Workouts Week 2: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes?

I’m wrestling (haha!) with some paradoxes in this practice at the moment. That means this entry will be a bit more philosophical as I muse over some scholarly questions. As a theatre person and scholar I’m always fascinated by the paradox of live theatre. My undergraduate advisor would always emphasize the importance of theatre’s ephemerality – it is only there in front of you for that fleeting time when you watch it and then it disappears, never to return in the same way ever again. At the same time, those fleeting events etch into bodies and memories over time to create histories. How can theatre be both impossible to pin down and also tattooed onto the skin of history?

The changes I’ve noticed in my body, my mind, and my spirit over the past two weeks mirror this paradox. On one hand, I convince myself I can “see” the change in my body. 3538217f-4f78-47ba-876c-ee72719c0ab2

On the other, I’m a theatre person and I know how illusion can work. There’s a difference here in terms of lighting, distance, clothing, pose that will make the image on the right appear smaller. In addition, this is a classic convention of the before-and-after pic: slightly awkward (though unintended) before pic to contrast the smiling, confident after pic. Also, there’s actually lots of evidence that refutes that there has been an actual physical change. I’ve not lost any weight actually. That doesn’t mean I’m not seeing and feeling the physical effects. My right quad is in a perpetual state of pulledness. I’m standing up straighter. I’m less winded on walks and climbing stairs. While the workouts etch themselves into my muscles, my body is actually remembering them less. I’m recovering much quicker after each workout, but that also means my muscles seem to be returning to normal more quickly too. So, just as this practice seems to write itself onto my body it also seems to unwrite itself too.

How it makes me feel is even more difficult to back up with hard evidence and even with memory. This past Thursday was a really, really difficult day. It was one of those days that was jam-packed with back to back meetings and obligations that had me zig-zagging across the city. Added to that was the unanticipated elation and stress of transferring my daughter, mid-year, from one school into another. We told her Tuesday she would be starting her new school on Friday. Thursday she had a district-wide competition with her school dance troupe that would end up being the last time she was with her friends. I frantically tried (and failed) to see what would end up being her final dance performance. I spent most of the day trying and failing to fulfill obligations. I ended the day picking up a sobbing and angry daughter while still trying to balance multiple obligations and prep for a babysitter to take over so my husband and I could make the evening CrossFit class. I was done with my day well before CrossFit.

IMG_3681.jpg I’m thumb-nailing it for you because it’s just that intense. We drove late to the box in silence as I struggled with how much I did NOT want to do this at the moment. I carried a small sliver of hope that perhaps working out would maybe deliver the stress relief I needed to fix, well, this face. The archive of my day written on my face.

I am your typical over-thinker. I tend to multi-task because once I have enough things on my plate, it becomes impossible to over-think any one thing. When I do CrossFit, the initial rush of blood and adrenaline actually kick my brain into overload. During the warm-ups every possible thought I could have starts screaming at me. About halfway through the strength workout my head completely empties and fills with the task in front of me, usually counting or whatever mantra my mind has grabbed onto to just do that next rep. By the time we get to the WOD there’s nothing left but breath, determination, and nothingness. CrossFit erases, even just for an hour, the memory of the day. The barrage of tweets I ingest, the outraged status updates, the screaming headlines, or daughters, or disappointed looks. It undoes the history in my head.

But does that carry over to my body? How can that same release happen when your body is pretty much going through low-level trauma? I hate jogging. I have always hated jogging. I feared the days in PE when I was a kid that we had to run the mile. I have always wondered if I actually have like low-level asthma because I just get so out of breath. Then, I think, no, you are just that out of shape. I have tried, multiple times, to move up to jogging, taking it like vegetables daily, to try to get my body into the habit and eventually not notice how bad it sucks. Now I know, I just hate it. Burpees and box jumps are notorious difficult parts of these workouts, but I loathe the 100, 200, and 400 m runs that are tacked onto everything. With the fire of a thousand suns.

The WOD Thursday night consisted of a 10-1. We had three exercises: GTOH, push-ups with lifting your hands off the ground when on your belly, and sit-ups. GTOH stands for ground-to-ovehead. You have a weight (the round ones you put on the bars) between your legs. Grasp it on each side between your legs so that it is resting on its edge on the floor. As you stand upright you flip the weight as it moves part your chest and then lift it over your head so its parallel to the ground. Then, you reverse the move back down until you are squatting with it resting on its edge once more. We started with 10 reps per exercise, then the next set was 9, then 8, then all the way down to 1. Then we ended with a 200 m run. As often happens with these things, you start out like, “Yo, this is going to be the easiest one I’ve done.” As I turned the corner into my 8 reps I felt like I’d fallen into a hidden pothole. Time and space morphed. By the end I actually had spit flying out of my mouth. Not spittle (aw, adorable!) SPIT. Like a puddle of it on the ground under my face as I went down for another hands-up flippin push-up. I could smell my spit on the floor, on my face, on my hands.

