Saturday, January 26, 2013

Everyone Should be Incompetent Sometime

That is, I think every adult should try something completely new every few years. If you don't, how would you get to experience that moment when you realize that you know absolutely nothing. Or worse, that everything you know is wrong, all your instincts incorrect, your movements backwards and inside out. Every time you experience this, you gain countless amounts of empathy for every person you have to deal with in your life who you might otherwise be inclined to view as  incompetent themselves. Instead, you realize that we all have varying degrees of knowledge about different subjects, and at any given time in the situation of the moment, you may be the master, or you may be the newborn, helpless and incomplete.

As a black belt in karate, I could be basking in the feeling that I have Achieved Something. Arrived Somewhere. Hold some vast store of knowledge that I didn't hold before. Of course, most anyone who has achieved the rank of black belt knows that it's just the opposite. It's more like holding open a door to the vast yawning abyss of all that you don't know in your martial art. It's a dawning realization that even your entire lifetime would not be enough to master all of the skills encompassed in your study. That you have barely scratched the surface.

On top of that, my son recently convinced me to join him in studying Wing Chun, a form of Kung Fu. Now I should point out that all of my training in Karate prepares me to be absolutely incompetent in Wing Chun. I would probably be better off if I had no martial arts training whatsoever. When I'm punching, my Karate instinct is to bring my hand back into the chamber position and then fire it off using my hips and whole body to throw a big old punch, focusing on a fist that is parallel to the floor with the striking surface being the first two knuckles.

Which of course is absolutely nothing like a Wing Chun punch, which uses a vertical fist, no chamber, no big hips, short and fast, nothing of what I already know. And likewise the other strikes and blocks in Wing Chun are very different from what I have studied, leaving me basically feeling like I did on my first day as a white belt in Karate - a newborn, knowing nothing, an empty vessel. Or worse, not even an empty vessel. I first have to empty myself, which is much harder to do than you'd think.

Still, I'm loving this new focus, this new way to turn myself inside out. A new opportunity to still my mind, to unlearn and to learn anew. And when I take it back to my Karate classes, I find myself better prepared to understand what I am studying there. My focus in preparing for my 2nd degree black belt is a "package" of 10 kata (or forms), and these kata are all influenced by White Crane Kung Fu, which is different than Wing Chun, but shares some similarities. In essence, I'm learning the origins of moves that were folded into Shudokan karate many years ago.

As I study both arts, I find myself wrapping back around, like the tails of the yin yang symbol, into a place of understanding. A hard art, a soft art. An intercepting fist, a redirecting touch. Both effective in their own way, both with a place in my body and mind.

I'm learning to be empty, and I'm learning to be full.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Ability to Break Through Our Ceiling

The oppressive grey fog that has blanketed us this week could be seen as a metaphor. There are times in life when we can't see a path upwards, when our goals feel obscured, we feel boxed in, pushed down, unable to move. All too often though, the grey matter that stands between us and our visions and dreams is quite literally all in our heads. So how do we find a way to break through, up and out to the sunny vistas that we desire for our life?

A run this weekend with my hubby gave me pause to think about how firmly we see our barriers above us, and how yet they are often the thinnest of layers, easily broken through with a little effort.

We started out in the grayest of gray cloud banks, the forest air literally dense with frozen water. In places, the trail was a skating rink of black ice, in other areas it was blanketed in fallen ice crystals from the trees above. But as we steadily worked our way up the ridgeline, the thick mist began to lighten, then to positively glow with a lovely pastel radiance. The air around us became luminous and the snow reflected the pale light so the ground beneath our feet felt like it was glowing.

All of a sudden above us through the trees, beams of golden light shot out through the mist. Although we hadn't planned on it, I knew we needed to take a detour from the trail and head upwards to the top of the butte. Hubby was not so convinced. The trail was treacherous, and as it got steeper it became increasingly impossible to navigate. But I knew that where there were sunbeams, there must be sun, so up up we went.
Sure enough, once we arrived at the top, we could see that we had broken through the layer of grey and were now on top of an ocean of clouds stretching in all directions across the valley below. What had once seemed like an impenetrable ceiling was now beneath us. Although the frigid air below had chilled us to the bitter bone, we stripped down to t-shirts at the top and basked in the warmth like lizards. Sadly, we were on a timeline, so we had only a few short minutes to enjoy the top. I inhaled deeply, taking in the defrosting earth, the unmistakable smell of green growing things, warm dirt. All the way down into the fogline, I sounded like a yoga practitioner gone bonkers, trying to savor those smells before they were frozen into so many impenetrable crystals.

