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Category — Taking on challenges

Let The Nutcracker season begin!

The Troyanoff Ballet Academy is a single-studio dance school, a storefront wedged between a dry cleaner and a pizza joint in a Long Island strip mall. My mother drives me there, twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday after school to take classes with Professor Troyanoff and his seriously arthritic wife, Madame Troyanoff.   They were Russian dancers of little renown who left the Motherland between the two world wars. My mother calls them “white Russians” to distinguish them from the Reds, this being the Cold War.

The distinction is lost on me. The inelegance of the Academy is lost on me. I am six, seven, eight, nine, and what matters is pulling on pale pink tights and a black three-quarter-sleeve leotard in the tiny dressing room no bigger than a closet, sitting on the bench on the side of the studio and carefully slipping my feet into soft leather slippers. What matters to me is standing at the barre: first position, demi-plié, plié, relevé, second position, third, fourth, fifth; tendus, battements, rond de jambs, arabesques; and later, in the center of the room, glissades, the thrill of the grand jété. What matters is dancing.

The Professor is a kindly middle-aged man with a handsome fleshy face and a luxuriant head of silver hair who wears snug t-shirts, billowing trousers and black leather ballet slippers. While he instructs, his accent so thick one or another of us has to ask him to repeat, again and again, his wife, stern and crabby, stalks the studio leaning on a cane. When one of us gets sloppy, when our grand pliés are not grand enough or our turn-outs are not turned out enough, she raps the back of our legs with the cane. It doesn’t hurt as much as the idea of it hurts. I learn much later that her ballet career in the old country crippled her before she turned forty.

The Professor loves to choreograph. He puts together bits and pieces of what my mother tells me are the classics, each little dance ending in dramatic grand tableaux with all sixteen or eighteen or twenty of us young dancers striking and holding poses. The Academy presents two parent-pleasing recitals a year held in whatever elementary school the Professor manages to persuade to host us. I love the music. I love learning the steps. I love the costumes, the lavender tutu edged in silver with matching silver-sprayed ballet slippers…

from the introduction to my book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Mid-Life Quest to Dance the Nutcracker, to mark the publication of the PAPERBACK edition and the start of yet another Nutcracker season.

November 15, 2017   No Comments

Living with disasters, Iceland style

On the narrow, two-lane “highway” that skirts the southern coast of Iceland there are big, illuminated signs that track and report wind velocity. As Jón Ágúst, a quintessentially unflappable native Icelander explains, when the wind blows at a certain speed (the measurement is in meters per second so I’m not even going to bother to give you the stats), it is difficult to keep a car on the road.

When the wind is somewhat stronger, it is “not advisable,” he says, to be on the road. Even stronger wind can whip up gravel, pebbles, even rocks from the surrounding lava fields, creating a geological hailstorm that dents the bodies and breaks the windshields of cars whose owners chose to ignore the illuminated signs (or were Americans who could not do the meters to miles/ seconds to hour conversions). Jón Ágúst points out a new patch of asphalt on the road. It is, he says, a repair job after an “especially strong wind” sent chunks of asphalt flying, ripping up an entire section of the road.

Now the highway is paralleling a bridge, a very long bridge. “That’s the longest bridge in Iceland,” Jón Ágúst says. The bridge is not in use nor, as far as I can tell, does it bridge anything. “There used to a river there,” he explains. The river was formed during one of the country’s many volcanic eruptions and glacier runs. Then, during another of the country’s many volcanic eruptions and glacier runs, the river changed course. “But who knows,” says Jón Ágúst. He offers a hint of a smile. “We might need that bridge again some day.”

Why do I recount this for you? Because it speaks to the Icelandic attitude toward the vicissitudes of life—and boy do these people have vicissitudes—which stands in direct opposition to our Disaster! Catastrophe! Crisis! mentality. These people experience volcanic eruptions, lava flows, glacier runs, geological hailstorms, raging rivers, killer winds, deep freezes, financial exigencies, the fall of their government—which occurred with barely a ripple when I was there—and they make it through. They take care of business. Which is to say they don’t panic. They don’t cry “disaster.” They batten down the hatches; they look after their neighbors; they watch for sneaker waves; they stay off the road. They respect the volatility of their environment. They know how to survive. They know how to care for those who don’t.

October 4, 2017   1 Comment

Ignite. Or be gone.

At Burning Man, I was a virgin, as first-timers are called. Two weeks later, at the 19th gathering of the shamans in Iceland, I was the only uninitiated. And so, for close to a month, in two places on earth that could not be more geologically different, and at two gatherings that could not be more culturally and energetically dissimilar, I have been mulling the meaning of being the outsider and the insider, of the value of both, and of the surprisingly porous membrane between the two.

