Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity | Video on

I absolutely love this video. My dear friend, Elaine, sent me the link and I am so grateful to her for that. The link between divinity and inspired creations is, most times, evident. So why not a link between the creator and the Creator? Interesting notion.

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity | Video on

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Donner Lake Triathlon: A Success

I read the following quote today after competing in my first Olympic distance triathlon. But before I cite it, I have to say its oddness struck me with the same force my presence reading at the finish line of a race must have struck my fellow competitors. Reading and triathloning-- do the two really go together?
Or rather, a more poignant question might be: what’s with the girl sitting alone reading while we are all drinking beer and celebrating our success, together?

But there I was, regardless, sitting alone, staring at the body of water I’d conquered after two years of fear that kept me from even trying this sort of athletic venue. I should have felt elated, period. Instead, I felt a strange mixture of things. Elation was one, yes, but so was regret and, even, sadness. Are finish lines always bittersweet, I wonder?

The line I read came from Samuel Beckett, who claimed: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” and those words strike me particularly hard, so hard it’s like a punch to the gut.

I relive the previous hours in my mind again: the 4am alarm which sounds like crickets calling to one another on Steve’s ipod. The rushed drive to Donner Lake as the sky turned from black to baby blue with a tinge of jaundice cresting at the mountain tops. We parked near the finish line and in the near-dawn chill, Steve helped me carry the mountain of requisite gear to the transition area. There, I had my body “marked” with my age on my left calf muscle and my race number (85) on my left arm. I ran, visited the Johnny-on-the-spots more times than I’d care to admit (a lot more than three) and hoisted myself into the wetsuit so that I could swim warm up laps before my time-- 7:50-- came and I’d have to do it for real.

The rest passes too quickly through my mind to recount. I swam; I remember seeing sunlight and bubbles, a murky green color and from time to time, someone’s foot or stomach. I recall imagining little minnows around me like faeries and I said to them: hold me up darlings, and I’ll be on my way soon.

I remember the approach of the beach and the way my wetsuit wouldn’t zip off like I imagined it would before I left the water, but how that didn’t worry me. It will, I remember thinking, when it is time.

I remember the half-jog to transition area and my bike where I stripped myself down to a tri suit and outfitted myself as a cyclist ,though still dripping wet. I recall someone calling my name in friendly tones, but I was too disoriented to look to see who it was. I remember the climb up as though I was floating my way up Donner Summit like a passing cloud with no business here or there. I remember the descent, the feeling of flying or freedom or perhaps both.


I remember I smiled in that moment to no one in particular-- perhaps the evergreen trees which line the old highway, perhaps to memory. I recall speeding down Donner Summit the way I was told to by the local bike-shop owner, like the way I skied when I was four or five and my dad had constantly told me to slow down. I called out to those I passed and pedaled by them, wondering briefly if I was still that little girl, or part of her.

I remember running, feeling as though I moved two frames too slow in a film that fast-forwarded by me, yet, bodies came into view and I passed them, all. I felt heavy yet light, ethereal yet forever concrete, solid, me. The hill I knew would come did and I climbed it, not stopping. I used its other side to gain speed and time, promising myself I would never stop.

I finished strong, I think, but when the haze lifted, I wondered if I could have gone faster, swam harder, pedaled with more vigor and ran like I remember running in my dreams when I think about myself two years ago.

Don’t misunderstand me: finishing this event is a huge success for me. If I had come in last place, I think I still would have been proud. But there are two sides to every accomplishment, two sides for each success. Just as the day is light and the night is dark, perhaps each accomplishment brings with it its failures. After all, what athlete doesn’t sit back and wonder-- even after a good day-- could I have done better? I remember, specifically, my response to breaking the ominous three-hour mark in the marathon in 2008.
Of course I’d been happy, but that happiness had been tempered by the question: How much faster can I go?

Perhaps I’m just a wet blanket, but it seems Beckett was onto something. There is a certain nobility in his statement, a Stoic or Buddhist detachment: he urges his reader to try again regardless of the inevitable failure. But what is remarkable to me is not that he guarantees success by repeated attempts, but quite the contrary: by trying we become better at failure, or in other words, we become better at our humanity and it’s lack of perfection.

