Friday, April 5, 2024

The Mother of All Ouija Boards

I'm not the nostalgic type, but today would have been my Mom's 90th birthday.

I always hate when people say things like that. 'My Dad would have been 133 years old today', or 'Aunt Jane would have been making pierogis for Easter, if she hadn't wandered behind the tractor the day that Uncle Jimmy was backing it out of the barn'.

Also for the record: I'm not religious, I don't believe in the supernatural, and I know - just as sure as everyone 'knows' what happens after we die - that when you're dead, you're dead. The End. No knocks on walls. No secret messages played through the radio. Those 'angels' that you see when you take a video on your cell phone? Those are DUST PARTICLES darting around your house. You don't need an exorcist, you need a vacuum cleaner. 

So what, IMO, happens after you die? It will feel EXACTLY as it did all those years before you were born. Same thing, different side of the teeny weeny little slice of consciousness we call life. Remember what that was like? Of course you don't, and you won't know after you die, either. 

So why was I compelled to go into the junk closet in the basement, the one with all the things that I need to get rid of but just can't, for whatever reason? And why was I compelled to rifle through the old games and puzzles and pull out a Ouija board, of all things? I cannot tell you why. I just know that it's what I did, on this day that would have been my Mom's 90th birthday.

The thing about Ouija boards is this: when you get a group of people who are putting the teeniest bit of pressure on the little plastic triangle with the hole cut out for spelling purposes, there is some sort of energy that causes the thing to move. I'm not saying that there might not be some clown in the group that is directly responsible for the 'voices from the beyond' e.g. maybe deliberately or subconsciously moving the piece around the board to get to the 'answer' they want. And I certainly don't believe AT ALL that there is a presence from the otherworld guiding the hands to reveal a message. But what I do think is that the collective (will/apprehension/excitement) of the Ouija players allows for the thing (what's it called, anyway?) to move around the board as if by mysterious forces. Kind of like how my fingers often write words on paper, like this, that don't seem to come from my own head.

I digress. There was nobody home but me. There was no earthly reason for me to pull out the Ouija board, especially since I couldn't "play" it the way it was intended. You need more than one person driving. But I took it out of the box. Put it on the table. Put the plastic triangle thingy (I just learned it's called a "planchette". Look it up.) on the board, in the empty space between the letters and the numbers. I take a sip of my tepid afternoon coffee. I rested my fingers very lightly on the edge of the planchette. 

I waited.

As I waited, I thought about my Mom. At first, my thoughts went to those last few years of her life, the ones spent in a gradual decline in health, and ending with a last dose of morphine in a nursing home. I try to forget those years but their memory has burned a hole in my brain that can't be repaired. Those memories come up first, every time. 

Then I worked backwards. The years after my Dad died, before her Parkinson's diagnosis, when she lived alone in her little home, by herself, for almost 20 years. Stubborn and strong, she kept herself busy with anything she could. Volunteering, working part time in a church office, creating projects for herself. Eventually being a grandma - probably the thing in her life that she most cherished was being a grandma. My fingers tap the planchette. 

And before that: the fun years with my Dad, all of the family together. Road trips, day trips, teenage years, swim lessons, piano lessons, arguments around the supper table. Chaos. Life is noisy, messy, and loud - I've come to this realization only lately. Credit the screaming baby on the airplane. Loud and fussy = very much alive. Life is not meant to be quiet, or still. Still life means a bowl of fruit and maybe a dead goose in some oil on canvas from a bygone era. Inanimate objects on a flat canvas - this is not life! Life doesn't stand still, life is constant movement. The planchette still hasn't moved.

All those birthdays we celebrated. The cake, the off key singing. The cards and gifts. Celebrations of life, while we're still alive. 

I don't know what I was thinking, that I was drawn to this stupid board. I can remember my Mom without feeling the need to 'channel' her. I have photos I can look at, plenty of memories buried deep in the grey matter that will come out when I need them. She's always there, somewhere, when I need her. Like she always was. 

