This weekend began the great tradition in our house that is College Football.
To start with — it’s Sarah’s fault. No, really, it is. She was born an Ohio State fan, I think. Her first words might have been “buckeye” and “Brutus.” She breathes and bleeds OSU football.
For me, I didn’t care about football at all until I met her. I was always a hockey girl (see previous entries about my poor Buffalo Sabres). But befriending Sarah meant either watching games with her on Saturdays, or not seeing her at all. So I started watching. And just…got absorbed. That was more than 15 years ago. Now, we have a whole ritual devoted to the watching of college football.
First, there is special food. Every week we do something different, either fancy cheese or popcorn or pizza or donuts or whatever we feel like.
Second, Saturdays during college football season are sacrosanct. Only for a few very specific people or causes will we rouse ourselves from our couch of blankets, pillows, snacks, and stats. Where we started just watching the Ohio State game, now we watch them all, from 11am until 1-2am, and also the Friday night before. The OSU game is the centerpiece, of course, not to be missed on pain of much sorrow, but we like the other games, too. We have certain teams we always cheer for, and some we always boo. When in doubt, we cheer for underdogs, the more under, the better.
Third, there’s a whole set of superstitions Sarah has to which we both hold. Neither of us is allowed to wear the colors of the team playing OSU for the day, no matter what. Nobody is allowed to watch the games with us if they have proven to be unlucky in the past (and Sarah decides when someone whose presence ’caused’ a game to go poorly gets to come back; sometimes the prohibition lasts for years). The OSU flag must be hung proudly on our house before kickoff. We must have a Twitter feed open to read all the commentary and jokes from the OSU community. Sarah will pick a lucky beverage and drink only that during every OSU game for the season. I am allowed to choose one blanket and can’t switch later — unless that blanket is the color of the opposing team and then I’m allowed a substitute for just that game.
It’s hard to explain what those Saturdays are like, though. We sit on the couch under our blankets and our cats, surrounded by our snacks. We flip between games, sometimes 3 or more depending on what’s on and what’s good. We snark at the announcers, track when horribly one-sided games go off the rails and the play-callers have to swap to talking about grass or the local diner where they had dinner because the game is too awful to mention. We don’t look at email. We don’t answer phones. We don’t leave the house. We just nestle down into this zone where we are alone and we are in our element and it doesn’t matter if I’m not wearing pants as long as I’m wearing the right shirt, and it doesn’t matter who had what kind of week because it’s college football Saturday and that is our respite. It’s like a tiny vacation every Saturday for 10 weeks.
And it began this past weekend.
And ye gods did I need it.
I’m not always good at spotting the signs of becoming overwhelmed in myself, especially early, because powering through stuff is what I do. I don’t always notice that I’m stressed, or that the stress is lasting for more than a day at a time.
But when I start to slide down the slope from ‘stress’ to ‘burnout,’ then I tend to notice.
So I took this weekend of football, with an extra day off, and I just…reminded myself to breathe. I meditated. I slept whenever I felt like it and didn’t when I didn’t want to. I ate whatever I wanted and didn’t bother with thinking about calories or health benefits. I read whatever made me giggle. When there was no college football, Sarah joined me as we continued our marathon of NCIS:LA. Or movies. We watched several movies; it’s hard to count them up because we flipped between them and football or science shows. So we watched parts of lots of movies and just a few all the way through.
I ALSO managed to hurt myself on Friday doing the daily workout with Sarah, so I was a lot less mobile than usual. Funny thing — going from doing zero squats with weights to forty squats with weights, plus 60 ab/quad exercises, plus the usual, means the thighs were NOT HAPPY. There was much hobbling around and making of sad sounds when going up stairs.
And in the end, I don’t think I remember many specific moments or particular plays in various games or even really good lines and snark and jokes we invented. I don’t think I can point to one thing and say that this moment or that moment fixed things.
But I let myself rest, did what I call letting “my soul sleep.” I let the world go away for a while, and I let myself not think about it for a while. I turned off the sharpest functions of my brain, let my heart have a break. Like putting your personality into sleep mode, maybe — it was there, but in the background.
And it helped.
And OSU won, which also helped.
(Sarah is actually less cranky when the team loses than I am. I’m a terrible loser.)
So now I find myself facing the oncoming fall with much more clarity, much more ease in my chest and much less tension in my lungs. And for the next 9 weeks, I’ll have that moment for one day again, every Saturday that Sarah and I settle in for our college football day. It’s not productive use of time in the traditional sense, but it sure as hell allows me to be more productive afterwards.
And given how fall works? I’m gonna need it. Choir starts up again this week, and the planning for CVG 2019 will ramp up all over again before the end of the month, so we get CONvergence and football and choir all at the same time. The summer break, such as it was, is ending.
In the pagan calendar, the fall equinox is the celebration of Mabon — the harvest. The idea is to appreciate all the work that has come before, to set aside that which you have stored up all summer for the coming winter months, to be thankful for all that has carried you this far. It’s kinda pagan Thanksgiving, if you will.
For me, the coming of autumn is the close of the year and the start of a new one. Not a school year, but the choir year, the CONvergence year. And the end of October will be the close of my writing year as well. This is the golden season of endings and beginnings, when all the hard work of before is starting to pay off and plans are being made for the winter to come.
So it’s a perfect time for a weekly escape, to recharge, reflect, and take the time to set my feet firmly before I take the next steps.