And at the end of it all I had to jog. As I always do, I stood up straight, balled up my hands, elbows close to my side, feet barely clearing the ground for each step, head high, and began the run. Now I’m stubborn, so I don’t cut the corners or walk. I may jog slower than the folks walking, but a keep that bounce going. As I rounded the parking lot edge, my body suddenly forgot its form. My body forgot what “jog” was supposed to look like, released every ounce of tension I was carrying and fell into…something. My hands opened, the muscles in my legs released, my shoulders began to bounce freely, my stomach let out. And it was suddenly so so much easier. My deep breaths came without trouble. My feet somehow felt lighter. My body forgot how it had learned “jog.” In the process it was making something that seemed new, improvised in the moment without consulting my head which, if you remember, had checked out of this whole thing awhile back. Like my body just doing what it needed to do and not what I’d trained it to do. I glided wth ease back through the entrance of the box.

img_3682I am beginning to think that it isn’t that history is necessarily erased during CrossFit, but really deferred for a bit. As soon as it all stops and the WOD ends, my head is almost always filled with utter elation. This elation is further facilitated by what I’m sure is a rush of blood, endorphins, chemicals, and hormones into my brain and body. This WOD was followed by an emotional and mental brain dump in the car on the way home about how awesome I felt, what I experienced during the workout. All that is followed by a feeding frenzy in which we attempt to pay babysitters and wrangle our kids to bed while frantically warming up random leftovers, guzzling water and coconut water, and pounding some carbs.

The day after (teaching days) I feel incredible. I feel strong, steady on my feet, tall. My muscles don’t ache as much as they feel at-the-ready. My abs feel tight, my shoulders feel pulled back, my skin feels sparkly (yes, sparkly). All the stuff returns to my head, but I feel better able to tackle it after the workout.

If, as Bourdieu suggests, embodied history is “internalized as second nature and so forgotten as history,” is it important to make myself remember how these changes are being constructed even as my body attempts to forget on its way to habit? Right, isn’t the whole goal of working out making your body forget its own work and, in turn, making your brain forget the work too so that it can move with increasing ease through the workout, through the world? Can we actively refuse that forgetting and, if so, to what end? I don’t know. I do know I feel pretty awesome.

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Workout #2 and #3: The Importance of Recovery

The irony of the fact that it has taken me over a week to actually write the blog about the importance of recovery is not lost on me.

Here, for your entertainment and amusement, is the before-and-after photo from my workout on Saturday, #3:

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Yes. That is accurate. By the Saturday workout I was spending probably twice as much of my time recovering from my workouts as I was actually working out.

First, let me share the workout I remember from Saturday. We did a warm up. Then we spent the majority of the class doing the workout in teams, relay style kind of. In my team of three, one of us would start the workout (they’re called WODs, workouts of the day). Then once the first person finished the first exercise they’d move on and the next person would start. The circuit was 250 meters on the rowing machine, 20 scissors kicks on our backs, 15 Russian kettle bell swings (you grab the kettle bell with both hands between you legs, thrust your hips and with your arms straight swing it out in front of your chest, then let it swing down back between your legs), 10 wall balls, then 5 box jumps. After we all finished the team would then run 200 meters. Then we’d start the circuit all over again. We did this four time. It took us 45 minutes.

In order to prevent myself from being injured and also actually be able to move last week, I had to spend a lot of time helping my body recover. I say “helping” because recovery is never really something you “let” happen, it requires effort, patience, and discipline, because it isn’t glamorous. I likely went through about 4 pounds of Epsom salts last week and probably killed our water bill, but my body needed help with all the lactic acid it was producing.

In addition, I have been diligently practicing the ROMWODs that come with this challenge we are doing. The ROM stands for range of motion. They are videos through the ROMWOD website (you can get a free subscription for a month). The videos are extended stretches that target the main muscles areas used in CrossFit.  A bit like yoga, but extreme stretching. For instance, you will hold a pose for anywhere from 2-5 minutes at a time. I sincerely think these exercises, which I have had to fight to find time to do, saved my body during that first week. My quads, particularly my right one, can barely manage to get me up out of chairs unless I’m doing the ROMWODs.

Fighting to make recovery time made me realize I have been operating under a false definition of recovery in my life in general. Recovery, in my career, in my interaction with the world right now, has been up to this point something I sneak into the nooks and crannies of my day. I don’t plan it. It is usually a hastily thrown in nap where I jerk awake every 5 minutes, or 5 deep breaths I sneak in before I soon my office door for office hours. What CrossFit has helped me discover this week is that that’s just not sufficient. Recovery takes (if this last week is any indication) twice as long as whatever the heck you are recovering from. And it requires effort and it’s crucial for survival. It’s actually the recovery that helped me feel so so strong by the end of this week as much if not more than the CrossFit itself. The shift in my diet was also a part of this. I could not continue to eat the same kind of food or my muscles and systems would not repair themselves. Recovery requires a holistic method.