So, when the grey closes in around you, and the walls above feel too thick, what gets you to break through? For me, it's often my training. It might not feel like it at the time, but every time you push your boundaries, you  in turn become less bounded. When you know that your limits are malleable, you can make yourself work all the harder to move them back.

Even on this run, the fact that we had run before, run many winding trails up and down the ridgeline, enabled us to decide on the spur of the moment to run up the mountain. Running up a mountain is not something everyone can do. Most folks would be gasping and wheezing after a minute or two of such effort. So our prior hard work paid off in allowing us this moment of freedom above the clouds.

When relatives, co-workers, or friends express doubt or dismay over your training, it's nice to remember that there are these wonderful times when it pays off in spades. When the grey ceiling that everyone thinks is immovable can actually be broken. By you.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fifty Shades of Grey

I think I've seen all fifty shades of grey in the sky this week, but not one ounce of blue. My run today on a trail through the misty, frozen woods was hauntingly beautiful, but brought little but chill to my heart. My mood drops, only picking itself up to little spikes of anger or irritation, then flattening out again to a dull flat sameness.

I admit, my heart is tied to the sunshine. Even with the cold, if those rays are falling on my face, I'm good. Like the rest of my generation, I sang along with John Denver and his "Sunshine on my shoulders". Truer words were never written.

I suppose what makes this week even worse is the feeling of betrayal. Oh sure, I know better. I live in the Pacific Northwest. When the weatherman issues a chart that looks like this, I should know enough not to pin my hopes on it. But is one tiny ray through the clouds too much to ask for? Today was supposed to be that little round yellow globe with the number 52 beside it. Instead, on my run I noticed that the plants alongside the trail were rimed with ice that has not melted once this week. Another runner said his portable thermometer read 33 F, and that was at noon.

Still, I am fortunate to have accumulated over the years an arsenal of cold weather running clothing. I can be completely comfortable, and even become warm, while running in the fog-chilled damp 33 degree air. Without that, I truly would go insane, so I guess it's time to thank God for small blessings. And perhaps beg for a bit of sunshine while I'm at it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Swimming Technique For The Win

As a swim coach, my greatest satisfaction comes from helping people make swimming easier, faster, and more enjoyable by fixing technique problems that are slowing them down and/or causing injuries.

This week was breakthrough week for many of my swimmers, and nothing makes me happier.

In my Monday Swim Conditioning class, we use a performance metric called the Swim Golf (sometimes abbreviated as SWOLF):

Each Swimmer goes 50 yards, counting their strokes (each arm stroke counts as one). They also keep track of their time for the 50 yards. Their Swim Golf Score is Time (in seconds) plus Strokes. Just like in regular Golf, under 70 is optimal. The idea with swim golf is to swim as efficiently as possible as fast as possible. If you swim fast by churning the water, you may get a faster time, but in the long run the energy hit will be too great to keep up. So a balance of long smooth strokes and stroke turnover is needed to get a good swim golf score.
EVERY ONE of my swimmers improved their Swim Golf scores!!!  My least experienced swimmer came down from 115 to 95, and my most experienced shaved off 7 points from 70 to 63, and everyone in the middle experienced similar improvements. This comes from weekly drills where we focus on improving different elements of the stroke for greater efficiency. And it works!

The next day, two of my Masters swimmers told me they had hit PR's this week. Yeah!

And then in a private swim lesson, a swimmer had a wonderful breakthrough. We were working on hand entry - on angling the hand down for a nice entry and a smooth long glide. As we worked through the drills and integrated it into her stroke, she commented that yeah, this was nice and all but she was swimming so slow, how could she hold this technique and actually get faster?

In answer, I timed her while she was swimming. When I told her how fast she was swimming, she wouldn't believe me until she watched the clock herself: She was six seconds faster per 100 than her normal pace, and all with so much less effort, it felt like she was swimming "slow". Now that's one of those moments where I jump up and down on the deck like a demented cheerleader.

The bottom line people: if you want to get faster in swimming, don't just crank out the yards. And don't get your buddy who used to swim in high school 20+ years ago to look at your stroke and give you a few tips. Find a masters group or a good swim coach and work with them to improve your technique. You'll save yourself some future swimming-related injuries, swim smoother, faster, and have more fun!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Twelve Blog Posts of Post-Christmas

I think I should get used to doing mini blog posts. It seems like I think I have to have some big involved idea in order to post, and then I never have the time to sit down and write something big and involved. It may be that one paragraph bursts are all I can do for awhile. Since it's now been 12 days since I posted, here are twelve things that happened recently that I didn't manage to write about (in no particular order):

1. My son started college. Wow, can't believe I typed that. One of the benefits/drawbacks of homeschooling is that the kids are ready to move on pretty early. He's currently enrolled at our local community college, pursing a certification in IT, preparatory to continuing on to a computer science degree. Since he's 16, and doesn't have a driver's license yet, this week involved getting him used to the bus schedules he'll need to keep track of, learning his way around campus, buying textbooks and other new things, and most importantly making sure he has enough food packed, and that all the food he needs for a day and evening can actually FIT in a backpack - sheesh, 16 year old boys eat a lot. On the first day, he informed me that the lunch I packed (two sandwiches, a container of yogurt, an apple, a banana, three fruit leathers and a protein bar) had all disappeared by lunchtime and he was hungry by the afternoon.