15 years ago, I never would have believed that I could get so much out of watching college football with Sarah. I could easily believe I’d still be doing it, because she would be, and where Sarah goes I’ll always be. But I would have believed I’d be there for her, not getting anything from it myself.
I’m delighted to have been wrong.
Welcome to September, all.
And, just because it’s my blog, dammit, and I can do this:
Part of this is the physical limitations I have, from a knee injury to asthma to generally weak joints (but very strong muscles). Part of this is also that I get FUCKING BORED, Y’ALL. No, seriously. I’ve done the watch-a-movie-on-a-treadmill thing. It doesn’t work. If left to that, I’ll do it once every 4 years and never again.
I also don’t enjoy doing sports clubs — besides the fact that I can’t play most team sports well enough to do it, I simply don’t have the time.
Climbing is a thing, but climbing is tricky sometimes. Like when I haven’t been home in 2 weeks and don’t really relish the idea of spending yet another evening out. Like when my knee decides that this isn’t a good time for it to bear any amount of weight, let alone push me up a wall. Like when my allergies are bad and any increase to my breathing is an instant shut-down of my breathing into sneeze-coughing. And, frankly, like when I just have some clumsy days and shouldn’t be trusted to be able to grab the thing I’m looking at without bruising myself first.
I do like climbing, and it is good exercise. But it’s not a good daily fit for me. Additionally, climbing is almost exclusively weight training the way I do it (since I can’t sprint up walls and expect to be breathing at the top, yay asthma again). And weight training is good, but it’s really the aerobic exercise the body needs to stay healthy — to say nothing of helping my lungs and heart compensate for my dumb asthma.
Sarah and I have had an exercise bicycle for years. It’s the simplest bike in the world — it doesn’t even plug in. It doesn’t have pre-programmed workouts or difficulty settings. It doesn’t even have programming. What it does have is a gauge to tell you how long you’ve been going, how fast, how far, and how many calories and RPM. And instead of having computerized resistance, it’s built so that the harder you pedal, the harder it becomes to pedal. It’s the low techiest of low tech indoor exercise bikes.
In April, I started working from home full time. It’s still sort of new, and I wouldn’t yet say I’ve got it mastered, but it did provide me with an opportunity to do a brief daily workout either before I got going in the morning or over my lunch break. So I started taking a few minutes on the bike every day. I started at 10 minutes and, within about 10 days, was up to 20 minutes. By mid-May, I was going consistently for 30 minutes and was adding some intervals of my own — which is to say, biking at a good clip for a while and then busting out with as much speed as possible for 30, 45, or 60 seconds depending on how I was feeling.
But the only reason it works is because it isn’t just riding the stupid bike.
It’s bike dancing.
I created a playlist for myself currently at 18 songs and set it up to be randomized. Some of the songs have associated dance moves with them (such as “Jai Ho!” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire). Some are just get-up-and-dance songs. Some are old favorites and some are brand new. So when I’m on the bike, my legs are pedaling, but my arms and the rest of me is dancing.
It helps. It keeps it from being boring, and it keeps it from feeling tedious. And because the playlist is random, I never know when I’m going to suddenly start doing the Ranka dance from Macross Frontier or using Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” to do bike crunches for 3 minutes (spoiler alert — not easy). When my breathing is good, I can even sing along.
When I started the interval training, I used to take the last 30 to 45 seconds of every 3rd or 4th song for my interval. Now I can consistently do an interval at the end of every song for the duration of the 30 minute biking, though they aren’t all necessarily the same length. For every song in the playlist, I’ve got a cue that tells me to start pushing as hard as I can until the next song starts.
I’m trying to develop a system I can keep to, not something I’ll start and never do again 6 months later. I’m trying to develop a habit I can keep for life. I’m 35 years old now, and I’m increasingly aware that this is my one shot to take really good care of myself and set myself up for a healthier later life. I want to be one of those awesome, spry ladies who is 75 but acts like 45, not the other way around. And I want to be healthy enough to do the things I love and take care of the people I love for as long as I possibly can. To do that, I have to start it no later than now.
So, that’s what I’m trying to do. I will say that I’ve gotten really, really good and wild gesticulations and not losing my balance on the bike. I’m absolutely positive that I look truly ridiculous, but then, being at home, there’s no one to see it but Sarah. And she already knows I’m ridiculous. So who cares?
Maybe another day I’ll put up my playlist. It’s all weird, though, so we’ll see. However, if you have any suggestions, I’d take them under consideration to be added to the rotation!
I know it’s Valentine’s Day, but I’m not really into it for more reasons than are worth recounting right now. Let’s just all be glad that the only person LESS interested in this holiday than me is my wife. We’ll celebrate a different holiday tomorrow – Chocolate Mark-Down Day!
But it does seem a good excuse to go on at length about something else I love.
Let’s begin with a little bit about my hometown region.
I have to say region because the town in which I was born and raised is a damn small place, and not just in terms of population or square miles. The town in which I was born is very like the bantam rooster – its pride vastly outweighs its actual glory. But that town was my gateway to Erie County, to Buffalo, to the whole area known as Western New York, from the eastern edge of the Finger Lakes region to the southern tier dipping to the south and west of Lake Erie.