If we are all going to survive this time in our lives, in the world, we have to pull away and recover. We cannot go into the fray with a pulled quad and expect we can do battle at full strength. And we cannot expect to reap any benefits of our work unless we are prepared – present, relaxed, and fully recovered – to receive those rewards with full hearts and clear souls.

Next time, I’m gonna tell you about all the changes I already feel and see in myself after a week and a half of CrossFit.

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Class #1: In Which I Come to Understand Why CrossFitters are Always so Amped Up

To be sure I adhere to the conventions of gym work, I will post my before-and-after photos from each workout. This tradition dates back to the early twentieth century, once cameras and photographs became more readily available in the popular press. From their inception, before-and-after photos were used as either inducements to to a particular set of practices or just plain advertising for the person or equipment that led to such great results. So, without further adieu……

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Perhaps they don’t quite adhere to the traditional conventions of the before-and-after photo, but they certainly capture the experience.

I was just not really ready for the class by the time it came around. I was more nervous than I expected. That said, as soon as I walked into the box, and the social environment therein most of my nervousness fell away…in no small part due to the fact that my brain could just not hold onto that BS once we started.

The Warm-Up……

….in which I discover my abs have apparently been in extended hyper-sleep, but never bothered to tell me.

The class is actually two groups – one larger group of folks who have done this thing before and the smaller group (us) of noobs (my term, not theirs) who are part of this whole “Best Self Challenge” thingy. As a large group we all do the warm-up which consisted of two sets of 100 meter jog, 10 push ups, 10 sit ups, 10 mountain climbers, and 10 squats. I was so killing it until I laid down for sit-ups. I clasped my hands behind my head and went for it as I remembered doing the last time I did sit-ups….when was the last time I did sit-ups? I think I maybe got my should blades off the ground. So, instead, I crossed my arms on my chest. This time I think I managed a crunch and got up to my lower lumbar. Finally, I had to just put my arms straight out and swing them for leverage in order to actually get all the way up. Dissolving into giggles with each set did not help.

By the time the warm-up was done I was in the best possible mood. You know, those kind of good moods when you can see that you are driving right into a trash fire so there’s nothing left to do, but smile and laugh? Sort of the way social media feels at the moment. My ass was toast already and we had just finished the warm-up.

Learning the Exercises

Next, the class split and our instructor who is also the head of the box took the best selfers to a corner to learn some basic exercises. The first we learned were sumo deadlift high pulls with kettle bells. You spread your legs wide, flatten your back, squat down and lean over to grasp the kettle bell, straighten your legs as you tuck your hips in order to leverage to motion to stand up erect while pulling the bell up to you chin, then back down. We practiced with differing weighted bells depending on your strength. Cool. Then we shifted the bells onto our shoulders and practiced lunges. Then we did Russian twists.

Note to self: Investigate why they are called Russian twists. We do this A LOT in physical fitness. For instance, for a long time I just passed over the fact that in Progressive Era women’s physical culture they always used something called Indian clubs. I just assumed it was some racist throw back to a practice we appropriated from Native Americans (this appropriation also happens a lot in fitness). Close. It actually refers to a traditional practice from India practiced only by men that was making to weightlifting except it involved gigantic bowling-pin shaped clubs which they swung around as if they were lighter than a feather. Crazy that it turned into a gymnastic exercise for girls and women in the States where the clubs were the size and weight of actual bowling pins.

Russian twists. You sit on the floor with your legs stretched out, but bent slightly at the knee, grab a medicine ball and hold it at chest level, turn to each side a touch the ball behind your hips. Bonus points if you can, like the former swimmer in our group, keep your feet off the ground. So, now that we had that all down time to run two reps of each exercise. You know, I can’t even remember how many reps of each at this point. What I do remember is that we had to do it all together which meant we had to slow down or speed up to keep up with everyone in the group. That felt awesome and somehow powerful that we moved as a group.

The Actual Workout

We then joined back together with the main group and our instructor addressed the group, saying, “And now for the part you’re all really here for.” I laughed so hard. How on earth could that be possible? Surely, we were almost done. But as I laughed I looked around and saw other people smiling, exhausted, shaking their heads, breathless, but all smiling. All giving each other high fives, and fist bumps. Are we all high? Yes, yes I think we were. I also think this was a tacit acknowledgment that this was actually crazy. But by this point no one’s brains are operating a full throttle anyway…and that’s maybe an awesome thing. Know what I wasn’t thinking about at this point? The world going to hell. Know what else I wasn’t thinking about? What I needed to prepare for my class tomorrow. Or what pain my kids were inflicting on the babysitter. I was in a space where I was solely focused on me and the folks around me.

The ACTUAL workout consisted of alternating intervals of 30 second of an exercise, followed by 30 second of rest before the next exercise. We started with squats with the kettle bells on our shoulders. As many as we could do in 30 seconds. Rest. Then wall balls (see Trial Class for description). Then the sumo dead lift high pulls. Then a 200 meter jog. Then we got a minute to rest before restarting the series. This is what CrossFit is known for. As I discovered in the trial class, pacing is key. So, to pace myself, as I counted each rep I’d say motherf***er at the end of each number. Kind of like in elementary school when they told you to say, “One one thousand, two one thousand,” to get you to slow down, only with an adult twist. And I NEEDED to say that word by this point. The instructor made it clear that we were not to push ourselves and could sit down any time (which several of the best selfers did). I started out completely ok with having to take that time out if need be. I didn’t.