I take my hands off the planchette. Pick up my coffee cup and now it's room temperature. Mom always drank her coffee black.

The planchette moves. I stop mid-sip and see it slide it's way to the bottom of the board. 

"Good Bye"

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Just Try: Preparing your mind to do hard things

The more the road tipped upward, the more I felt my willpower slipping away. Each pedal stroke felt like it would be the last one before I convinced myself that I had to stop, that I can't do this. I had been here before, after all, and the voice in my head that gave me permission to bail out last time was getting louder. 

Is it 'quitting', really, if I just stop for a moment, take a short break, and then hop back on?

Maybe not, but where is the satisfaction in overcoming a challenge when you end up throwing in the towel (again)? I had to remind myself I was - up until a moment ago - very determined to finish this climb without stopping. It was a driving force to return to this same place, to ride up this same road. I was craving redemption.

We train our bodies to do hard things. We generally have a good sense of what we're in for, and we prepare for it. What we're not so good at is preparing our thought processes to overcome self-doubt.

Mental skills training has become a hot topic for me lately. After attending the Endurance Exchange back in early January, and hearing what Dr. Scott Frey had to say about perception of effort, I find myself going down the rabbit hole.

This is not a new interest for me. I've been fascinated by how the brain controls so many aspects of athletic performance, and not just perception of effort. Motivation, willingness to do the work (some would say 'suffer'),  the things we tell ourselves during training and racing - all of it plays a critical role in outcome. And yet we rarely give mental training the same attention we give to our strength and endurance training.

The power of our thought processes to overcome difficult challenges is impressive, and undeniable. My good friend Jill told me that when the going gets tough (on the bike), she tells herself to JUST TRY. 

Many words can be written about how we're supposed to be able to swap in a positive thought (JUST TRY) when our brains are in the throes of overwhelming negativity (I can't do this). 

The simple answer is that it takes practice. Mental toughness and positive self talk are trainable responses - but rarely are they automatic. If you want to do hard things - and I do* - then you have to teach your brain to not put up roadblocks, or give you easy exit ramps. Start by changing the inner dialogue. 

When I knew for sure that this was the last possible pedal stroke, I thought of Jill's mantra and I actually said aloud (through my last dying gasps): JUST TRY.  It immediately shifted my mental focus from "I have to stop" to "Can I do this?" I wasn't sure if I could, but there was only one way to find out.

Will you try it? Will you fail? Will you succeed? I don't know. Only one way to find out.


My friend and fellow Stelleri athlete, Pat Spencer, is currently working on a mental skills coaching program for women athletes. Stay tuned for more info when this becomes available. Also check out Pat's services through her mental skills coaching company website, Getting Your Mind in Gear. 

*It's been too long since I last rode the epic climbs of Death Valley, but there are plans in the works to change that, in just over a year from now. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

What I learned from a 30-day yoga 'challenge'

Laz brings his yoga props and shares my mat

At the start of a new year, all kinds of opportunities exist for establishing new behaviors.

The more popular 'challenges' typically revolve around alcohol, nutrition, or some exercise habit. I have no interest in any of those. 

I don't necessarily love anything that resembles, even remotely, a 'resolution' - especially those perennial ones. (Seriously, if you're my age and you're still making the same annual resolutions around basic healthy habits, you aren't being honest with yourself.)

And yet I found myself drawn to the 30-day Yoga Journey, an annual (and free!) daily yoga session from the fabulous Adriene Mishler (and her mat-mate cattle dog, Benji), offered every January. 

Why yoga, and why this? I've been an on-and-off practitioner of yoga for many years. I almost always find it to be just the thing my body needs on any given day - whether it's a stretch, or a balance hold, or a functional movement that my rather uni-planar lifestyle isn't accustomed to doing.