And so, what I mean to say is that I didn’t feel so odd to be so odd: I read on a beach where I’d just competed in a triathlon. I finished first in my age group while still leaving time to imagine creatures that don’t exist and to wonder as I descended Donner Summit at 40mph, what happened to all those childhood years when I yearned for perfection?

I’ve decided she’s still in there, that Rebecca who wanted to wear black-patent leather Mary Janes and a floral-print dress and play soccer in the mud with the boys-- to be athletic and picture-perfect, always--but she’s getting better at failing.

Perhaps it is a sort of failure to not-win a triathlon. But it’s also a huge success to get over a thing you’ve feared for years: not being perfect. In the end, I suppose my path diverges from Beckett’s: I’ll keep trying and that alone is not a failure, it’s a step in the right direction for this life that involves messy first drafts and frequent falls because, to quote many a wiser-person than me, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.


Place overall women: 7

Place age group: 1

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I'll tri in a week

Swimming in Lake Tahoe for the first time. The closer I get to this event, the more it seems to mimic life-- in both good and bad ways.

I never thought training for a triathlon would be so draining. Really. And not just physically, though I have to say the brick workouts (running after cycling or cycling post-swim are more demanding than I had anticipated). No, the training is exhausting in the same sort of way having three jobs is exhausting: the three jobs in and of themselves aren't that demanding, really, its the life that attempts to form itself around them that is.

Take, for instance, the reality that a five-am swim must be followed by not only a seven-mile run, but then an eight-hour shift in a clothing boutique frequented by tourists who either trash the store (not intentionally, though I do often wonder why shopping has to be so violent. Doesn't anyone fold or hang things up anymore?) Or, per the nature of working in retail, people are just downright assholes. I should probably not mention, but will, the blaring music, the wish-washy and unreliable personality quirks of both my bosses and the lack of a lunch break because these things, too, are all exhausting. On their own, perhaps one might consider each an annoyance; but put all that together and you get exhaustion that squirts all over me like green baby diarrhea.

I admit, I'm overwhelmed. I have to race in less than a week and immediately after I'll be moving to Moraga to begin a two-year MFA program in creative writing. I want to keep my job, though exhausting it may be, to pay the rent, but I know I'll have not only academic demands, but athletic ones as well. I want to not only sustain my level of training, but increase its intensity and volume. I want to write more than I have been writing lately (which is to say, a pitiful amount of scribbles I'm able to cast into a journal every now and then; mostly observations like "why are people so rough on public restrooms?" and "why on earth don't some parents keep their kids on leashes?" )-- in short, I see before me a sea of exhaustion-diarrhea and unless something changes, I'll soon be swimming in it.

In my past lives, I had been a fan of the "list" method of organizing large tasks into smaller mini-tasks to make the impossible seem do-able. But even this, too, has me gasping for fresh air. I mean, have you ever SEEN a pre-race checklist for a triathlon? It challenges the length of the list I have for the next two years of my life. Wetsuit, bike, googles, shoes. Yikes! Don't forget the bike, the socks, my god WATER! YOU NEED WATER!

And here's the other: Pack up my books and move them to Moraga, move in, take appropriate clothes, pay tuition, run. Yikes! Don't forget to go to class! Go to work! Coach the Cross Country team! BREATHE!

Perhaps I'm overreacting, but for some reason it seems as though my life is passing through a funnel. What was once spread out and comfortable is now getting all smushed together and confused. Where once running safely occupied a quarter of my life, it now spreads itself into the 40 minutes I usually use to ready myself for work. Where work once ended at a precise time, now dribbles into the evening hour when I had once been home, preparing dinner and writing. Sleep, too, is messy; persuading me to lie still when I ought to be up and swimming. Steve says, I hope wisely, that this will pass. I hope he is right-- I would like to glean more from my experience at Saint Mary's College than two years of nonstop exhaustion.