I began as an outsider to both experiences, I was an empty vessel, a sponge. Everything was new, mysterious, confusing – and that was both exciting and uncomfortable. It was like walking into an ongoing, animated conversation you very much wanted to understand and be part of but couldn’t. I asked the questions– to others, to myself – that a child asks: What is that? What are you doing? What does that mean?

Curiosity is a wondrous thing, and being an outsider is an stimulating place to be. But it is also a lonely place. An outsider is, alas, outside, outside the circle of friendship, the heat of the fire. An outsider is outside collective history, outside collective memory.

And then, a few days in, things begin to change. The experience of yesterday becomes a memory, the memory a story, the story shared. The days together accumulate, the stories accumulate. And one day you wake up and you realize there is a place for you, a place that is held being for you, and you slowly inhabit it. The circle expands to let you in.

Knowing that you can travel afar/
But that everywhere is home.

September 27, 2017   3 Comments

Burning Man

 Burning Man asks the question: What would a contingent of privileged 21st century people do if they could do anything, if they were given a blank slate – the vast, stark, featureless playa – to create an instant community? The answer, as I observed as a Virgin Burner last week, is complicated. They–we–create beauty and ugliness, generosity and self-indulgence, Eden and dystopia and live for a week in a world of breathtaking sunsets and choking dust storms. Burners wash your dusty feet, take drugs, practice yoga at dawn, party all night, give away hot dogs and gin and tonics, make noise, dress in utility kilts or bootie shorts or tutus or nothing at all. They make art, big, bright, hard-edged art. They make music. They dance. They mist your scorched skin with precious water when you ride by on your bicycle. They tinker. They invent. They create something where nothing was. They make life in a dead place.

But they do not live lightly on this stretch of alkali flats. They use enormous resources to create this city of 70,000: thousands and thousands of gallons of potable water delivered by trucks, thousands of gallons of gray water spirited away, thousands of gallons of gas to power the blazing Art Cars that traverse the playa every night, thousands and thousands of gallons of propane to power the generators that support each camp. Hundreds of porta potties serviced every day. This is a resource-gobbling, tech-heavy vision of the future.

And mostly, despite the hugs everyone gives everyone and the gift economy (no money changes hands on the playa) and the many small kindnesses you encounter–and those you perform yourself–it is a harsh vision of the future. A post-apocalytpic vision of industrial grunge and consensual hedonism, with hulking trucks and laser beams scanning the night sky and blaring noise and too-bright lights, a Disneyland meets Las Vegas meets Mad Max world where strangers wash your naked body and you can spend an hour in the Orgasmatron on your way to watching fights in the Thunderdome.

On my last morning in Black Rock City, I was riding my playa-caked Hammer & Cyclery fat-tire bike on Lustrate, the farthest from the center street, a long, dusty several mile horseshoe of a ride. I was watching the dawn clouds dissipate in the already blistering heat. On one side of me was the city, on the other, the open playa. On the playa side, there was a grizzled man riding a squeaky bike pulling a trailer with a vintage boombox bungee-ed to the frame. As he came closer, I could hear the music. It was Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” The innocence of that music, its softness, its almost silly simplicity, the gentleness of it. I stood there, straddling my bike, and I cried.

September 6, 2017   5 Comments

Getting UNcomfortable

I like making myself uncomfortable, placing myself somewhere I do not belong, where I am the new kid, confused, awkward, unsure — and thus alert, deeply curious, open to seeing, open to learning. I realize the privilege of this. I know many people live their entire lives feeling uncomfortable in their bodies, their families, their communities, our society. It’s not that I don’t have those feelings, all of those feelings, from time to time. But the fact is, I am safe. And so I have the privilege of purposely pushing myself into new situations that throw me off balance, the purpose being to understand people different than myself, to keep myself as humble as I can (that is, a learner, always a learner) and to test my own resilience.

I did this when I spent 18 months immersed in middle school to write about tween/teen girl culture. I did it when I joined a ballet company to see if I could reclaim an old dancing dream. And I am doing it now, and have been for the past two years, when I go up to Oregon State Penitentiary to spend time with a group of prison writers.

And tomorrow… for something completely different. Frivolous, yes, but also deeply deeply uncomfortable. Tomorrow I leave with a group of ten others to go to Burning Man. We are the Eugene contingent helping to staff a venerable bicycle rental and repair camp. Of course I have known about Burning Man for years, but I’ve never been in the least tempted to go. It seemed, well, male – it is Burning MAN – and insistently Millennial. And self-consciously arty. And suffused with all those drugs I didn’t need to do any more because, as Huxley said, once you open the doors of perception, you don’t have to keep opening them. Plus, in my dotage, I am more careful with my neurons.

