friends were in Homestead and waiting for me in the beer tent!

In front of the concession tents were hundreds, maybe thousands, of bikes. Some were very expensive, most had bags attached crammed with valuable items for the ride. Not one was locked. Such was the community feeling. The party in the beer tent was one of the happiest I’ve ever participated in. Not one person looked anything but sweaty, dirty, tired and completely exuberant. As the Mustang team congregated, the live band performed “Mustang Sally” for us. Amid the dancing and cheering, every 50 year old woman in the tent found me to wish me a happy birthday and offer me a drink (which I politely declined because I don’t trust myself to drink and ride). Serendipitously, I literally ran into a college friend, Sue Sweeney, whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years. But it was the hugs and congratulations of my teammates and friends that put joy in my heart. When Ryan Scheckel, who had been sleeping off the effects of the previous day’s ride (and party) finally caught up with us, proudly wearing his Mustang jersey, I thought the day was complete.

Except that we still had 25 miles to go. And the final 17 were expected to be the hardest, with over 1,000 feet of uphill climb.

(Tomorrow: Part 2)