It’s a pretty weird place, actually. It’s the original birthplace of the Mormon religion. It’s where Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began their activism in the Seneca Falls Convention. It’s the legendary meeting place of the Six Nations, the Iroquois Confederacy. It was a hugely significant stop on the Underground Railroad. The Finger Lakes region has become known for wine, I think (hell if I know the first thing about wine), and the whole area was brought to life by the Erie Canal and other water traffic throughout the area.
So let’s talk about Buffalo.
It’s a proud member of the Rust Belt, fighting back from extinction in an economy turning away. It has something ridiculous like 100 buildings on the National Historic Register. Buffalo has legendary snowstorms in winter and less legendary nice summers. Everybody I’ve ever known from WNY knows how to drive (or knows not to) in 3 feet of snow, and shrugs off any snowfall less than a foot as no big deal.
It’s a weirdly musical city, spawning the Goo Goo Dolls, 10,000 Maniacs, and Ani DiFranco plus others I don’t remember right now. Buffalo gave the world people like Wolf Blitzer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, David Boreanaz, Don Messick, Rick James, Grover Cleveland, Millard Fillmore, Christian Laettner, the inventor of air conditioning (no, really!), a few astronauts, the guy who first sequenced the human genome, one of the founders of IBM, and the list goes on. Science, literature, music, politics. And sports.
Now, let’s talk about sports and Buffalo.
Western New York doesn’t have either an MLB team or an NBA team. In football, we have the Buffalo Bills. These are people who will sit in an outdoor stadium in the middle of winter, during a storm, shirtless so they can show off the B-I-L-L-S chest paint. These are fans who have watched their team lose and lose and lose – never have they won a Super Bowl even with 55+ years of trying it. And yet you can’t walk down a street anywhere in WNY without seeing somebody with a Bills decal on their car, their mailbox, their house. The team is beloved. I’m sure if I were an NFL fan, I’d have lots more to say, but let’s move onto my real love: hockey.
Because then there are the Buffalo Sabres. MY Buffalo Sabres.
I live in Minnesota now, and we call ourselves the “State of Hockey.” It’s probably true – there aren’t many places in this country that care so passionately about the sport at every level, that instill it in the children in elementary school and play when they are way too old for the game in seniors’ leagues.
There aren’t many places where you can virtually guarantee that any high school has at least one hockey team and usually more than one, that every township and neighborhood has an ice rink (and in winter a lot of them are outdoors in fields and yards and parks). Minnesota’s pastimes are simple – in summer, we fish and go “up north.” In fall we hunt. In the winter, we play hockey. (There is no spring – it’s still winter in April, trust me.)
But Buffalo, NY will always be Hockeytown, USA to me.
You have to understand, hockey in WNY isn’t just a game or a sport. It’s about community. It’s a city’s pride. It’s that which binds us and holds us together. We of Buffalo are a people born with steel in our veins, and we spend a lifetime shaking off the rust to get on with our duty. We have looked at the Falls or the Niagara Whirlpool and been awed, cowed, and also emboldened. We have dug out HOUSES from snowstorms, pulled one another into shelter when the snow fell and blew so thickly there was nothing to see but ice and frozen white.
We are the part of New York nobody cares about, nobody remembers. When we say “I’m from New York” people look at us all star-struck – because OOH BIG CITY – and we have no less pride for our true origins. (But don’t fuck with NYC on our watch. Seriously. NYC is like our big brother – we get measured up to it and lost against its dramatic glory, and we’d really rather pretend we aren’t family, but if you cross it, we will be right there to kick your ass in defense of our own.)
Buffalo is a city with a bright future and, at the same time, no future. Everywhere you look you can see deterioration – abandoned houses, factories, even neighborhoods. But there, stubbornly, you find people starting new businesses, expanding, cleaning up the old and making it new again. It’s not the dramatic rebirth of a phoenix, all sprung from ashes as a shining new wonder, but it’s the steady, resistant, tenacious, determined, pick-yourself-up-and-get-moving-again of a people who have been through too many storms to let one cold wind keep us down.
Come on – if we can endure a winter of multiple 7-feet-of-snow falls, you really think we can’t hack an economic downturn? It won’t be pretty – neither is winter driving – but we will absolutely get there eventually.
I tell you all this so you might start to understand what the Buffalo Sabres mean to me, to my city.
My poor Sabres, founded in 1970, have never won a Stanley Cup (ahem thanks to NO GOAL and I still hate the Stars for all time because of it). My poor Sabres have been amongst the worst teams in the NHL the last several years, sometimes record-settingly worst. My poor Sabres have been mismanaged, underfunded, and almost sold so many times even in the 20+ years I have followed them. We’ve traded players as often because we needed somebody new as because we owed it to our best to give them a shot at a Cup with a team headed up.
And you know what? Buffalo loves its Sabres.
Oh, we fight about it. Lots of people bad-talk them. But you don’t get to come here and say we aren’t a hockeytown. Some of the loudest detractors of the Sabres are actually the team’s biggest fans – they get angry because they want MORE. And there’s more to want.
To be a Sabres fan you must have a puck for a heart, the patience of a goalie in a shootout, the speed of a breakaway in your attention-span, and the fortitude to come back for as many OT rounds as it takes to get us there. The Sabres play a fine game of hockey – not the goonish game of some long-time rivals (ahem Flyers ahem) or other teams that put Hulk-SMASHing over swiftness and skill. The Sabres are the original underdogs, the scrappy team of kids who are not expected to win, and yet they find ways to do it. They hit slumps and downs, of course, but they are resilient, moreso maybe than any other team out there. If the Sabres have a bad year, next year will change. If they have a bad month, next month it ends. They fight. And they never give up.
