Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Falling Down

It's painful to watch athletes fall in the Olympics. They’ve spent most of their lives training for an event that lasts only minutes (or only seconds in some cases). In many of the winter sports at Sochi,  falls are difficult to avoid. I've seen speed skaters, leaning into turns at impossible angles, whose skates slip out from under them and send them crashing into the wall. I can't imagine how much it would sting to fall with the world watching when you are among the best in the world.

In two of the sports I participated in as a kid—ice skating and gymnastics—I fell a lot. Once, in gymnastics, I was doing a vault that is basically a flip using the vault (feet bounce off the springboard, hands land on the vault and push off, feet land on the mat). While I was upside down with my hands on the vault, my hands were too close to the edge, and they slipped off, so my back slammed down on the vault. It hurt, I was embarrassed and frustrated, and I probably cried, but I knew I should get back up and try again so that I wouldn’t be scared of the vault forever. So I tried again--and made the exact same mistake. My back came crashing down on the vault again. But only a few people were watching me, and I never thought I'd be a world-class gymnast. I don’t remember what happened after that—whether I did it a third time and succeeded or whether that was my last vault of the day—but I know I did the same vault over and over later, and I was a slightly tougher girl after that.

Fast forward to college, where I was still not destined for the Olympics, but I was a serious athlete: a rower. When I was a senior, my team was introduced to the concept of weightlifting until failure. We had lifted weights before, but it was usually a certain number of sets, with 20 or 30 reps per set. Now, the University of Michigan's professional weight trainers had determined that, based on what we wanted our muscles to be capable of, our weightlifting should change. We were supposed to lift enormous amounts of weight, but for only a few repetitions, until our muscles failed--until we physically could not complete another rep. It was a new concept: If we didn't fail within 6 to 8 reps, we weren't lifting enough weight, so we'd have to pile on some more. Each time we made our way around the weight room, we taxed several muscle groups until they were spent.

It was the first time failure had been my goal. It changed my outlook on failure--it seemed less scary. If I could get stronger by failing on purpose repeatedly, I realized failure shouldn't be my biggest fear.

I loved lifting until failure, as I loved my whole experience competing as a collegiate athlete: pushing myself to the brink, past what I thought I was capable of.

Now, I realize that failure is necessary sometimes. If you haven't failed, you haven't tried hard enough. And, as my cross country coach used to say, anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

The athletes at the Olympics are the best in the world. The courage they needed to get where they are, and the courage it must take to get up after a fall with your country and the rest of the world watching, is astounding. The fact that they made it to the Olympics and put it all on the line is immeasurably impressive, regardless of whether they fell down or fell short of their goals.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

What I Want in a Woman

Allison's recent post about "submissive" women made me think about my own views on a woman's role in a marriage. I am a firm believer that a woman is an equal partner in a marriage. I could not imagine being in a relationship that required me to always submit to my partner, so I cannot imagine expecting that from my spouse.

I am not a woman, so I cannot speak for women. However, I can say what I want in a woman:

I want a woman who reads.

I want a woman who is strong-willed and unafraid to voice her opinions.

I want a woman who has hope in a time of despair.

I want a woman who sings, even if off-key.

I want a woman who tolerates my singing because it is definitely off-key.

I want a woman who believes in me.

I want a woman who believes in herself but who also knows that I will always have her back.

I want a woman who laughs with me.

I want a woman who can make me laugh, especially at myself.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why the "submissive woman" role is damaging, not just offensive

In my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, more people hewed to traditional gender roles: The woman stayed home to take care of the kids, and the man brought home the bacon and made the decisions as the head of the household. I understand that because it was the norm. Now, even if the man brings home the bacon, both people usually have some input about what to do with it.

But in recent months I’ve heard people my own age say that it’s better for women to be submissive to men. One conversation started in reaction to Gabrielle Reece divulging that she is submissive to her husband. My first reaction to the people I know was: Oh, they’re kidding! But they weren’t. I have tried to wrap my brain around that, but I can’t. 

I understand people tending toward traditional husband-wife roles. If your husband wants to take care of the finances and make most of the big decisions and that works for you, why not? If you feel more comfortable running things by him before making decisions yourself, sure. If you’re better at cooking and he’s better at choosing which car to buy, fine. I get that. But being submissive? That’s another thing entirely. That means that when you disagree, the husband is always right in the end. And that your life is not completely your own—it is your own as long as your husband approves.

I don’t mean to suggest that I go out and make major decisions without any regard for what Jeff thinks. It’s not like I come home and tell him, “Hey, I’m going to Rio for a week—you don’t mind, do you?” We talk about almost everything before making decisions. When we disagree about what to do, one of us has to give, and we are OK with that. That’s how a partnership works.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Beauty Within the Beltway: Roosevelt Island

A path on Theodore Roosevelt Island. I took one less traveled.

D.C. area residents, like most Americans, work long and hard hours. Living inside the Beltway is expensive. In many families, both parents have to work to pay their mortgages or rent. Then they are stuck juggling their kids' schedules on top of their work schedules. We stress ourselves out in order to sustain our lives, but it is too easy to forget to live our lives. 

We escape to movies, television, and our wonderful bars and restaurants, but we sometimes miss the beauty that surrounds us within the Beltway. Take a morning or afternoon off for the sole purpose of allowing yourself to escape.