But I’m going. I am going because I want the experience of helping to create a city of 70,000 people where nothing, and I mean nothing, exists, in a stark, ridiculously inhospitable environment in the middle of nowhere (well, actually, in northwestern Nevada). That, alone, terrifies me. And then there’s this: The tattoo on my back is older than most of the people I’m traveling and will be camping with.

I’ll report back. Don’t look for a post next Wednesday. I’ll be, as they say, “on playa.”

(One of THREE bins packed for The Burn, pictured above, includes nothing I’ve ever packed for a trip before: el-wire, dust masks, goggles, ear plugs, shemagh, Snow White halloween costume, combat boots.)

August 23, 2017   7 Comments

Sleep

Let’s take a moment to contemplate the magic that is sleep.

No, not: How much sleep do I need? What happens if I don’t get what I need? How can I sleep better? Deeper? How do I create the best “sleep hygiene”? What about insomnia? Sleep apnea? Sleeping pills? Circadian rhythms?

No.

I am talking about the transformative power of sleep. The way you can go to bed emotionally drained, psychologically fragile, wounded, staggering, after a day that ricochets you off hard surfaces, harder surfaces that you knew existed, places you didn’t want to go to but did, thoughts you didn’t want to think but did, emotions you were unprepared to feel but felt. That kind of day.

And you can’t think your way through it. And you can’t talk your way through it. And you can’t eat your way through it (although you try). But you can throw open the windows to a cool night and settle between clean sheets and close your eyes and breath, not imagining the impossible will happen.

And then it happens. You sleep. And you awake your own strong, true self. Ready. Again.

May 18, 2017   4 Comments

D E T E R M I N A T I O N

What does it mean to be determined?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, like many of us have, as we watch –in a state of almost indescribable horrific awe — the actions of a man determined to bring disrespect, dishonor and ridicule on the office of the presidency. And on our country. Which is to say on all of us.

But I have also been thinking about our determination, determination to show ourselves, our neighbors, our communities and the rest of the world what we value and what we are willing to fight for.

Which has got me thinking about what determination actually is and how to nurture it in ourselves and others. Because we need a lot of it. And we need it now, and we need it for the long haul.

Lest you think determination is an unpleasant scowling, grit-your-teeth experience, let me suggest just the opposite: Determination is a positive emotional feeling that involves persevering toward a difficult goal in spite of obstacles. It is about facing challenges with (I love this phrase) anticipatory enthusiasm. In the field of positive psychology – the best thing to happen to psychology since Freud died – determination is studied and identified as a constructive and optimistic force that compels us toward action and results in important outcomes.

One obvious outcome is that we “win.” Our determination defeats the obstacles. But that may be an in-it-for-the-long-haul outcome. What about in the meantime? In the meantime, as we are being our determined selves, we are nurturing perseverance and resilience. And as we persevere, we develop important coping mechanisms. As we persevere, we get stronger.

Determination in the face of daunting obstacles strengthen and empowers us. Strengthens and empowers. It fuels us. It stokes the fire.

Oh, and here’s something else from the woman who brought you Counterclockwise (that would be me): A number of studies have linked the meeting of challenges with determination to increases in physical health and mental well-being. Some specific positive outcomes include illness resistance, increased survival rates and decreased levels of depression.

March 22, 2017   1 Comment

Defying Gravity

Idina_Wicked_1It’s easy to be upbeat when things are going your way.

You’re healthy. Your children are all talking to you. The house gutters are clean. And you didn’t have climb on the roof to do it.

It’s easy to feel empowered and invigorated when things are going your way.

Your dentist doesn’t find any new work to do. You can now zip up your jeans. The writing is going well. Most of the time. Okay, some of the time.

The true test of resilience is what you do and how you feel – and what you say to yourself — when things are not all bowl-of-cherries.

So let’s just say, hypothetically, you’ve been working really hard on a project you believe in, a good project that is making a positive contribution, a project that has two years of success behind it. And then a person who doesn’t know you or the project, but now holds the power, pulls the plug. For instance. Hypothetically.

Or you get a DEXA-scan to see just how awesome your bone density is because you are a life-long exerciser, a runner, a yogurt-eater, a calcium-supplement swallower, and all-around brimming-with-vitality human, and you find out you have borderline osteopenia. For instance. Hypothetically.

Or a dangerous, hateful, intolerant, thoughtless, megalomaniacal, narcissist is suddenly your president. For instance.

When faced with these hypothetical situations, or any other rotten news or shitty life circumstance, I have three strategies, which I will now generously share with you.

