20 September 2006




Main Entry: ath·lete
Pronunciation: 'ath-"lEt, ÷'a-th&-"lEt
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin athleta, from Greek athlEtEs, from athlein to contend for a prize, from athlon prize, contest
: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina

For the first time in my life, I am finding an enthusiasm for athletics. I stop to think about why I never liked sports as a child and recall unpleasant moments of being the last kid picked for any team sport and of gym teachers with whistles around their necks yelling at me to do better, try harder. I was never good enough. I was never an athlete. I hated my body as a teenager and grew very fat and very, very depressed.

Not all of my early experiences with sports were unhappy ones. I loved swimming in the pool and learning yoga with a very patient instructor at the local YMCA. I can even remember having fun in gym class during kindergarden and first grade. But after lower elementary school, I suddenly felt inferior based upon my inability to run fast enough, kick or hit the ball well enough, play rough enough to keep up with the neighborhood gang and the kids at school. I wasn't competitive enough. At a certain point, I never even tried anymore. I did the minimum in gym and didn't play on any sports teams until one summer during high school when my best friend's mother found us a softball league which was less high-stakes competition in the town just one over from ours. We played as well as we could. Sometimes we won, and sometimes we lost. I enjoyed playing shortstop, but I wasn't a great hitter. It didn't matter.

But none of the physical activities I did really caught on with me except hiking in the outdoors. I wanted to be in wilderness, away from suburbs and away from the traffic and people. The problem was I wasn't able to go hiking often enough for it to be sufficient exercise. I had a poor diet at school, where I couldn't stand the food and so loaded up on sugar and starches. I didn't much like the healthy foods my mom fixed, but I made my best effort for her sake and snacked heavily in between meals.

That seems like so long ago. In fact it was half my life ago: 18 years. Today I don't even recognize my body when I glimpse myself in the mirror. It's like another person has grown in my place. It's been a five-year struggle, but finally I've managed to become a healthier, happier body as a result of learning how to exercise with weights and machines properly and of experimenting until I've finally found physical activities that I can love, not merely do competently. It helped to have a partner who was not only encouraging, but who actually took the time to show me how to safely use weights and machines and to demonstrate proper stretches.

After I made progress with the weights, abdominal stretches and such, I realized that I wanted to be athletic without the activity being so boring. Last year I began taking yoga after a 30-year hiatus. I actually remembered some of the poses and taking the class dredged up old memories of the young man who taught this YMCA class of five- and six-year olds about forming the poses of animals and trees (Hatha Yoga). I also remembered how much I loved the relaxation at the end, where he would have us imagine a glowing ball of blue light. This man must have been the Pied Piper, or how in the world did he get a class of bouncy preschoolers to lie down and relax?

My latest daring adventure into the world of sports is kayaking. My husband and I have gone out on at least one short kayaking paddle since the beginning of August. We began on our vacation in Central Coast California and have taken weekend trips to local rivers and creeks every weekend since our return. We took a half-day lesson in sea kayaking in Monterey Bay, and recently decided to go for the full one-day basics course. It's now that my muscles are looking toned and I'm beginning to sculpt myself into a real athlete for the first time. I can hardly believe it, but I'm falling in love with this sport. It allows my husband and I to spend time together, while combining our love of the outdoors with the enjoyment of freely moving through the water.

I think the noun "recreation" is a very appropriate word to summarize my feelings about this process. I am re-creating myself and relieving many of the angry feelings I had toward my body. The mind-body connection is so powerful that I feel like I am becoming a whole new "Me."

09 September 2006

Ecological Nostalgia

Ecology was a catchword at the time I was growing up in suburbia. It was the 1970s and all of the teachers were talking about recycling, backyard science, and saving the planet. I did school projects on solar power and learned to identify different types of rocks and minerals. In the summer my Mom gave me general science books like Linda Allison's The Reasons for Seasons, where I learned to think about the Earth as one of many planets moving through space. I could do my own experiments with light bulbs or house plants. Some of the more "way out" teachers even talked about Gaia--the idea that the Earth was a living organism. It was the time of the great gasoline crunch, with cars lined up around the block just to refuel. The anti-pollution ad campaign featuring Chief Iron Eyes Cody made me hate litter.

Is it any wonder that with such an upbringing I was drawn to such deep concern for the environment?

While I discarded my dream of becoming a geologist when I learned that my high school math scores were nowhere-near in the ballpark for getting into a decent college program, I have an abiding need to study and preserve nature.

I wonder where the enthusiasm about environmentalism, so vital in the 1960s and 1970s, has gone. The baby boomers still talk about it as they drive around the gas-gorging SUVs and sip their Starbucks from paper cups. The child in me sometimes feels a bit betrayed that all of those people who cared so much about the Earth have long forgotten what they taught me. The adult in me knows only too well that human nature is what it is. People talk, but they often don't listen--even to themselves.

How to keep that ecological sense alive is the problem I'm turning over in my brain today. How would I teach a generation of kids who only know iPods and downloads to unplug themselves long enough to sit embraced in the roots of a tree or notice the salty smell of the marshes on a summer's day? Sometimes I think the people around me rely so much on technology and on an environment created solely by humans that they forgotten about the real environment. The Earth is the only environment we have. If it goes, no technology will save us.

I'm as fascinated by technology as much as anyone, I suppose. I'm sure that many things I do are harmful to the planet's health. But I often stop to think about what life was like before all of the networking capabilities made it possible to easily shut out the Nature in our lives or to simply pollute without thinking about any cause and effect. It's the lack of consciousness that concerns me most. You can't realize you are doing harm if you are oblivious.

Maybe my problem is that I happened to be naive enough to believe what my teachers taught me in elementary school, even if they didn't believe it themselves.