Kind of like Buffalo.
The stats for the recent NHL All Star event in LA were released last week; Buffalo watched the event more even than almost anybody else, only just behind people from Pittsburgh (Minnesota came in 3rd). It’s not even our Sabres other than our one representative, but we’re there, watching. Because we love hockey. Because we’ve got former Sabres to see and maybe future Sabres to check out. Because we care about the sport, the players, the game, the excitement, and the league.
Buffalo Sabres hockey is like a religion, almost. It’s an act of faith, of true belief. It’s where people come together from either side of the tracks, where steelworkers and stockbrokers mingle, where you can stand and scream as RJ calls the game and you have a brotherhood to share in it with you.
We know the calls of “May Day!” or “Top Shelf!” or “La-la-la-la-LaFontaine!” or the spine-tingling “Now do you believe? Now do you believe!” We bleed gold and blue. My favorite of the websites is called DieByTheBlade.com because we do. We will. There are jokes about the Sabres being the “team of destiny” because when you walk into that arena, you can FEEL it. Maybe not today, maybe not next year, but the Cup will come to Buffalo. It is our future and our legacy. Just as Buffalo herself will find a way to thrive in a world no longer built on its steel mills, the Sabres will find a way to win.
And my team, my beloved team, isn’t just about sports. Hell, in some ways it isn’t even MOSTLY about sports. I can’t even begin to list or name the charities supported, founded, and funded by the Sabres either as an organization or as individuals. Dominik Hasek hasn’t been a Sabre since 2001 and he still keeps up Hasek’s Heroes. Michael Peca and Pat LaFontaine still visit sick kids in the kids’ cancer hospital in Buffalo, and they still know their names.
The Buffalo Sabres were the first organization to throw its full clout behind getting players and their families out from behind the Iron Curtain so players could play the game they loved in a free country without worrying about Soviet governmental reprisals.
And then, like I said, the team often does the right thing even if it isn’t the popular thing. We’ve let players go, players we truly wanted, because they deserved a shot at the Cup and we couldn’t give it to them. It’s still a business and it isn’t all altruism all the time, but there’s no denying that there is an honor and an inherent goodness behind the core of the organization, even in the dark days of mismanagement.
Hockey is an amazingly honorable sport, anyway.
(Don’t start with me about fighting – I can talk for HOURS about how a straight-up fight is a better thing than the crappy underhanded shit that goes on in other sports. All games have a few bad apples, but fighting in hockey isn’t synonymous with that.)
It’s the only sport of the Big Four (and many others) where at the end of a playoff series, when one team moves on and one team goes home, the entire team and management and coaching staff shake hands on the ice at the end of the game before they even celebrate. No, seriously, they do. No matter how bad the series, no matter how bad the blood between the teams, they congratulate one another and thank one another. Scorers slap goalies on the back and tell them how impressed they were, and the goalies ruefully respect the goals that got past them. Players who put each other in the locker-room with split lips and bleeding cheeks hug and go out to dinner together (true story – see the epic fight between Rob Ray and Matt Barnaby).
Buffalo fired its coach of 16 years in 2013 and yet when he returned later to coach against us, we honored him with a full video montage of his time behind the Buffalo bench as both coach and player, and the fans gave him a standing ovation, even those who had wanted him gone. We fired him, but we still respected the years he had given us, the victories and the defeats, and we still considered him ‘one of ours.’
And when something really happens, the teams all feel it. When Rich Peverley from Dallas collapsed during a game against Columbus in 2014, the league suspended the game in the middle of the play. Columbus really needed that game, and needed to win, but they refused to play when their opponents had been hurt like that. Hell, a lot of them had been Peverley’s teammates – hockey’s a pretty small world and you kind of get to know everybody eventually. The game didn’t matter when their brother in blades was down. And nobody, NOBODY had to think twice about it.
Of course, nobody let him play and they took him to the hospital because the team doctors are NOT as insane as the players.
But the Peverley story tells me something else about hockey. The players are about as badass as it gets. This guy went down with cardiac arrest, and the first thing he said after they brought him back to consciousness after confirming he felt okay was to ask if he was needed to go back in.
Players have had broken legs, but they skated through it to end their shift if their team needed them. I’m not even kidding. 2013, Gregory Campbell from the Boston Bruins got a broken leg blocking a shot, but he stayed on the ice because his team needed him to help fend off a penalty. Smart? Probably not. But DAMN.
They get hit in the face by a puck and come back with a broken jaw in a special helmet. The only rule is you can’t play when you’re actively bleeding, so you see players getting literally stitched up on the bench so they can get back in. When there’s only 6 or maybe 8 defensemen, and nobody to just jump in mid-game, you don’t give up. It’s a tough game and there’s lots of room for injuries – as in most sports – and so the courage of those who do it again and again is outstanding.
They play through hairline fractures, sprains, and torn ACLs. Routinely. My favorite is the guy (Brandon Prust) who had a rib get knocked out of place – totally separate from his cartilage – in a bad check and popped it back into place HIMSELF to get back on the ice for overtime.
