Sunday, May 22, 2011

Win or Go Home

I watched Tyler Hamilton’s interview on 60 Minutes. I did not enjoy it because I hate to see people suffering. And the interview was obviously a painful experience for Tyler. I did not have the perception that I was watching an attention-whore or a self-promoter. Rather, I saw a tortured soul recounting events he would rather forget.

Do I think he was telling the truth? Probably, but I really don’t know. None of us do. What I do know is that each of us interprets what we see and hear through our self—our own experience, our dreams (realized or not), and our past. So, for me, watching Tyler’s interview was unpleasant, not only because he appeared so conflicted and tormented by it all, but because I could relate.

I’ve never used performance-enhancing drugs, but I, to some extent at least, understand his motivation. I understand the singular focus that comes from desperately wanting to be on the “A team”—wanting to the point of being willing to sacrifice relationships, other interests, the future, health. I wanted to be one of “them.” I wanted to be fast. I wanted to contribute to the team’s success. I wanted to win. I wanted to race in Europe. So, I did exactly what Tyler et al. apparently did. I did what it took. And, walking as close to the precipice as possible, did not seem at all strange because I was immersed in that culture. I thought, dreamed, ate, and slept being fast, as we all did. When you’re so close to the goal that has consumed you for years, the choice does not always feel like an exercise of free will--it feel more like something that happens to you.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not making excuses for the bad choices I’ve made or those that Tyler and other cyclists might have made. I am simply saying that what might seem illogical and indefensible makes sense, if you are willing to acknowledge (like it or not) that sport is a religion that preaches “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Another Moment of Grace

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about a world champion speedskater who called me out of desparation. She had questions about her iron status, but what she really needed was someone to offer hope--to say, "I understand. I have been there, but no matter how impossible it seems: YOU CAN. "

Today I got a card in the mail. It was from this woman. I am not ashamed to publicly admit that the tears were flowing while I read it:

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.... Overall, I'm feeling a lot better now than I was when we spoke--and with that, comes the ability to renew hope for my future, also.... Thank you for your candidness in speaking about your struggles. We only have one chance at this life... and life, for me, it starts with being healthy. Thank you for being part of this journey. I don't know if I'll ever go to grad school, but if I do, I sure hope I find an advisor like you.

Wow, did this hit me hard. It made me realize the power of empathy. Empathy that can only come from painful experiences that seem, at the time, to have no redeeming value. The ability to laugh with your friends when they laugh, and to cry when they cry is the best gift we can give the people we care about.

I was also struck with the importance of saying thank you to the people who have given me this gift and those who have offered me help when I needed it. There are many people who I wish I'd thanked--too many to even count--but, a couple stand out. More than 20 years ago, someone gave me a piece of paper that said, "You CAN do it" with a smiley face. I don't have the note anymore, but each day I have is because of the hope those words inspired. Several years ago, a friend said to me, "I'm pretty sure that you can do anything you make up your mind to do." I doubt this person knows the positive effect those words had on me.

From now on, I am going to make an effort to express my gratitude. I'm pretty sure that anyone who reads this blog has positively affected me in one way or another. Thank you.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Best "Core" Workout Ever!

For "extra helpings," try these modifications:

  1. Deflate the tire.

  2. Put on the brake.

  3. Make sure the mulch is wet, i.e., water-logged.

  4. Any combination of the above.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Big Mouth

Recently, it has been brought to my attention that, in the past (near and distant), I have yelled at people on group training rides. That I have a reputation as a “hater” has disturbed me for several reasons. First, it is highly inconsistent with my self-concept. I really do care about other people and their feelings. And, I want the sport of cycling to grow—the last thing I want to do is to run people off. What is also troubling is that I have yelled at people of whom I have no recollection whatsoever. Maybe I have finally lost my mind, or, maybe, the post-concussion syndrome has morphed into full-on dementia. Who knows?

I do know that I have no tolerance for stupidity. I am not talking about the puerile behavior of the boys on the group rides: “monkeyshines,” “weeds in the wheel,” “drop a junior,” etc. Nor, am I talking about the dick-swinging that shatters the group—the only harm there is wounded egos. I am referring to the stupidity and apparently thoughtless behavior that endangers the safety of the group. So, if you ride in the wrong lane around a blind corner, split riders while bombing a descent at 40+ mph, make sudden and unexpected lateral moves, force someone across the centerline, or think it's just fine to leave the new guy behind in the middle of nowhere, chances are, I will yell at you. If I were strong enough, I’d just attack instead of yelling, and attempt to make my point that way. Although, the connection between the stupid behavior and my “reaction” might be missed....

