The Recharging Power of Silence

Why Unplugging Keeps Me Plugged In

Noise: it’s a subjective thing.  

One person’s harmony can be another’s chaos.  While one person may work productively with music playing, another may be rendered idle by the distraction.  There’s a lot of noise in life, and much of it is imposed upon us: the leafblower’s drone next door; the scream of steaming milk in a coffeehouse; the roar of traffic on the freeway; a commercial on the radio.  We all have different levels of noise-tolerance, of what we consider to be “loud”, distracting, or outright annoying.  

Some of us are so sensitive to specific sounds, they can trigger anxiety.  Sensory overload is a legitimate state for many people.  Added to our physical disposition toward sound perception is our personality.  Our unique blends of introversion and extroversion can determine our approach to classifying sounds in the first place.  Our relationship with noise is often overlooked, yet ultimately a driving factor in how we live our lives.

For a classic introvert, hanging out at a local bar may elicit an “It’s too loud in here” comment.  The cacophony of audible stimuli – bottles clanking, people yelling, music thumping – can overwhelm someone who typically enjoys people in smaller, more intimate settings.  It’s not just the sound that can overwhelm, but the fear of striking up conversation with strangers.  Every voice in that bar represents a potential new interaction, thereby adding to the stress.   The unpredictability and unstructured nature of a social setting can also be nerve-wracking.  There may be a desire to talk one-on-one with someone in a quiet corner instead of whooping it up on the dancefloor.  At the end of the night, they’re so exhausted from trying to hold it together for so long.  

On the other end of the stereotypical extrovert spectrum, hanging out at a local bar is being in one’s element.  The buzz of being with so many people in an intense, high-energy environment is invigorating.  Being surrounded by people is like a security blanket.  But put that same person in a quiet university library by themselves for an hour?  It might be a challenge to sit there in silence, not talking with anyone, alone.  

We are complex beings, and surely cannot be simplified as just “extrovert” or “introvert”.  I’m no expert in human psychology, but I certainly enjoy reading about it.  From what I’ve gathered, people are a blend of both introversion and extroversion, and it can depend on the situation.  Some may fit the classic mold: introverts who enjoy quiet solitude; extroverts who are social butterflies.  I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  One of the most important lessons I gleaned was that introversion and extroversion wasn’t necessarily just being social or not, but how we problem-solve in our daily lives.  While an extrovert may want to call her best friend to talk about an issue, an introvert may prefer to write in her journal, or just think quietly, about it.  Our tendencies to look toward people or toward ourselves during times of challenge says a lot about our nature.

Where does reaction to noise come in?   How much does introversion or extroversion affect noise sensitivity?  Why is it that one person can continue along undisturbed to the sound of humming, while another simply can’t focus on anything else?  The sound of someone chewing food or chewing gum can be like nails on a chalkboard to some. Misophonia is a real condition in which some sounds are intensely stressful, if not painful, for the listener.  I’m not sure if I fall into this category, but I know I have a thing with some noises, including humming.  

Humming, yes.  It began last year with a few of my students humming to themselves in class.  It surely wasn’t a malicious thing; they were carrying a tune in their head, and using it to help them along in their classwork.  However, that humming was the only thing I could focus on.  There could be conversations from group work at table groups, and still I could pinpoint exactly where the humming was coming from.  It wasn’t just humming, either.  Pen tapping as if it were a drumstick?  Clicking the end of a retractable pen repeatedly?  Whistling?  Just as distracting.

I banned all “distracting noises” from my classroom: humming, whistling, singing, drumming, tapping, clicking, or otherwise repetitive, loud clamor.  It was about maintaining a well-focused learning environment free of unnecessary stimuli.  In a group full of adolescent middle-schoolers, the last thing you need is any more energy.  I was conscientious myself to speak in a gentle tone, not raising my voice over them, and tried to keep the overall noise in the classroom from overpowering their attention.  I thought I was helping out the students, but upon closer reflection, I realized I was mostly just helping myself.  I spoke softly not for their ears, but because it felt better to me; it helped set the tone for the noise-level of the classroom.

Talking to my husband Ron about my noise sensitivity helped put things into perspective.

“I think you might be overreacting a little bit to the humming,” he offered as an alternative.  “Most people can tune out those kinds of noises in a large group setting like a classroom.”

“But I can’t,” I conceded.  “I literally cannot do a math problem, think critically, or hear what someone else is really saying with that background distraction.  It takes over the entire soundscape.”

The more we talked about it, the more I realized I was indeed on the “sensitive” side to noise.  A dripping faucet?  Leaky downspout after a rain?  The tick-tock of a grandfather clock?  Instant reaction.  Man-made noises are the worst.  I am used to hiding ticking clocks in drawers (though they’re less common now); I’ve put towels in the bottom of a dripping downspout to stop an incessant, echoing drip after a rain.  I sleep with a fan on to drown out any nighttime noises (including my husband’s snoring).  The sounds of traffic, loud engines, car alarms, building refrigeration units, the reverse beep of a delivery truck…they all add up to a lot of interruption.