Round one went pretty well. Like the trial class. For me, it’s the cardio jogging part that gets me. I am bottom heavy and asking anything from my waist to to move through the air with any ease at all is a tall, tall order. Hence, why box jumps nearly killed me and why I have always despised jogging. Planting my lower half in place to heave a kettle bell around, or throw a medicine ball up the wall, no problem. Jogging after all that? F**k. You.

But even when I started to walk at the end of round two and walk the whole way at the end of round three, I still jogged the last bit into the box again. We’d come into the box, everyone high giving, patting each other on the back, smiling. I felt like I was going to die. Why the hell did I feel so damn great?

The final 200 meter my loser husband decided to race the pack leader into the box. I hung back with two other awesome best selfers and we chatted and panted and jogged and walked and laughed. Then the other professor in the group (I’m one too, if you missed that) who works at another university in town and used to play football turned to me and the other guy and said, “Let’s run it in y’all.” And we did.

I spent then next hour feeling totally high. All my muscles were clearly still in shock. My heart was just so excited it hadn’t burst. I was just so excited I hadn’t cried or vomited of keeled over. The instructor (it’s his box, too) sat and gave me suggestions for resources for my work (he knows I’m writing a book) and started talking to me about CrossFit as an epistemology (my word, not his). About how CrossFit has just made him better at life. More present. Better able to navigate the world and where he wants his body to be in it. Sounded exactly like what I say to my students about how I feel about theatre and performance.

I don’t think I stopped talking for at least half an hour after that. We came home bright and out of breath. I made and ate my dinner as if my life depended on it (see after photo). We put the kids to bed. Drank a pitcher of water, popped some Advil (crucial!) and happily fell asleep.

Now, two days later, if I could only actually get up out of this chair and actually walk without crying in pain I might even make it to class tonight.

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The Trial Class

I am rushing at the moment to get this experience down before I go to my first legit class later this evening.

My husband, a friend, and I took a free trial CrossFit class at one of our local boxes. We had to sign up for it online on a Saturday morning. My sweet husband is a natural athlete. One of the infuriating people who can pick up any sport in a flash, and then prevents you from despising him because he’s such a great team player and cheerleader you’d be lost without him.

When we first arrived and met our instructor the box was fairly empty. As it filled it I took careful note of who showed up. I have always found the environment of the gym intimidating. Everyone looks like they know what they are doing. No one is really there to help you if you don’t know how to use the equipment. And the creepiest part for me is that everyone pretends they are alone. It’s like everyone is walking around in their own willing-suspension-of-disbelief bubbles (theatre joke). Like everyone is on their own personal stage performing for their own personal audience, themselves. And anytime you remind them they are not alone they are just supremely annoyed. Here, most everyone talked to one another. They chatted as they stretched and warmed up, as they sat on bench presses next to each other. As more people arrived I was also struck by how normal they all looked. Granted, quite a few were unbelievably fit, but they did not perform that fitness with expensive clothes or gear. Plus, even the few folks that were there were all different ages, sizes, and genders. I saw a middle-aged man wearing knee braces, a college student who once took one of my gen ed courses, and helpfully a woman about my age and size just absolutely killing on the dead lift….at least that’s what I think it’s called.

Our instructor walked us through the three different exercises we’d be doing: burpees, wall balls, and box jumps. Yes, burpees are exactly those exercises you remember from elementary school. You squat, jump out to a push-up position, back to a squat, and then jump back up to standing. “I’d recommend you not try to extend your hands all the way in the air when you jump back to standing. You’ll run out of gas if you do.” Seriously? Even I think I can at least get my arms all the way back up in there air. Maybe this won’t be so hard after all. Then, wall balls. You take a medicine ball, 14 lbs. for men, 10-12 lbs. for women, hold it at chest level, squat down, and as you come back up to standing you throw the ball up to a lone on the wall, then catch it. Then box jumps. The instructor pulled out three wooden boxes about a foot square. If you lay it one way it is about 12 inches high. Turn it the other way and it’s about 2 feet high. Men jump the 2 feet, women 1 foot. You stand with both feet on the ground, swing you arms, and jump with both feet at the same time onto the box. I executed all of the exercises well and my body felt prepared. I was feeling pretty awesome.

We ran a quick warm-up jog outside in the parking lot and returned for the workout itself. We had 8 minutes in which to complete a set series of the exercises; 3 burpees, 5 wall balls, and 7 box jumps. The only thing to count was how many times in that 8 minutes we could repeat the series. I set myself one goal: don’t stop moving.