The operative 'almost' is what makes my yoga practice so sporadic. Like the time I took a class and all we did was chair pose. Or the 'lunchtime break' class that exceeded its time limit and made me late for an afternoon commitment. I expect to leave yoga with more 'zen' than I came in with, but that's not reality. 

In any case, the Yoga Journey gave me something different and new to do, and I am a firm believer that novelty is what keeps us from going out of our minds. I  know that shaking up my daily routine gives me the opportunity to think differently about how I move about my day, and that simple change can be the difference in my perception of 'good day' vs. 'bad day'. 

So I started every morning in January with yoga, and there are some things I learned along the way:

  • I like yoga that only lasts 20 minutes or so. The shorter, the better. 
  • Shivasana is over-rated. We didn't really do it, and I certainly didn't miss it. 
  • I have really bad balance, particularly on one side of my body.
  • I really, really have lost a lot of flexibility over the years, but that is about to change.
  • Knowing that after yoga I will be making a pot of French Press coffee makes the Yoga Journey that much sweeter.
  • If I can get on my mat expediently, I can have coffee sooner. 
  • If I truly feel the need to learn Crow Pose, I have to work at it daily. Or I can be honest with myself (see above) and just give up and move on.
  • Adriene's calm voice thanking me for giving up my precious time and energy to 'meet her on the mat' every day made me realize that my time and energy are precious - and limited. This epiphany helped me cut through the clutter, so to speak, and gave me strength to say "no" to requests for my time and energy that didn't serve me. I hope to remember this lesson for a long time.
  • I can focus my attention, albeit temporarily, to my yoga practice in spite of morning chaos (otherwise known as Laszlo, see photo)
  • I truly hope to continue a daily morning practice for the way it makes me feel grounded.

Wish me luck in my commitment to this practice. Or better yet, join me!

If you took the Yoga Journey, I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

What's old is new again - reclaiming bike love through the group ride

It had been a VERY long time since I last rode with an organized weeknight group. The reasons for my long stay away are so varied and complicated that it's almost painful to list them out. They include bits and pieces of real and imagined hurdles including competing priorities, lack of interest, frustration with group abilities and speed, shifting group alliances, the burden of leading group rides, other people's skittishness towards riding outside, and perhaps a touch of agoraphobia that started during the pandemic and lingered for way too long.

During this time, I told myself that it was better to ride solo, better to ride during the day (this is a newer option since I started working remotely), better to have the flexibility to change my intended route on the fly, or change my mind about riding altogether if I just wasn't motivated. 

But there was always this nagging feeling that I was missing something. I know that riding with a strong, fast group always had the power to make me stronger and faster. Riding with a group also instills the self-discipline that the years of non-group riding have eroded: when I commit to a group ride, I ride THEIR route, climb THEIR hills, go at THEIR pace. I don't have the option to change or shorten the route or take a sudden detour to avoid the hills. Having the group to ride with brings with it some accountability - to them, to myself. To be honest, my cycling fitness has been on the decline since the years since I last rode with a fast group - and without that fitness, it's not as much fun for me.

Last week, I decided that enough was enough. I put a gag on all that head noise that prevented me from joining the group ride, and I showed up for the ABC Thursday Night Fast Ride. (Granted, I started with the C+ riders, not quite ready to throw myself into the deep end, but willing to dip a toe back into these waters). The ride lived up to its name (the C+ group is not slow!), and I left that night with a satisfaction about riding that I hadn't felt in a long, long time.

That evening, after winding down, the endorphin glow (or was it my twitching leg muscles?) kept me awake. I thought about the old friends I reconnected with tonight, and the new ones I made through the power of shared experiences. I thought about how I was needlessly apprehensive about my ability to keep up with the group, and the camaraderie of the group that I didn't realize I missed so much. I though about all those years lost in trying to find my 'bike mojo', only to reclaim it once again in the simple act of showing up for a group ride. 

The outside ride season is ending in a couple short months, but maybe, by the time we finish for 2023, I'll be riding with the B's.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Antarctica: Those days at sea that drag on and on...