Music, on the other hand, is almost always welcome.  I love listening to many different kinds of music.  I play the guitar and sing (I don’t sing all that well, but I sure love doing it).  I believe in the healing power of music, its ability to bridge the gaps between us.     

Most natural noises I embrace: a rushing river, leaves rustling in the wind, the fleeting song of a passing bird.  Except some birds.

In 2002, I traveled to Bali with my friend for an awesome one month vacation.  We spent a couple of nights jet-lagged in the bustling city of Kuta before escaping for the beautiful hillside village of Ubud.  Pristine fields of fluorescent green rice carpeted the landscape like a technicolor dream.  We couldn’t wait to explore, but had arrived late in the afternoon that day.  I was coming down with an awful flu, feeling feverish and exhausted.  I went to sleep once we settled into our homestay, but in a few hours the siren began.  

“CAH!”  the piercing noise reverberated into the hot, humid evening.  About ten seconds of silence graced me.  

“CAH!” it wailed again.  My eyes wide open, I wondered if it was man-made or animal.  After a few minutes of cawing at fairly consistent ten second intervals, I grabbed a pair of pants from my backpack, and wrapped them around my head to cover my ears.  

Lying there another little while, tired and achy from the onset of that awful flu, I kept hearing the CAW! interrupt my sleep.  Joelene was sleeping fine through it, so I didn’t bother to wake her.  I got that claustrophobic feeling I get when I feel trapped.  I felt trapped by this sound, and I couldn’t get it to go away.  It felt like the presumed bird was laughing at me.  I broke down crying in my bed, wishing it would stop, until I just couldn’t take it anymore.  

Out of my bed I rose, quickly dressing and grabbing a few rupees.  I walked for a few blocks until I reached a cafe with a friendly group of locals and tourists; they instantly saw the tears and distress in my eyes, especially apparent at two o’clock in the morning.  I plopped down at a table, and asked them what was that incessant cawing?!  Actually, I cawed like the bird, making them laugh, and finally myself, too.  

“It’s probably a Nightjar,” one of the tourists chimed in.  “They drove me crazy when I first got here too.”  I enjoyed a beer and some food with them, tiring myself out in combination with my flu, until I returned to my room and finally conked out.  Back home, it was the Northern Mockingbird singing on Summer evenings that kept me up.  

Perhaps most interesting are the sounds of the environment I work in.  I am a seventh grade Math and Science teacher at a middle school with roughly 600 students.  To say there is “noise” is an understatement.  Noise is the nature of the campus.  It starts with the morning bell – “BEEEEEP!” into the crisp air – followed by the always animated morning announcements by the students.  Then begins the day, full of activities and lessons to be taught.  There are multitudes of sounds: talking students, electric pencil sharpeners, squeaky chairs with legs in need of tightening, blowing noses, the chirp of a tennis shoe catching the tile floor just so, the oohs and aahs of discovery during a Science lab, the BEEEEEP! of the bell, the screams of kids running around at lunch.  Often, the sounds of students working together productively is music to my ears.  

I’ve become quite accustomed to the many sounds of teaching, but one thing has remained constant throughout my eleven years of teaching: I need quiet breaks to recharge.  

When lunchtime rolls around, I regret that I often don’t have the energy to go to the staff room and eat with my colleagues.  I have been in a stimulating environment with plenty of noise for a few hours by that point, and want nothing more than a few minutes of silence.  I tend to work quietly in my classroom alone, or walk the track outside if the weather’s nice.  I’ve been told time and time again that I should go to the staff room for lunch, and some days I do (it helps to have monthly PTA lunches).  I love the people in there, and always enjoy their company.  My tendency to hide by myself during lunchtime has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with my need to recharge without giving my attention to anything.  I need that time to replenish for fifth period after lunch, and for the rest of the day.  

When I get home from work around four o’clock most days, I need about an hour to unwind quietly before doing any activities.  Ron knows this about me; he respects that time, not taking it personally.  Once I’ve had that time to unwind, I can be fully present with him the rest of the evening.  It’s kind of like a power nap – restorative, regenerating.  The downtime allows me to be more open to experience.

I wonder how much my tendency to escape to silent enclaves after times of socializing is based upon my introverted nature.  I love people and interacting in large groups, but I love time alone.  One of my favorite aspects of running or mountain biking is the silence of the trail.  Looking out over a gorgeous mountain valley, hearing nothing but a light zephyr blow, is music to my ears.  Add in a singing bird, the buzz of a dragonfly, or the chirp of a squirrel’s alarm call to sweeten the deal.  But a blaring car alarm?  Thumbs down.  