This is my sport. It isn’t just about goals scored and games won. It’s about a community that polices its own and gives back to others. It’s about people who have deep and abiding personal courage and make honor and respect a regular practice. My favorite illustration of hockey was via a meme was on Twitter a while back. They counted up the number of times Lebron James talked about himself vs his team in getting the NBA championship = 18 uses of “I” and 0 uses of “we.” When Jonathan Toews spoke about the Chicago Blackhawks getting the Cup in the same year, he said “I” 0 times and “we” 14 times.
So take this gritty, demanding, immensely difficult sport and add to it a city on the edge. On the edge of collapse, on the edge of the biggest winter storm most other people would ever see in their ENTIRE LIVES, on the edge of Niagara Falls, on the edge of a state remembered only for a couple islands to the southeast. And you get THIS.
In 2004, the Goo Goo Dolls came back to Buffalo to give a special performance for their hometown. They held a free concert on the steps of City Hall, to which more than 60,000 people came. In a deluge of pouring rain. There was a delay and many feared there would be no concert at all, but as soon as it stopped raining, the band came out to play. Then, in the middle of a song, the rain started up again. It rained so much and so hard the crew was starting to pull the stage apart for fear of it being destroyed. The band on stage actually asked the crowd if they wanted them to go and the crowd said no. So they let the stage-hands make things safer and then stayed. They played an hour in that storm, for free, for the people of Buffalo. That’s where the live show clips come from.
Watch that video again, you guys. That’s what Buffalo Sabres hockey means. It’s people. It’s a city. It’s a common denominator, a common hope for better days. This video was played before the start of every game that season – not just a heart-pounding intro, but a reminder. A reminder that WE BELIEVE. We didn’t get the Cup that year. But we will.
The players change, the coaches change. But the Sabres remain.
We, Buffalo, remain.
It’s a game. It’s also a force. A collective trust in something that tests patience, skill, hope, strength, courage, and determination. It’s a team. It’s also all of us, all of us together on that ice and in the stands and watching from home. It’s a passion so bright people take down their business signs and billboards to welcome new players and coaches where they should be advertising cars or insurance. It’s the sport where both teams cheer for a job well done, where there are ALWAYS hugs after goals, and maybe the most beautiful thing – the sharing of the Stanley Cup. Every player gets to lift that Cup and hoist it in salute. Many do it crying. And every single name from the winning team is inscribed upon it, so the lowly 3rd goalie stands beside the greats of hockey legend.
It’s also the sport of the hilarious Butt Goal, the sport where a Sabre had to hit a bat out of the air during a game, the sport of the epic “fog game,” of my 2 favorite commercials of all times (the “Die Leafs Die” bit and the one where Ryan Miller insults somebody in Chinese to beat a buzzer). It’s the sport of RJ aka Rick Jeanneret, the best announcer in all sports (and that’s not just me – actually, apparently he’s won a bunch of awards and stuff?), the sport of guys who patch up the ice by spraying their water bottles on it, the sport of Rob Freaking Ray and all his glorious antics.
In non-Buffalo specifics, it’s the sport of Detroit’s octopus, the condor, rats in Florida, playoff beards (and mullets), and an amazing reverence for the Zamboni. The sport of every park and school in Minnesota, the sport which manages to thrive in the desert and the tropics against all logic – but that same scrappy spirit carries through no matter where you lace up your skates.
I don’t get many Sabres games out in Minnesota, so I’ve adopted the Wild as a surrogate team and I’ll be cheering for them tonight. I’ll probably watch the Stanley Cup later this year even though I think my Sabres are as likely to be in contention for it as they are for the next Super Bowl. Because I’m cheering for hockey overall, too.
And I’m waiting for the day my Sabres lift that Cup. Because it will come. Sure as a storm in winter, sure as the torrent over Niagara Falls, my Buffalo Sabres will have their day. They’ll never give up. And neither will I.
Let’s go Buffalo!
Yeah, it’s been a while. Sorry. There was some combination of a horrible 2-week cold that would not die and a lot of other things happening. For example, tomorrow I’m singing in the TCWC Singathon to raise money for the choir and also to have fun with my sisters in song. Check it out!
But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.
Today I want to talk about climbing. And writing, too. But we’ll start with climbing.
Several years ago, a friend and I took up indoor wall/rock climbing at a place called Vertical Endeavors in Minneapolis. It’s big facility where you can strap on a harness and test your mettle against some pretty impressive walls. Like this one:
How we got into the climbing itself was kind of an accident. When the Minneapolis location opened, the pair of us went to check it out and, in spite of the fact that it was very, very crowded and we were oh-so-terrible at it, we thought it might make for a good physical activity — and we very much wanted and needed some kind of exercise on a regular basis. It took us a few weeks to get a system worked out (parking wasn’t terrible right away but it quickly became so, the distance from home to VE was inconvenient and meant dealing with rush-hour traffic, etc.) but soon enough we were making our way up walls a couple of times a week.
Of course, life got busy and we sorta forgot about climbing for a while, going only a few times a year not long ago. But then Vertical Endeavors very helpfully opened a new location much closer to home for both of us and now we’re back to hauling ourselves into the air at least twice a week.
Climbing is a really interesting sport. It’s deeply, profoundly competitive, but that competition is internal for the most part; I have a unique ability to compete with ANYTHING and ANYONE, ANYTIME, but that’s mostly just me. In general, it’s not about being better than other climbers in the gym because there will ALWAYS be better climbers in the gym who were raised in a harness and can scale a glass wall without a safety line. It’s not about being better than your climbing partner (unless you’re me, and then I don’t go for “better” so much as “at least as good as” anyway).