#1 I listen to my negative self-talk. Yep, that’s right: I listen. Believe me, I have tried to stop the negative self-talk. We all know we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. And we all beat ourselves up. So, rather than struggling to quiet the voice, I tune in carefully. I listen to my internal monolog as if I were saying it to someone other than myself. Would I ever say to someone else: You are a failure. You are not valued. You’ve got one step in the grave. You better dig a hole and stay in it for the next four (eight years). Of course not. When I externalize the voice, I see how awful it is. Actually, I see how overblown and silly it is. I laugh at it. Ha!

#2 I get excited about Plan B. I always have a Plan B. Or I devise one as soon as possible. Planning and list-making keep me buoyant. Action is almost always the antidote. There is always a way through, a way around, a new way. And: no making lemonade from the lemons life gives you. I will decide what kind of juice I want, thank you very much.

#3 Defying Gravity. Blasted at top volume in the car. Forget the cheese factor, folks. This fucking works.

To those who’d ground me
Take a message back from me
Tell them how I am
Defying gravity
I’m flying high
Defying gravity

December 14, 2016   1 Comment

This is what democracy looks like

stand-up-speak-out What can we do? That’s the big question. We can gasp at what he says, shake our heads in disbelief at the people he chooses for government posts, get angry, get depressed, mock him, proclaim that “he’s not my president.” But, I repeat: What can we do?

We can take a stand in our communities. We can come together in our communities, in our cities and towns and state loudly and publicly what we believe in and what we will do. The President-elect lost big in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco – and many other smaller cities across the nation. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, by unanimous vote, passed a heart-stirring resolution that serves as a template for communities across the country. Each of us, all of us, need to assess our own communities and see if we can follow San Francisco’s lead.

I begin here with how the resolution ends:

…although the United States will soon have a President who has demonstrated a lack of respect for the values we hold in the highest regard in San Francisco, it cannot change who we are, and it will never change our values. We argue, we campaign, we debate vigorously within San Francisco, but on these points we are 100 percent united. We will fight discrimination and recklessness in all its forms. We are one City. And we will move forward together.

And here is a sampling of the resolutions:

RESOLVED, That no matter the threats made by President-elect Trump, San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City. We will not turn our back on the men and women from other countries who help make this city great, and who represent over one third of our population;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That we will never back down on women’s rights, whether in healthcare, the workplace, or any other area threatened by a man who treats women as obstacles to be demeaned or objects to be assaulted;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That there will be no conversion therapy, no withdrawal of rights in San Francisco. We began hosting gay weddings twelve years ago, and we are not stopping now. And to all the LGBTQ people all over the country who feel scared, bullied, or alone: You matter. You are seen; you are loved; and San Francisco will never stop fighting for you;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That Black Lives Matter in San Francisco, even if they may not in the White House. And guided by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, we will continue reforming our police department and rebuilding trust between police and communities of color so all citizens feel safe in their neighborhoods;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That climate change is not a hoax, or a plot by the Chinese. In this city, surrounded by water on three sides, science matters. And we will continue our work on CleanPower, Zero Waste, and everything else we are doing to protect future generations;

Grassroots, folks. Let’s proclaim our values. Let’s stand by – and back up – our beliefs. What can we accomplish in our communities?

December 7, 2016   3 Comments

Life lessons on two wheels

bike tour selfieWhat do you think about on day three when you’ve been in the saddle for six and a half hours and there’s a big hill you didn’t expect looming ahead and your Bike Brain says it’s 97 degrees and you need to believe that this biking/ camping adventure is more than just a biking/ camping adventure?

Here’s what you think about… Allow me to present these nuggets of sweaty wisdom (with their bike-centric application, in parentheses):

 

Yes, you can have everything! Just not all at the same time.
(“Everything” in bike touring terms: generous shoulders, wind at your back, no traffic, scenic road, shade. Each one is a joy in itself; together, they are pure ecstasy – but they never occur together.)

When it looks like it can’t get any worse, it does.
(That first-day 95-degree heat becomes 97 on day 2 and 101 on the afternoon of day 3.)

When it feels like it will never get better, it does.
(Thanks to Chamois Butter applied liberally to nether regions.)

Don’t ruin a good experience by thinking about how fleeting it is.
(Ah, that glorious nano-second-of-relief patch of shade. Breath into it, lean into it, don’t mourn/curse its passing even before it passes.)

You have to do the hard miles to earn the easy miles.
(Self-explanatory, in life and on the bike.)

And in the end: It’s all good miles.
(The tough uphill ones, the blazing hot ones, the no-effort downhill swooping ones, the ones at the ragged end of a long day, the one’s in the cool of the morning with a stomach full of oatmeal. All of them.)

And, perhaps one nugget that has minimal application to every day life but did sustain (and entertain) me up an endless, merciless incline:

Whoever wrote “the hills are alive with the sound of music” never biked up one.

August 3, 2016   3 Comments