We started. I have always been a fan of pacing. On the burpees I even took the instructor’s advice and just brought my arms up to my shoulders rather than all the way in the air. I was nervous about box jumps (I carry most of my weight in the lower part of my body and asking it to fly as a unit through the air onto a box seemed a stiff request). However, I actually moved through the first set rather quickly. Yeah!! I’m doing great. As soon as I went down on my third burpee in the second set everything shifted. It suddenly got hard. Really hard. Like, my body was just like, “Awesome! That was SOOO fun, and we’re done now.” I focused hard on keeping moving (“Just keep moving” sung like Dory singing “Just keep swimming”). By the time I turned to face the box for the jumps, my brain literally laughed at me. “That is actually impossible. I am going to try this, kick the box over, and fall on my face.” My body kept going though. An somehow, amazingly, I got up on the box. Each time. By the time I hit what would be my third and last set of burpees, I fell all the way into my stomach instead of push-up position, and honestly, each time, thought to myself, “I’m not getting off this floor.” My thoughts weren’t desperate, or angry, or helpless.. They just drifted into my head sounding slightly stoned, but matter of fact, in that scary calm tone your mother uses kind of way right before she completely loses her shit.

The instructor called time halfway through my third set of wall balls and I stopped for what felt like the first time in about a century that was actually eight minutes. “So whatdya think?” the instructor asked. I turned and looked at my husband and our ridiculously fit friend. Both looked equally wiped and sweaty. I let my thoughts plink back into place and my body realize it had stopped. I felt freaking awesome. I felt empowered. I felt strong. I felt like I had just overcome my own self doubt and somehow managed to stick to my original goal when I had every reason to just stop and be like, “Sweet, that was fun, but just not right now.” Oddly, in my complete exhaustion I thought about how I felt writing my dissertation with two babies. How I regularly wanted to quit, felt like it was just a crazy ridiculous exercise in futility, and that I had so many absolutely just reasons to bag out, but kept going and hitting reasonable goals even when my brain was screaming at me to quit. I thought about giving birth and that amazing moment when I realized my body could overrule my brain and pop into the driver’s seat, communicating unspeakable signals through synapses that made me make sounds that somehow relaxed my body, and repeat patterns and mantras that made pain less an experience and more of a journey.

About five minutes later I was fairly convinced I was going to vomit. A lot. But I didn’t.

Now on to the real deal.

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I Want to Be a Warrior

What Am I Doing?

No really? As I stare down my first official class this evening this feels more and more like my mantra.

I am repurposing my blog (yet again) to chronicle my way through a six week CrossFit bootcamp. Scintillating and original, I know, but hang with me. I am an approaching middle-age white, straight, cis-gendered feminist and performance scholar who studies physical fitness. Despite my love for this study and my (sometimes) rabid sports-faness, I have not really ever been a fan of actually engaging in those things with my body. My relationship with sport and fitness, personally, has been tenuous at best, but most often a cold war. Now, I have to…excuse me….get to write a book about the subject and I can’t think about the topic any more deeply than I have without thinking through my body. So here goes.

This is a “challenge” class with an online component. I have three hour-long classes per week at the box (CrossFit jargon for gym). In addition, if I want to win fabulous prizes I am encouraged to participate through a website that tracks my progress through my measurements, before-and-after pictures, a nutrition regimen, and regular selfies documenting my progress and competing with others across the country. We’ll see how long I manage to keep up with that. I am, however, committed to the nutrition and exercise part. I want to be a warrior.

Why CrossFit?

I have spent much of my scholarly time in the past few years….decade….. investigating all the different ways women, typically and most especially young, white, middle class women in the US, were encouraged to participate in physical culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Typically, these included classes in either college or city/town gymnasiums where physical directors taught a mix of light gymnastics, exercises with weighted props (balls, clubs, etc.), and Delsarte. Sometimes these programs would include some light sports, especially near the turn of the century when they would engage in basketball “friendlies” (non-competitive games for all-female crowds). In some gymnasiums women’s participation was meant to be therapeutic (think physical therapy) and at others to dispel nervous energies (thought to become stored up in women with too few avenues for expulsion). The exercises and techniques for women were always and in every space meant to correct the inherent deficiencies of women, especially those in urban areas. The ends of these practices, especially in the early twentieth century, were eugenically grounded in hopes by the medical establishment and social welfare institutions go increased white birth rates and the strengthening of the white race. White fertile women were the crucial factor in these formulations of white superiority.

As part of these programs they were measured, incessantly. Depending on the program’s access to the necessary tools, they could have up to 50 distinct different measurements taken. Harvard’s physical director Dudley Allen Sargent sent out questionnaires and measurement cards to gymnasiums across the northeast with spots for 50 different measurements and questions covering participant’s personal and family health histories. Participants’ progress was measured by the change in the measurements, a practice still used today.

In the early twentieth century, the emphasis on measurements shifted to pictorial evidence of physical change and the before-and-after photo was born. The camera could not quite mimic the excruciating detail of Sargent’s measurements, but what it could do was provide a testament to physical culture’s ability to make women’s bodies more desirable. These practices helped create a shift from “Most Well-Developed Women” contests to the beauty pageants we see today.