It’s about pushing yourself, your body, and your brain. To climb familiar walls faster and more smoothly and with greater skill. To climb more difficult routes and not to give up until reaching the top even if it makes your fingers bleed. To make the advanced move that defines a difficult route rather than just throwing yourself at the wall and flailing your way along.
The great thing about climbing is that it isn’t purely physical — more on that part of it below — it is an equally mental exercise. It’s playing Tetris with your body, figuring out how to get your limbs into position to reach the next hold, or how to align your balance to make the best use of it while you hang off a narrow grip. It’s problem-solving at speed, and what you might lack in strength or experience you can make up for in creativity and determination and a certain willingness to bruise the hell out of your knees.
Next time I have a really good bruise, I’ll show you what I mean. My knees are permanent shades of green now.
The physical side of it is not to be forgotten, however. Climbing is easier than you think it should be when you’re doing it correctly — as in, when you really use your legs to carry your weight instead of trying to haul yourself along using arms alone. But as soon as you figure out how to do that, then you start climbing harder routes and you find out that, no, you really do sometimes have to hang 50% of your weight off one hand, and then off only a few fingertips. Or else you find that you have to be able to haul yourself to a standing position when your butt is hanging lower than your feet. And you do it with your toes perched on something no larger than a ping-pong ball and your hands clinging to grips that barely deserve the name.
It’s a perfect sport for me, really. On the one hand, it does get me the physical exercise I otherwise lack; I am not a runner, biker, or go-to-the-gym-er. I need to be exercising, like everybody should, but I need it to be a challenge. I need it to be intriguing. And, frankly, I need it not to be aerobic or my breathing will shut down. This is all the precision of swimming (which I also love but I hate chlorine), the strength-training of weights (boring), and with a whole element of mental and psychological toughness about it.
Because the other thing of note is that I am, unequivocally, afraid of heights.
No, seriously. I am.
It’s weird, right? That my sport of choice would involve hauling myself up 60-70 feet in the air? That I would do it, willingly, when I have an intimate awareness of how high up I am, how exposed, and how likely I am to fall? Yeah, it’s weird.
But that’s the third facet of it that I really, really like.
Being afraid of something is not good enough reason for me not to do it. In fact, I’m the sort of person who will try something precisely BECAUSE it is scary (at least once). And the thing about climbing is that there is more triumph in it for me when I have to master not just the route and my body, and not just the problem-solving, but I have to do it all with the spicy cold of fear running through my veins. A difficult move that might result in a fall is far more difficult because of the terror of falling. And yet I make the moves. And yet I keep climbing higher and higher. Even if I need to stop and hang on the wall for a minute to catch my breath or shove that distracting fear in a small box where I can ignore it, I don’t give up.
I’m not just strengthening my muscles; I’m strengthening my resolve. I’m strengthening my endurance against the screaming inside my own head. So the next time my ears ring with panic and my brain gets lost in a flood of cold fear, I’ll have practice beating it down and thinking through it, in spite of it, and making progress regardless.
Climbing requires you to be willing to take a risk, to make a move and maybe fall. And it’s scary as hell, it really is. But every time I make that move successfully, every time I get to the top of a difficult wall, shaking and elated, it pays off and it pays forward. The next wall won’t be so scary. The next route won’t be so intimidating. The next real-world panic won’t have so much power over me.
Which is where writing comes in.
Writing and climbing have a lot in common in terms of how I approach and think about them. Both are ultimately rewarding on multiple levels, and both trigger my inner desire to be better, faster, smarter. Both could also make me want to compete against others, but that would be equally worthless for either.
Writing may not take as much of a physical toll as climbing, but the lessons of thinking it through, checking my balance, looking for alternative ways to solve the problem, taking chances — they all hold for writing, too. Nobody wants to read a book that is the written equivalent of a ladder. They want to read the book that twists them back and forth, that flips the weight of expectations and whose stakes are always high. And that’s the kind of book I want to write, too.
There’s also an aspect of discipline and overcoming fear. To get to the end of the book, I have to keep going no matter how hard or scary it gets. I could stop in the middle and give up, but it just means I’ll have to start all over again, this time weighted by the knowledge of my own surrender. I can stop trying the complicated stuff and go work on something easy, but the payoff won’t be the same. When climbing, sometimes I have to brace myself mentally and physically and take a huge risk on every single move from start to stop. Sometimes I have to grit my teeth and twist myself into a painful knot to keep moving forward. Why should writing be any different?
And reaching the top, looking back at that path I have forged with legs shaking and hands cramped and knees bruised AGAIN DAMMIT, the victory on the wall is just as sweet as it is on the last page of a manuscript.
And, with every climb, even if I fail, I get stronger and smarter for the next one. Muscles get BIG when you work them and my writing chops are no different. In related news, I’m going to need some new shirts before I Hulk out of the current sleeves. Which is a good problem to have, kinda-sorta, need to buy clothes notwithstanding.
Right now I’m working towards the climax of a novel I think I will actually put out to query at some point next year. A lot can happen between now and then, but I feel like this one is worth trying. And every time I shy away from that, or get so worried about “is it publishable?” I stop focusing on “what scene comes next and what’s in it?” I turn back to the mentality that gets me up the wall of a tough route.
One move at a time.
Just make this move, just reach that next hold. Just push and pull and gain a few inches. Just a few.
Then breathe and sort out the next one.