And I suppose this rant all begets the question: why? Why am I doing this to myself? It would be easier, perhaps, to do nothing at all, or to pick only one thing and do it over and over so that I could be very-- well, if not good, at least well-versed in its processes. Yet, I can't do that. There's something about my personality (is it self-loathing, I wonder?) that makes me do all these things. True, the athletics give me joy as does writing; my job, a pain but a necessary one if I'm to do anything at all. And so, what do you do?

For some stupid reason, the only answer I can come up with is that "I'm going to tri." I say stupid because the triathlon is one major stressor and training for it obviously hasn't made me feel any better. And yet, as I suggested above, there's something about my personality that forces me to answer that way and no other. I can't "not tri"-- I already signed up to do it, just like I signed up for Saint Mary's and all that it entailed.

Perhaps there is nothing more for me to do than to return to that list-maker I once was two graduate programs ago and accept its length and its demands. Take the swim googles with you for goodness sake, I'll say, just like I'll remind myself to order those books for the literature class they make us take the first year. Read and write, I'll say while I remind myself I have to do two bike workouts this week and a quality session on the track. Eat and spend time with Steve because you won't be able to in a few weeks (see Steve. I think I will continue eating.) And that is life-- there's no negotiation at the moment.

Or checking off items on the list may have to become one of life's little joys. While not impressive, I did swim a mile in Lake Tahoe (open water) and I DID send in my application for Financial Aid (even though my throat closed up when I dropped it in the mail slot.) Little steps, little breaths, I guess I have to keep telling myself I'll be fine. There's no stopping, really, in these things I do (in races or in life.) I just have to keep going, no matter how tired or poopy I may feel. I have to believe there are better things to come: hours to write and read and needed hot showers to enjoy.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Thoughts on Triathlon Training, plus an interview with myself.

I’ve been reticient about my recent decision to compete in an “Olympic distance” triathlon because, well, I’m not a triathlete! However, following my latest setback (another not-so-sweet episode of peroneal tendonitis) I came to the realization that if I wanted to compete in an event this summer, it probably wasn’t going to be a long distance road race (say, a half or full marathon.) But, being generally not fond of shorter races (the popular 5k-10k variety and let’s not even mention the races that are run on tracks) I opted for a more creative solution to my dilemma: the triathlon.

I reasoned, as I paid my entry fee online, that I do plenty of cross-training already. I taught spin classes, after all, and after two weeks of swimming with the Master’s group in Truckee, I’ve managed to rid myself of the “panic attacks” I had earlier in the pool. Trialthons, I seemed to say as I clicked myself into the event, no biggie.

But I think there’s something that happens to the human psyche when you actually commit to something. It’s not abstract anymore, suddenly your destiny is writ large. Maybe that’s the appeal for marriage: you’re not only together, but it’s official to the eyes of the law and those inhabiting single bars. So too, I’ve found with this event: whereas before I cross-trained to help improve my general fitness, I now cross-train as a rule: religiously, compulsively-- that is to say-- daily.

And yet, this entrance into a new sport has got me thinking yet again, and not just about my level of fitness and what workout I ought to do when and how, but rather, about how sometimes these crazy things I do mimic other aspects of my life. Take, for instance, the challenge I’ve found in balancing the training for not one, but three events. My swimming falls down a notch if I miss a workout while my running suffers if I cycle too hard. This physical push-and-pull reminds me of the daily challenge many people face of “balance”-- of finding time to work, support a family, or even have a family, as well as a some semblance of a social life. If you work extra hours and climb the corporate ladder, what happens to the relationship with your spouse? Your children? Or, what if you neglect the pursuit of a career and only focus on family? Or, what if you’re like me and you put both off to pursue yet another graduate degree? I wonder: when do you know the balance has tipped too far to one extreme and you’re in danger of losing the other aspects of life you might value just as much as your pursuit, but that you thought you’d “come back to” when you had more time?

Perhaps there ought to be little “events” we set up for ourselves that make us commit to the balance of goals in life-- not just one. I envision a triathlon, but with an altered rubric. In lieu of three sports, perhaps every person should list the three most important aspects of their life, and strive to give each equal attention. With my impending move to Saint Mary’s, I can (almost) say that my three would be: athletics, my writing career and remaining close to my family/friends. It’s hard not to flinch after such a declaration (what about the cats, I wonder? Making sure my car is in good working order? What about the laundry) but I suppose that’s what commitments do: they simplify and narrow the expansiveness I-- and perhaps others-- have a tendency towards. In this rubric, for instance, I have left out my part time job as a sales assistant at a local boutique. I can hear the critique already:


-- “But, Rebecca, you need to make money.”