Historically, yoga and other gym practices today actually provided many more parallels to these practices from a hundred years ago. However, what really piqued my interest was women in CrossFit. Here’s a hyper-masculinized training regimen developed by former soldiers, police officers, and EMTs that promotes co-ed classes and is resoundingly endorsed by women. In addition, it emphasizes not necessarily external change in your body over time (though some practitioners certainly do), but instead what you body is capable of in the moment and how continued practice changes the way your body works. Finally, it’s a practice that celebrates the last person to finish first. It relies on and touts its capacity to create bonds in the box (jargon for CrossFit gym) when the real world prevents connection. At this time, in our history, I find this promise perhaps the most compelling.

Why Now?

When I first started researching CrossFit, I was struck by the number of feminist CrossFitters, or women who consider themselves to be feminists that began doing CrossFit as part of their practice of being a feminist in the world. Some of these fabulous women and their blogs are in my blogroll, so please check them out. Some have only dabbled in CrossFit, but all ardently argue for fitness as a part of their own feminist practice.

I have been feeling very much called to warrior-hood lately. There are days where teaching, especially the classes and student populations I teach, feels like being on the front lines of a battle. Yes, an actual, exhausting, stressful, overworked, funny-haha battle, but also other battles. Battles for the relevance of art in their lives. Battles for the presence of marginalized voices in their lives. Battles for the importance of presence and humanity that you can touch with your hand in their lives. Battles for the ideals of democracy and against despotism in their lives. My mind has been sharpened toward a kind of pedagogical-artist-scholar warrior mentality and I’ve hit a point where I’d like my body to match how I feel. Yes, the rational, “Evidence, please,” scholar is interested in making an admittedly risky choice based primarily on how I feel on the inside and wanting the outside to support that inside feeling.

I want to leave this six weeks feeling strong and empowered in body as well as in mind. I want to know in my body that when my mind says something is impossible (a book, an idea, a political change) that my body will answer by doing it anyway and telling my mind to have a seat for a change. I want to work hard enough and breathe fast enough to be able to sort out the ideas that should stay from the flimsy ideas that should drift away.

I want to be a warrior.

 

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Family with Home Fries and Bacon

I love cooking for my family.

I have have only a few memories of family meals growing up.  Our’s was a prototypically busy family.  Meals were something to grab on the go.  If anyone spent time making something from scratch it was my dad.  The one dish he was known for in my house was sukiyaki.  In eighth grade we had an international food day in my Spanish class, and I brought my dad’s sukiyaki.

I have fond memories of my grandma’s cooking.  Not because she made it necessarily, but because we always sat at the table to eat it.  We’d sit at the table eating our Dinty Moore Beef Stew, buttered corn, Potato Buds, and fresh cantaloupe, and chat about coloring, about how much I loved swimming, about the word search puzzles I was working on.

The most vivid (and early) memory of my grandma cooking was for the one family Thanksgiving we had when I was maybe around 5 years old.  Both sides of the family were there in my aunt’s small apartment.  My other grandma (my dad’s mom) sat at the table talking with my mom.  Everyone else sat in front of the TV watching football.  And my grandma worked magic in the kitchen.  It was a one-butt kitchen, not unlike the one in our house now, and my grandma occupied the entire space with her slight, petite frame and her frenetic energy.  I remember standing right where the carpet met the tile watching her because she forbade anyone to enter the space while she was cooking.  She wore one of her pretty white flowy blouses and a plaid skirt that hit just below the knee (my grandma was the queen of the 50s A-line style).  I can still taste the stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy to this day.  I still have dreams of being her on that day, single-handedly cooking a huge delicious Thanksgiving meal for my extended family.

I learned to cook for completely selfish reasons.  I had to loose weight.  In the first year of my masters degree I gained a freshman 40 and ballooned up to 220 lbs.  After spending 16 days in rooms filled with mirrors researching dance in Guatemala, I came home determined to diet and spent my free, three weeks of that summer doing the first phase of South Beach.  For anyone who’s ever done this diet you know that you spend literally all of your time cooking.  I learned to savor my food because I’d spent soooo much time preparing it, AND that the prepping was a convenient meditative space that successfully distracted me from my cravings.  I also began to realize the connection between healthy eating and class.  Dieting and healthy eating are expensive both in terms of ingredients AND time.  The ability to eat healthy foods prepared in a healthy way is a privilege reserved for those with the time and the extra money.  And, I discovered how awesome it felt to cook food for someone else.  My husband sweetly offered to do the diet with me.

(Lemme just mention how much I love the irony of talking about South Beach considering the title of the post.  Movin on….)