If you've been following my blog posts from my adventure in Antarctica (thank you!) you will have noticed that I'm not posting a chronological log of events, nor am I listing off the places we've been or the animal and bird counts. And you will have noticed that my posts have been sporadic, sometimes photos appear at a later time, if at all. This is because the data connectivity on the ship is rather expensive and limited, and it's spotty, and we don't always have a whole lot of time for things like quiet contemplation and blogging. What follows, then, are stories and photos that I wanted to post during the trip, but have ended up in the post-adventure pile where I have more space and time to write. I hope you will continue to enjoy these stories and photos, and I welcome your questions and comments.

What do we do when we're at sea all day? This trip consisted of 5 total days on the Drake Passage (2 and a half days in each direction between Ushuaia and the Antarctic Peninsula), as well as time at sea when we weren't able to get out for a landing or Zodiac due to weather conditions. We were fortunate enough to have a lot of off-ship excursions, but the time at sea can be quite the drag.

Jean Pennycook, Expedition Team ornithologist. Jean was definitely one of the highlights of this trip. 

What do we do when we're at sea all day? I can personally attest to being a little frustrated when I couldn't get off the ship. I mean, what am I supposed to do with myself, besides:

Look for whales and birds and other wildlife, update my journal, review my photographs, talk to other passengers, attend any and every educational presentation available, hobnob with the Expedition Team researchers and scientists and ask a lot of questions, nap, read, visit the Polar Boutique, drink a lot of coffee, tea, and cocoa, venture out on deck, as long as the weather doesn't prohibit, watch the sea with binoculars, write out postcards, go to the spa, sauna, hot tub, or gym*, peruse books and games in the Observation Deck's library, clown around, challenge our balance when the sea gets rough.

Let's hope we get off this ship soon before I lose my mind...

*The gym was a non-starter. The only time available to actually use the gym was when we were at sea, and I couldn't imagine trying to run on a treadmill or ride a bike when the ship was rolling and rocking through the Drake Passage. The very thought of it makes me nauseated.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Whale breath

Early into this expedition, we were taught to look for whales out at sea by watching for the blow of their breath. Expedition Team member Annie Inglis is a marine biologist, and she has a keen eye for spotting the spout from far off, and identifying the whale from the blow pattern and shape.

As we crossed the Drake and headed toward the polar region, whale sightings became more and more frequent, and they also got a lot closer to our ship.

There are so many whales here, humpbacks, of course, but also fin, minke, and pilot whales. We would see them cruising alongside us, ‘logging’ (sleeping at the surface) as we were anchored offshore, even witnessing a “bubble net” feeding. We recognized the humpbacks’ breathing patterns (3 breaths and then a dive), which was our cue that we would soon see a fluke as the whale dove deep (get your camera ready!). But the coolest experience was watching them from the Zodiac, where we were close enough to hear them breathe, sometimes using the sound of their breath to identify their position, and to follow and watch them do what whales do. Mostly it was them simply gliding gracefully by, hardly causing a ripple on the water as they swam right past.

Seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat was a humbling experience,  and what a privilege for us visitors to their world.

From Glacier to Glass: “Ice Fishing” in Antarctica

During one of our Zodiac excursions, our pilot Justin and Expedition Team member Jean fished out a huge block of glacier ice from sea. 

This was no ordinary ice! Although there are blocks of ice and ice floes and icebergs all around us, there is one special form of ice that caught the eye of our team members.

From a distance, it looks solid black, as if a block of obsidian were floating on the water. But as you get closer, you realize that it is almost solidly crystal clear - the black is just a reflection of the water.

This is GLACIER ICE, the bits that broke off as the glaciers slowly chugged down the mountains and landed in the sea. Due to tens of thousands of years of compression, there is very little air entrapped in the solid block of ice, which makes it look like a hunk of crystal.

We hauled the block of ice into the Zodiac, and later it ended up at the bar to be used in very special cocktails that evening. It was delicious!