There is nothing behind that matters. That’s all been handled.
What is ahead matters, but there’s no getting to the end without forgetting about it long enough to take each step on the way one at a time.
It’s hard, yes. It should be hard. It’s worth it because it’s hard.
It will be worth everything when it is done.
Trust and take the leap.
And you know what? I’ll make it. One way or another.
So I’m going to go do that. Write AND climb, actually. In that order. And between the two of them, I’ll banish some fears of falling and I’ll probably get some new bruises and I’ll have a hell of a lot of fun overcoming every obstacle in my way.
In the great tradition of me being me, here’s me liveblogging the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics 2016. I’m not going to weigh in at this point on anything political surrounding the Olympics, not now, anyway. I just want to enjoy the opening ceremony as it is presented.
So, here we go!
How many words start with ‘C’ that Matt Lauer can squeeze into one opening line? Let’s find out!
Can’t even get through the opening monologue without referencing shit in the water. Going to be one of THOSE nights.
Running Jesus Tally (how many times have we seen the statue?) = 4
Commentary about the copy being read by whoever it is that should clearly be narrating a Nat Geo special on hippos and whales living in harmony or something.
Running Jesus Tally = 67 8
Eagle on your hat, huh? Way to represent, USA.
Michael Phelps is adorable. He just is. Also, ears.
Marina: I never watched Olympic swimming until he (Michael Phelps) made a splash.
Okay, photobombing the interviews is EXCELLENT. Good job, bored US athletes.
Running Jesus Tally = 9
Dude. Costas. What the fuck is on your table? Mutated ashtrays? A blue cabbage run amok? The fuck?
Kinda digging the song for the opening here. Though getting dizzy from all this top-down filming.
Running Jesus Tally = 10. Also, top-down Jesus looks a little phallic. Or a big phallic?
The metal sheets doing patterns are nifty. I don’t know what they are supposed to symbolize, but they’re neat. The costumes are probably murderously hot, though. Go dedicated volunteers.
I LOVE THE ANTHEM. HOLY CRAP. BEAUTIFUL.
But how many verses does it have? Just asking.
Also, I am NEVER watching the Olympics without being able to fast-forward the commercials ever again. Seriously.
The water…the sand…the music…the greatest puppet crab thing ever…I have no words. Beautiful.
Shiny green thing. Totally mesmerized.
First Nations performers. Wow.
Those ships are beautiful. But Sarah has to make a “Mysterious Cities of Gold” joke and ruins the gravitas of the moment. She’s good at that. So am I, if I’m being honest.
Portrayal of the slave trade gets me kind of choked up. The sound of the whip…yeah.
Also the transformation of the land. Scars on the soul, scars on the Earth.
But also blending. Building a new pattern out of different histories and cultures. And representing them in waves and sets and song. Gods we humans are a strange species. We invade and we destroy and then we also create new worlds from the pieces we put together in new ways. We can’t walk through the land without changing it, and then we change each other as we walk.
This is what happens when I’m left to this art and slightly psychedelic theater.
HOLY CRAP FORCED PERSPECTIVE. HO. LY. CRAP.
Choreographer from cirque du soleil. Yeah, that explains a lot.
Me: That is the steampunk-iest kite plane I’ve ever seen.
Sarah: It would fly.
Running Jesus Tally = 111213 14
Honestly, the song outshines the supermodel.
Sarah: Can it be an Olympic sport to walk in those heels?
Geoff: No, it’s a super-power. That’s why they call them SUPERmodels.*Enter discussion of 400m races in heels*
DANCING. COLORS. IMPRESSIVE.
Tiny go-carts!!! I WANT ONE!!!
I like the passing back and forth of the music style. The guys look like they’re enjoying themselves and the dancers are keeping both styles together. And the lights keep…punching? Do lights punch? These ones on the floor do.
This visualization of the divide between people and the conflict within politics and society in Brazil is really, really apt. Chaotic and demarcated and always in motion.
Oh I don’t want to have to dance in that tinsel suit, though. Warm. And not cool.
During the dancing, we degenerate into a discussion of selfies during the ceremonies and the athletes entering which ends with a discussion of luge with a GoPro. Someday the Olympics will not be on NBC; it’ll just be a bunch of live feeds from people’s helmets.
Nice fireworks, team.
Me: Michael Phelps and the USA Pips is not a good team name.
Eric: But it might be a good band name.
Statement on climate change. HELL YES.
I’m having a very Wall-E moment here. And Eve is voiced by Judi Dench.
Running Jesus Tally = 15
Looking at all the fruit, all I can think is the granadilla from Ecuador which we loved and I still miss. I would pay anybody anything for a crate of those. Seriously. The fruit looks like fish eyes and tastes like heaven. And I don’t believe in heaven. Except in the form of granadillas.
Time for cake.
Running Jesus Tally = 16
The US gymnastics ladies looked like they were having fun.
MORE COMMERCIALS. FAST FORWARD GO.
Parade of nations!
And first sign of a selfie stick.
Olympic glasses. WHY?
And I don’t know about those arrow people. Yes, it’s good for getting people going in the right direction, but…
Also, no egregious outfits so far. That won’t last.
Barbados has a cool flag.
Hey! I didn’t know Neil Patrick Harris was from Belarus!
The Benin outfits are nice, too. I love the style.
Bermuda shorts. Sigh. But not surprised.