So, it’s maybe not surprising that I took up cooking in earnest again once my kids were old enough to eat real food (not that pureed food and breast milk aren’t real food, but you know what I’m saying).  As I’ve said in previous (two-year old, I know) posts, crock potting was an awesome way for me to provide healthier, home cooked meals for my family.  When I wasn’t making much money, and wasn’t getting out of the house much (cause when shopping with toddlers someone might lose an eye) making dinner for my family was my way of giving something to them.  A daily gift to balance my feeling of of economic helplessness and feel like I was being a good parent and wife.  So, it was also, in a selfish way, my rock when I was dealing with the grief of losing my mom, raising two kids at home, and trying to find the motivation to write a dissertation (which I successfully defended last year for those of you still reading at this point).  It was one of the few things in my life I could control, and execute and enjoy in a short span of time (the diss took an entire year in the oven and my children are still very much cooking).

So, when my first daughter by another mother visited from college last weekend my first instinct was to cook for her.  I feel like I should qualify the previous statement a titch.  Some people are born your family, others are made family.  Our made family’s daughters were the flower girls at our wedding (and lemme tell you there’s nothing like watching your flower girl head off to college to make you really get that you’ve been married ten years).  Their parents are our little parenting secret.  They trained us (albeit unknowingly) long before we became parents ourselves.  They’ve been there for us through thick and thin, and unlike “real” family, they always had the choice to walk away when we got annoying, but never did.

Their beautiful, loving, and smart young woman of a daughter is now a thousand miles away from them and in our backyard.  Nostalgically, I just want to hug the eight year-old I see when I look at her.  I want to soothe her unspoken fears about college life, and sit up till 3am talking about boys, classes, and roommates.  But she’s a mature, balanced young woman who’s got her shit way more together than I ever did.  So, I settle for pouring all my own overly zealous care-taking instincts into cooking for her over the weekend.  I have visions of her bringing back Tupperware stuffed with yumminess and sharing it with her roommates.  But with my own active kids, working husband, and pesky past-due article, my goal of a weekend full of cooking for her fails fantastically.  Instead, the only opening turns out to be Sunday morning breakfast.  I put all my hopes into one shot-from-the-hip recipe.

Home Fries

  • 10-15 red potatoes, cleaned
  • 1/2 sweet yellow onion, diced
  • 1/4 red bell pepper, diced
  • garlic powder
  • 1 tsp butter

Boil red potatoes whole for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and drain water.  Let cool for 5 minutes then dice potatoes.  Heat butter over medium heat in a large skillet, add potatoes and cook for about 15 minutes then add onions, pepper, garlic powder, salt and pepper to taste.  Continue cooking until potatoes are golden brown.

“Golden brown” my ass.  I continued cooking for another 15 minutes.  The potatoes were still hard.  She happily played with my kids.  Half an hour goes by.  Then another.  I tell her breakfast is likely to be more like brunch.  She smiles happily and returns to studying for her psychology exam.  I panic and improvise.  My own sense of “taking care” of her totally wrapped up in a weakly planned, lame breakfast recipe. I turn to Rachael Ray for back-up.

Oven Home Fries with Peppers and Onions

  • 2.5 lbs red skinned potatoes
  • 3 tablespoons EVOO
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon grill seasoning (I use McCormick’s hamburger seasoning)
  • 1 teaspoons sweet paprika (I leave this out)

Preheat over to 500 degrees.  Coarsely chop potatoes and transfer to a non-stick cookie sheet.  Toss with oil, peppers, onions, and sesoning and place in the over for 25 minutes, turning twice with spatula.

I take the dang potatoes out of the skillet. At this point the peppers had been virtually incinerated though the stubborn potatoes were still not soft.  So, I added more green peppers, onions, and two cloves of minced garlic, plus the seasoning and EVOO, tossed it and stuck it in the oven.  Considering we were quickly moving towards lunch by this point, I sliced up and sauteed some turkey kielbasa (in honesty, hoping if the potatoes were tasteless that the meat would cover).  25 minutes later I apologized that it took so long, and served it.  It was good.  Abnormally delicious considering that I had cooked it to within an inch of its edible life.  I played it cool, like this was not a big deal, it’s just food, you know. *shrug*

(My entire sense of self for the day hung in the balance).

“Mmmm.  I love home fries,” she says.  “This is really good.”

“Oh, good.  I’m glad you like it,” I say, totally casually.  Then, smiling.  “Do you want me to pack some up for you to take back to school?”

“Really?  That’d be awesome.”

“Cool.  I’ll put it in some Tupperware.”

This morning listening to a little Iron and Wine I tried to replicate the recipe for just my two kids with bacon instead of kielbasa.  This time I just went straight from boiling the potatoes, to tossing them with everything and sticking them in the oven. As an added extra flourish I finished them off in the skillet with a touch of the bacon grease left in the pan.  They were not nearly as good.  Still yummy, but not delicious.

My kids took maybe two bites of them (though they polished off the bacon with gusto).  But as we sat at the table over breakfast (albeit it briefly, my kids cannot stay at the table to save their lives these days) my daughter talked to me.  The kind of uninterrupted stream that makes you think you’re watching some kind of exponential brain development in action in a moment.  She told me about how her friend at school was sick and threw-up on the playground, that her teacher’s baby girl “hatched out” this week, and her sincere hope that toys would rain down from the sky so we could all have toys all the time.