-- “I know.”

-- “So, why isn’t your job one of your top three priorities? Why isn’t it one of your “triathlon events’?”

-- [I would at first be silent.]

-- “You see my point, don’t you?”

-- “Well, no, voice-in-my-head, because the job I have now has nothing to do with the big picture. Or, what I mean is this: I don’t want to be a sales assistant for my entire working life. I don’t want to own a clothing store; and I don’t want to live in a rental house in Tahoe, either. So, for the ‘event’ I see as my future success, this part time job has no place there.”

-- “But.... you need this job to survive.”

-- [A laugh.] “In a sense, yes, you’re right. But I also think it’s important to set one’s sights higher than mere survival in regards to envisioning the life one wants to lead.”

-- “So, what do you see yourself as? Some sort of celebrity-god-figure?”

-- “Of course, [then, another hearty laugh], Of course not!! I see myself as a successful writer who’s involved somehow in endurance sports. Whether I continue to compete or I write about them matters very little. I see myself as supporting my family with my success. Most importantly, I see myself inspiring others to believe in themselves and to therefore, surprise themselves, when they push beyond their comfort zone to do something truly amazing. The world can be changed that way: with positivity sprouting from individuals like wildflowers in spring. All it takes is a spark and a person’s life becomes better, more fulfilling and purpose-filled. I think the world would be a better place if everyone had a passion like sports to drive them.”

-- “So what about the writing?”

-- “In addition to wanting to promote a healthy, active lifestyle via my words in a country that needs it, I also want to revive an interest in the written word, a medium that has a permanence unlike radio and video. We live in such a ‘liquid’ time-- when sound bites reign and nothing can be nailed down-- that it’s nice to have a rock-solid piece of literature or reportage to turn back to, to re-read, to hold.”

-- “How can literature matter anymore with all that’s going on in the world politically, environmentally and socially? Aren’t the literary arts passé? A relic of the 19th century?”

-- “Words will always matter. Those who can communicate have a power over those who can’t. Anyone who says otherwise is deluded. Still today in English courses, one’s ability to “think” is judged by one’s ability to write well. The problem with our literature is its lack of engagement with the deep social issues that matter. Orwell, for instance, wrote his novel, 1984, addressing his concerns of the degradation of the English language. It’s a book that still has resonance. What do most writers (and I include myself in this) write about today? Lost love. Death. Melodrama. It’s time to return to history and trace its path into the present. It’s time to push ourselves beyond what we feel and into a “dangerous” place where art and current issues collide. For me, it’s like pushing toward a faster race time. It hurts, you don’t know if you can do it, but you must. So too with writing: it’s time to move beyond what’s been done before and to make “social awareness” a pleasure rather than a pain.”

-- “What if you fail-- you can’t do any of these things?”

-- “No one who tries fails. Giving up is the only failure. Doing your best-- whether it’s in the midst of a marathon or a novel, is what produces the great things in society. We’d have no Einstein, no Armstrong, no Homer, without what some would call ‘failure.’ It’s all revision, really, and success will come in time.”

-- “What advice would you give to young people just starting out, or those who want to consider this “triathlon” view of life?”

-- “Stay the path; view life as a practice. Nothing is ever perfect. List your three things, and try to give each as much time as you can. Know you will fail at this, accept that failure, and continue to practice. Nothing guarantees success more than sheer will, a.k.a: stubbornness.”

And so, I’ll do my best on July 18th, the day of the Donner Tri. I can’t say I’ll win, but that matters very little. That day, I will do my best. I will finish. I will prove to myself I balanced three athletic events and didn’t end up the worst for it. So too, in life, I will be all right. Not ever perfect, no, but I too will continue my practice of writing and running, while always keeping those close to me near. That’s the best I can offer, the best I can do. And you know, it’s enough. It really is.