I dunno what that thing is, but it looks like a huge cheese grater. Seriously. What’s it for?
What the HELL was that weird shot of icky things in somebody’s green glove? Looked like slugs or bird poop. The hell?
One of the Colombians looks like Bill Nye. Any other celebrities competing?
COSTA RICA YAY!
(I was an exchange student and lived in Costa Rica for a short time in high school. It’s in my bones now and always will be, I think.)
I wanna know what’s up with the umbrella full of hats. Seriously. It’s in the background. What is that thing? Why is it there? Are they confiscating hats?
Enter a heated debate about who will win gold when baseball is in the Olympics if the non-US players in the MLB played for their home countries. I know next to nothing about baseball so I’m not involved.
The Spain delegation is clearly having a blast. I’m glad.
New tune just before the US, huh? Here we come.
Learning javelin-throwing from YouTube? Yup, it’s a modern era.
Sarah: It looks like this is the year of fencing flag-bearers.
Geoff: I think some threats were made. At the point of something sharp.
Indonesia…the hats. Folded napkin things. I…hope they mean something specific to that nation. They don’t mean anything good to me.
The Italian flag-bearer has her birthday today. Sarah cheers for someone having her birthday.
Oh. Happy birthday, Sarah. BEST WIFE EVAR!
Back to the parade of nations.
The talk about the Japanese population in Brazil sends Sarah on a hunt for details about why there is such a large Japanese population there. This is how we fill up commercial breaks. Except that I can fast-forward. So I fast-forward and then pause. It’s not exactly efficient. But now we know about Japanese emigration to Brazil.
Mongolian flag-bearer uniform is super neat.
TIME TO SING THE NATIONS OF THE WORLD BY YAKKO.
FUCK. I got stuck at Madagascar AGAIN.
Good job on the uniforms, Pakistan. Norway, go learn from them.
And…cue the awkward silence as North Korea comes in. The announcers literally don’t want to say anything.
And…cue the even more awkward Russian entrance.
It starts so slowly. Now everybody has the ‘Nations of the World’ song in their heads and are very, very annoyed with me. 3 of the 4 people here have cursed at me in some capacity. Good thing I like them all.
Syria. Hell. There’s the teariness. We knew it wouldn’t take long.
Ah, that’s what those cheese graters are. They’re for the seeds people will be depositing. That makes slightly more sense.
Turkmenistan, that hat looks hot. I’m sorry, flag-bearer. Don’t die of heat, okay?
One of the things that matters most about the Olympics that has nothing to do with sports is the fact that we can come together as a single race of humanity regardless of our national origin and can celebrate that togetherness. We can march with peace and excitement and joy and we can stand in a room with those who are our political or social or religious opposites. We can face those we make war against and we can stand beside those we have failed. It matters. It’s just a symbol, but it’s also a truth. A hope. A future we may never reach but we must never stop trying to attain.
You can feel it if you close your eyes and let it find you. It doesn’t matter if you’re ten thousand miles from the torch — you can feel the unity. You can feel the hope. You can feel the pride. The tapestry of humanity at its shining best. You can feel it and you can share in it.
And this is why we must never lose it. We must never forget that we can come together and celebrate art and sport and diversity and effort and drive and courage. We must hang onto this.
Because here comes the refugee team. For them and for everyone like them. They deserve a world like this, a world of togetherness.
And to you, refugees. I am so sorry.
Okay, Brazil. Let’s get this show on the road.
They still look like cheese graters, guys. Or, as Geoff says, Daleks. Dalek refrigerators, maybe.
Yeah. You got me with the leafy rings thing. You got me.
Running Jesus Tally = 17
Time for the IOC speech. This guy is a lot more animated than the one 4 years ago. Though Sarah notes the funny mumbly thing he does. Hey, I’m not gonna judge. If it were me, I’d be shaking too hard to hold onto the podium.
“We are living in a world of…mistrust, uncertainties. Here is our Olympic answer…living peacefully together, sharing their meals and their emotions. In this Olympic world, there is one universal law. We are all equal…we see that the values of our shared humanity are stronger than the forces which want to divide us.” (As close as I could get typing along with sniffling)
“Dear refugee athletes. You are sending a message of hope to all the millions of refugees around the world…You had to flee because of violence, hunger, or just because you were different…You are making a great contribution to society…We do not just tolerate diversity. In this Olympic world, we welcome you as an enrichment to our unity in diversity.”
“We came into this world with nothing. We will leave this world with nothing. All we need is peace, love, and unity.” — Kip Kano
If you had any doubts about what really matters…well, now you know.
I feel like I should know the Olympic song words, but they never stay with me. That children’s choir was great, though.
Well…those are some dancing things. Squid? Uh…seaweed? I just…I have no idea. What am I even looking at? Some kind of foam Teletubbies that met up with the wrong end of a lawnmower?
Aw, who cares? Dancing!
And the flame. There’s magic in that, you know. The fire carried from so far away that does not go out. And yeah, I know that sometimes the touring torch goes out, but they bring a backup so that they can relight it from the source. There’s power there. And unity. And continuity. Eternity. Even in something as fleeting as one small flame.
And here it is.
AND THAT SCULPTURE IS FUCKING AWESOME. FUCKING BEAUTIFUL.
Running Jesus Tally = 18
Sarah says we have to close with the Jesus tally and fireworks. Sounds like a good deal to me.
Good night all, and may the light and flame be with you always.