Maybe my concern for my friends’ safety is just a manifestation of my hyper-awareness of others’ needs or, perhaps, it is buried maternal instinct. Maybe I should adopt a Darwinian perspective—survival of the fittest and all that (i.e., if you crash because your training buddy is a dumbass, too bad for you.) Sorry people, but I am too old to undergo such a fundamental change in who I am.

I would like to point out that an individual’s “mouthiness” is not always a good indicator of their true nature. Based on reputation, the guys who have without fail waited for me, pulled me back to the group, given me their food, water, and gloves, are the ones who should have left me for dead. Clich├ęs exist because they are true: “actions speak louder than words.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Rare Compliment

I have a self-imposed rule that forbids me from writing about work on this blog, which has probably saved me a lot of grief. But rules are made to be broken, right?

Academia is a weird environment. Even when dealing with faculty, who, are typically goal-oriented, driven perfectionists, those in charge seem morally opposed to giving unqualified positive feedback. It's as if department chairs, deans, etc. believe that the best way to motivate people is to (subtly) leave the impression that they are not quite satisfied with your performance. Do department chairs really think that faculty would stop trying to get grants and to publish their work if they said, "good job" and just left it at that?

All of this is to preface that my department chair complimented me today, "Pam, you are far from being a puppet of the administration. That's not who you are." Whether my chair sees this attribute as positive or not, I can't be certain. I'm assuming he views my failure to be intimidated as a strength. I do.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Moment of Grace

To understand someone, you have to see yourself—some part of you in them.
~Steinbeck, East of Eden

I had an experience today that gave me pause. Thinking about it now, I wonder, “Did that really happen?”

I got a phone call at work. The woman on the other end of the line said she was calling from Canada and that she had some questions about iron deficiency in athletes. She introduced herself as a “high-performance athlete” and someone who works with elite athletes. “Do you have a few minutes?” she wanted to know. I am really glad that I took the time to talk to her. She started off by asking about the results of some recent blood work testing her iron status. She wanted to know what the numbers meant and how much she needed to improve before she could resume training. She called me because I am an “expert” in iron deficiency in athletes. But as the details of her story emerged, it became apparent that she was really asking something different—something much more important. Fortunately for both of us, I had an answer to her question: Is there hope?

I’m sure most of us, by the time we’re middle-aged, look back on our past with some regret and wish we’d made different choices. There are times I wish I hadn’t let an apparent strength—the ability to suffer—take on a life of its own and become a paralyzing weakness. I feel guilty for the “wasted” time and for what I’ve done to my health. I cannot ignore the consequences. But, not all of those consequences are negative. Today, because of my experience, I was able to offer empathy and hope to another human being.

In bits and pieces this woman’s story came out. She’d been training for inline skating—doing structured workouts—from the age of 15. Everything had been written down by her coach on a piece of paper for her to follow. She has won numerous Canadian national titles. She is a world champion and world-record holder. People were jealous of her success—they wanted to be her.

But, as she put it to me today, “People have no idea.” She has been hospitalized for eating disorders. She has had too many concussions to count. Last year, after fracturing her skull, she decided it was time to retire at age 31. Her body was breaking down and she needed to get healthy. Today, she is unemployed and on the verge of becoming homeless. No doctor will take her as patient; her case is “too complex.” She’s terrified of no longer being a world-class athlete, even though she knows it was killing her. The idea of doing something for herself—making choices based on her long-term health and happiness is completely foreign and scary. It is something she has never done. I no longer live in that terror, but I remember. Most people will never understand how resting, eating, or simply being alive can take more discipline and determination than suffering through a hard workout or willing yourself into the “pain cave.” But, I do. And, I know that eventually what seems impossible for this woman now will become more possible, then doable, and maybe, someday, natural.

At one point in our conversation, she started to cry. This woman who has accomplished so much made a simple statement that was really a question, “I don’t know if I can do it.” My answer to her: “You can.” I told her that it will not be easy. To say otherwise would be a lie. The transition from “athlete” to “human being” is really hard. In some ways being a machine seems so much simpler. But, machines eventually break down beyond repair. Human beings are mortal, but we have the opportunity to make a difference by sharing a moment of grace.

Like it or not, each of us has a story. There are days I wish I’d followed a different storyline. Today was not one of those days.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Steinbeck on Ego

From Journal of a Novel: the East of Eden Letters:

The two oldest and strongest children of ego are domination and possessiveness.
And the youngest and stupidest child is desire for immortality.
Another offspring is competitiveness, which is a desire to prove superiority.

I had an epiphany after reading this. Human behavior that left me perplexed now makes perfect sense. I also realize that it wouldn't be a bad thing for me to trade some ego for humility.