I love cooking for my family.

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A New Dream: Winter Squash Stuffed with Sausage, Mushrooms, and Cranberries Perhaps?

Rapunzel: I’ve been looking out of a window for eighteen years, dreaming about what I might feel like when those lights rise in the sky. What if it’s not everything I dreamed it would be?
Flynn Rider: It will be.
Rapunzel: And what if it is? What do I do then?
Flynn Rider: Well,that’s the good part I guess. You get to go find a new dream.

After more than a year of dissertation writing I’ve picked up some odd habits, including (but certainly not limited to) reading too much Harry Potter, drinking gin on a regular basis, neglecting my blog for over a year, the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and a regular diet of watching Tangled with my daughter.  Perhaps I’ve been reading a bit too much philosophy (actually, most probably), but there are certain moments from the movie that appear to me at the most random times, over and over again, like the scene above.  What happens when all your expectations of an event, of your dream in life, are fulfilled?  What then?  The answer, I find, to be somewhat terrifyingly exciting…well, you go out and find a new dream.

This is a difficult prospect for me as two whopper dreams have come to fruition in the last few years:  motherhood and a PhD.  In the midst of my own looming questions (What the hell do I do now?  What does my life look like without being in graduate school?  Was it worth it?  What does this mean for my family?) I’m attempting to embrace an outlook focused on possibilities.  Those possibilities (a “real” job, a decent income, publication, another move) are quite often pretty overwhelming for my still addled spirit, pushing me to find dream aperitifs, if you will:  quick shots of daily dreams that provide instant gratification, and hopefully stiffen my resolve to continue pursuing the bigger, insomnia-inducing dreams that will eventually be my life’s tasty main course.  Thus, over the past week I’ve peppered my days with extended conversations with friends, a little too much late-night popcorn, an overdose of football, and a menu of new crockpot recipes.

On today’s docket is a recipe out of my favorite slow cooker book, Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Family Favorites.  I have yet to be disappointed by this book.  As we’ve just finished our first week of Fall-ish weather, I find myself dreaming of warm, and comforting dishes…especially if they contain Italian sausage.  I never really realized until recently that I have a thing for Italian sausage.  It is just chock-full of meaty, salty, spicy goodness that goes well in pastas, pizzas, stuffings, and hopefully acorn squash.  As a meal, this definitely fronts as a one-pot deal; it has meat, whole grain bread, vegetables, and fruit…and a butt-load of butt-er, the unsung food group…in my house…or at least for me.

Winter Squash Stuffed with Sausage, Mushrooms, and Cranberries

The beginning's of today's dream with remnants of my breakfast and last evening's night cap on the side.

I had everything laid out, ready to go.  My daily dream was a go for launch.  The prep looked beautiful (dried cranberries soaking in hot apple juice, chopped onions and mushrooms sizzling on 6 tablespoons of butter, and fresh honey wheat bread crumbs from Seward Co-op).  The first indication that this might not be the dream dish I had hoped came when I combined all the ingredients in the skillet and the mixture was supposed to be “moist but not sticky and able to be clumped into a ball.”  Yeah, pretty much just wet, so I added probably another half cup of bread crumbs to at least get to sticky stage.

The second wobble came when I went to put my pretty little stuffed acorn squash halves “in a single layer in the crock.”  Could not even get two of them in a single layer, let alone four.  So, I cut a little bit from the side of two of the halves to fit them in two layers in the crock.

By this point, I was having some serious doubts about seeing my expectations of this dream of squash and sausage come to being, so I improvised.  I had a healthy helping of the stuffing mixture leftover that I threw in a cake pan and in the oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes for lunch.  Sometimes you need a little taste of what’s to come to bring some hope back into what seems might be a dismal failure.  Delicious!  Cranberry, buttery, spicy goodness.  Hope restored!

And some finger nail painting for an extra dollop of joy, helped along by the increasingly yummy smells lazily drifting out of my kitchen and filling the house.

The meal itself was a bit anti-climactic…especially after writing the first part of this blog.  Was the squash stuffed with sausage a dream?  No, but it was nonetheless an intriguing (though not popular with my daughter) meal.  I served it with brown rice, and it turned out to be an essentially addition as the dish needed some taming.  The meal was incredibly rich, delicious and complex for about half of it, then almost overwhelming for the rest.  It was awful pretty, though.

Unfortunately, my ability to ponder the dreamlike qualities of the meal was quickly overshadowed by a post-dinner power outage that lasted about 18 hours, leaving 4 pounds of pork and a couple gallons of milk in its wake.  Thus, my dream of squash is tainted now by the absolute anguish of throwing out the pork.  It’s interesting the relatively close proximity of hope and despair, dreams and nightmares, one inevitably and often thankfully summoning the ghost of the other.  Luckily, the excitement of a house full of candles for our kids, and the total inability to do anything useful except watch movies on my laptop and sleep was a dream in itself.  Now to purchase some more pork for my first attempt and slow cooker ribs, and a tasty garlic onion pork tenderloin.

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