Theodore Roosevelt Island (1/23/14)

Snow has paralyzed the region this week, and today is the first time most people are at work and school. I have been homebound with my two young daughters and am yearning to go outside...alone. I had not been to Theodore Roosevelt Island in years, so I decided to drive up the George Washington Parkway from Alexandria to experience a little nature.

Theodore Roosevelt Island is just south of the Key Bridge on the Virginia side of the river. When driving, it is only accessible from the northbound lanes of the GW Parkway. It is also accessible from a walkway that descends from the Rosslyn side of the Key Bridge.

I pull into the parking lot at about 10:00 a.m., and the only other vehicle is a park service pickup truck. I park next to it near the footbridge that leads to the island. As I cross the bridge, the two park service workers pass me. I say, "Good morning," and watch them continue on toward their pickup while I stop to take in the view from the bridge. They are the last people I will see until I return to my car.

On the north side of the bridge, a gaggle of geese appears to be frozen into the ice. They honk as if they are sounding horns in distress. I know that they are not stuck, but I wait until few of them stand up and walk about before I can continue on to the island without fearing for their safety.

Ice Geese

After crossing the bridge, I feel the closest thing to solitude that I have ever felt inside the Beltway. I hear the hum of cars on the parkway, but the geese, perhaps to pay me back for my concern for their safety, conspire to drown out the noise with their continuous honking. The only sound of civilization they cannot subdue is the occasional passenger jet passing overhead on its descent to National Airport.

Each step I take cracks the ice and snow underfoot. It sounds as if I am walking on eggshells. The cold air fills my lungs, but a sense of calm fills me. Serenity.

I continue along the shore and marvel at the tree branches that have been weighed down into the ice, half submerged in the frozen water. A large rock sticks out from the ice as if it was trapped under the ice and had pushed its way into the air.

Branches weighed down into the ice

I lumber on to the north end of the island and find a small, frozen beach with a view of the Key Bridge and Georgetown University. If the ice were thicker, I would be able to walk across the river to touch the bridge.

Key Bridge and Georgetown from a frozen beach

I continue on into the frozen silence and forget about everything. I imagine the trees as people. The tallest, straightest trees with their branches jutting out at perfect angles are the CEOs, Army generals, and corporate law firm partners of the tree world. They reach so high that they appear to nearly touch the sun. They are majestic for the heights they have achieved.

Then I look around and notice the smaller, crooked trees, the ones that had to twist and turn in their struggle to find sunlight under the shadows of the giants. They are the artists, the musicians, the writers, or are they the kid who was dealt a bad hand and made the most of it. These trees went against convention and created their own paths. And they survived.

I remember civilization when I find myself looking across at the Whitehurst Freeway. Traffic ensnarls the cars. Their trapped drivers are probably urging the traffic to move so they continue on towards their destinations. The Washington Harbour rises above the ice. Its blue-tinted windows make it look like a futuristic ice fortress from a science fiction movie.

The Washington Harbour

I come to the long wooden boardwalk that passes over a frozen swamp. The swamp is full of sprawling green life in the warmer months, but the only signs of life now are the squirrels scrambling on the branches above and the birds chirping in the trees.

As I walk along the boardwalk, I am tempted to take my boots off and walk barefoot in the snow for a few steps, something I had not tried since I was a teenager. I realize I am far from the car and have nothing to dry my feet. I give in to reason and decide to keep my boots on rather than risk frostbite.

The boardwalk through the frozen swamp

In the middle of the long boardwalk, a walkway extends into a large pond in the middle of the island. The cross-country ski tracks that I have been following along the boardwalk veer onto the walkway. I follow the ski tracks along the walkway to the middle of the pond.

The pond's frozen water is a dusty green. Reeds protrude from the water and plastic water bottles are suspended in the ice. I hear an occasional crackling sound. I cannot tell if it is ice cracking under the sun's limited heat, branches cracking under the weight of the snow, or animals disturbing the silence, but I decide to return to the main longer sure if I am alone.

Reeds protruding from the pond

The gaps between the barren trees give me a view of the Washington Monument and Kennedy Center rising up from the wilderness that I have not seen before. I wander on until I reach the southern end of the island, where the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge carries the speeding traffic of I-66 above my head.

After rounding the southern tip of the island, I begin my walk back to the footbridge to the mainland. Before I reach the bridge, I spot Theodore Roosevelt's Memorial Plaza through the trees. I follow the path towards the center of the island where the plaza sits.

The snow-covered ground and leafless trees give me the feeling that I have discovered a long-forgotten monument. Having not seen another human being for more than an hour, I enjoy this moment alone with President Roosevelt, and his words etched in four giant granite tablets titled, "Youth," "Manhood," "Nature," and "The State."

Theodore Roosevelt

Alone, I am able to stare at the details of his statute, the wrinkles and what appear to be scars on his face and the wrinkles on his coat and pants. After walking around his statute and viewing it from every angle, I walk back towards the footbridge and the warmth of my car. I am relieved to see the geese have flown off.

Theodore Roosevelt was a conservationist and outdoorsman who understood the value of time spent in the outdoors. After a trip through this small piece of wilderness surrounded by the stresses and demands of society, I realized how wise Theodore Roosevelt was.

So long, President Roosevelt

I look forward to my next trip to Theodore Roosevelt Island, but I know it is unlikely that I will find this much solitude again unless I return on a cold winter weekday. I hope I have that opportunity.

And the next time...the boots are coming off.