2. The heater broke on our club's pool. By Wednesday, it was at a chilly 75 degrees, and I had the BEST WORKOUT in forever. I forgot how much I love swimming in cold pools. I came out invigorated, and extremely pleased that in descending sets of 100's, I was able to hold 1:15, 1:12, and 1:08 respectively. Woot! My swimming has been getting stronger and stronger lately, but this was definitely the best I've felt in a very long time.

3. My hubby was home for 4 straight weeks. Now that was weird! Normally he's gone just about every other week, it was nice to have him back with us for awhile. We got some good bike rides and runs in together, and the occasional sneak out to Starbucks for a mocha.

4. I get to  go see my sister and brother-in-law in a few weeks in Seattle. I wish we lived closer!

5. This is unprecedented: Our weather report says 10 straight days of sunshine are coming our way. In January. In Oregon. Yeah baby!

6. Chip Kelly is going to keep coaching the Duck football team.

7. I've managed to lose 15 pounds since last March, and kept it off over the holidays. Better for my (recovering) knee.

8.  There's a heart-shaped lake I see all the time on a local bike ride. Love it.

9.  I CAN RUN. Well, I'm up to 9 miles a week. That's very good news.

10. Immediately after her performance run as Veruca Salt in the musical Willy Wonka, Asa has auditioned for the musical Aladdin. Because we can't have a month or two without shuttling to rehearsals now can we?

11. I saw Les Mis. I loved it. Again. Just like I fell in love with it when I first read it (26 years ago, in French Literature class), first saw it on stage (20 years ago), and last saw it on stage (last year's 25th anniversary touring company). Now I have the CD on endless repeat on my car stereo, can't get the songs out of my head. I'm reading it to the kids (in English this time) as our bedtime story.

12.  I re-wrote my resume for the first time since 1988 and submitted it for a job in the computer field. Not saying just what yet, but cross your fingers for me.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2013, Day 1

Happy New Year Indeed! If this is the way 2013 is going to go, bring it on. I started the day with some of the brave Aquaducks, turning out to swim the "year in 50's". Up this year: 113 x 50 on the :45. Even though I am (obviously!) getting older every year, this workout has actually been getting easier to do. Since this year I've been managing to swim 3 - 4 times a week, it was a piece of cake. I even managed to throw some back, breast, and butterfly in there and still make the interval.

And special bonus: this is the first year my Ironhubby has turned out to do the workout. Wow, this Ironman training has been awesome for him and his swimming has gotten strong in a short amount of time. He's the buff dude, 5th from the left (among a legion of buff dudes and gals. Have to say, we look pretty darned amazing for a group that probably averages around 50 in age!) And yes, that's my festive red shimmery holiday suit, I picked it up from especially for December and New Years, though I may break it out for Valentines Day as well.

Afterwards can only be described as heaven on earth - the absolute best homemade Cinnamon rolls (courtesy of one wonderful Aqua-spouse) and a soak in the hot tub. Then Starbucks with my hubby (our special post-swim time every week).

When we got  home, it was beautiful outside. I got to walk the dogs in the glorious sunshine - a real treat in Oregon's oft-rainy winter.

We've been re-arranging my son's, den...., er... room, trying to organize all of his games, computers, cables, monitors, game controllers, etc. And today we found this terrific entertainment center at a thrift store and got it moved in and installed. $30 - a real deal! And look - lo, the floor around him is clear! And walkable! It is indeed a miracle. If this keeps up, we may finally get him fully moved into this room, leaving his old room to be repurposed as a guest bedroom and family entertainment room. Suh-weet!

Topping off the evening, my wonderful hubby baked some lasagna, and we had a  nice family dinner together. Best of all, he made two more lasagnas which are residing in the freezer for another cold winter's night when we need some culinary good cheer.  We talked about what a great holiday it's been, and what everyone's plans for the new year are.

So Day 1 of 2013 finds me blessed with family, good food, great friends, good health, and goals to work toward. It just doesn't get better than that.

Wishing you all a wonderfully happy new year!