The recharging power of Silence is something I’ve long looked to for solace and comfort.  I remember being a kid and sitting quietly for long stretches on road trips.  “You’re such a good traveler,” my parents would comment.  I was content enjoying the downtime between our adventures.  It was the same thing at home; I would come home from school or a sporting game, and enjoy playing quietly by myself for awhile.  I would play with my Sylvanians (animal figurines), draw, or play outside in the yard.  I also played a lot with my sisters and friends, but in retrospect, I realize I needed quiet time even then. 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve embraced my need for quiet time.  Whether just sitting still in a meditative state, doing the crossword puzzle in the garden, or riding my bike through the forest, I know I’m a better friend, wife, and teacher when I take that time for myself.  I certainly don’t need quiet all the time, but when I do, it sounds like an alarm.

How much do you need Silence?  What do you consider to be “noise”, and how do you manage those you deem “distractions”?  

More importantly, what is music to your ears?  

Wait: Please Don’t Comment On Weight

If you’re like most people, someone has commented on your weight at some point in your life.  Maybe it was your friend in junior high school; perhaps a family member.  However it happens, it can pierce your confidence when someone comments negatively about your body.  

We have a wide variety of body types, shapes, and builds, most of which are somewhat genetically predispositioned.  Born with the genes we are given from our parents, we have the power of lifestyle choices to shape our bodies further.  Our genetic mold, like a cookie-cutter, sets the overall pattern, though.  My parents are both lean and athletic, passing on such traits to me and my two sisters.  From a young age, we were often called “skinny”.

We live in a weight focused, if not obsessed, culture.  From the images and messages we receive from media and advertising, or the way we compare ourselves to each other, we are all affected by our own relationship with “weight”.

I haven’t met an American girl who, at some point in her life, hasn’t been on a diet or cleanse of some sort to lose weight.  That includes myself.  Food has always been a source of pleasure and positivity for me; I’ve eaten whatever I’ve wanted my whole life.  After four years in college, though, I did gain about 10-15 pounds.  Wanting to get back to my strong, athletic self, I tried the Atkins diet in 2003, when it was wildly popular.  It worked well, but made me a little shaky from low blood-sugar.  I was off that diet after one month, and reaffirmed my philosophy to simply listen to my body.  I eat what I want to, in tune with what my body needs the most.  I love a good pint of ice-cream as much as I do a glorious cup of blueberries.  I need the calories.

Pretty much every single day of my life has involved some sort of rigorous physical activity, from a very young age.  I’ve always had a ton of natural energy, and love to be physical.  Over the years I’ve learned how important, if not medicinal, it is to expend my energy through exercise.  Not just exercise, but outdoor physical adventure.  A good, hard ride or run in nature not only makes me feel happy, but it calms me.  It helps me focus, problem-solve, and think of new ideas.  It also helps me to fall asleep each night within minutes.  Being on the move so much keeps me in great shape.  

But please don’t call me “skinny” as if it’s a bad thing.  

I have nothing against what I perceive to be “skinny”, but the judgment with which people say the word bothers me.  I couldn’t do the things I can if I were “skinny”, without the muscles I have.  That’s not arrogance, but fact.  It takes strength and endurance to mountain bike for hours on end; to run up a steep hill; to hold plank position or downward dog for two minutes; to build a retaining wall in my backyard; to climb; to snowboard down a mountain.  Some people assume I’m thin because I’m vain and want to look a certain way; they don’t know all of the cool things I can do as an athlete.  They assume that I don’t eat much or diet like crazy.  Comments have ranged from ignorant to rude to just plain mean.

“You must spend all day at the gym”.

“Gosh, you’re so skinny!  Do you ever eat?”

“Are you okay?” with feigned concern.

“You look like you’re anorexic”.

Those are just a few of the plethora of comments I’ve heard over the years.   I’ve been told I’m too athletic; too top-heavy for my small frame; my shoulders are too broad; my arms too muscular.  I’ve even had my emotional well-being questioned; “Is she happy?” someone asked my friend while I was climbing at the gym.  People can be quite creative and specific with their observations.  From strangers to colleagues, friends, and family members, the gamut runs wide.  The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve learned to stand up for myself.  

It’s inappropriate to comment on someone’s weight.  I think it would be common sense, but no.  There seems to be a double-standard with weight shaming.  Would it ever be acceptable for someone to comment, “Wow, you’ve really put on some weight, haven’t you?”  It would be considered totally rude!  People would gasp in shock.  To tell someone they’ve gained weight, or look fat, is taboo.  

So why is it okay to tell someone they are too skinny?  

I used to try to justify myself to such skeptics who would question me. “I exercise a lot; I eat well; I’m naturally thin”, I’d offer.  Eventually, I became irritated that I was wasting my time dignifying such questions with an answer.  Why did I have to explain myself to someone who was body-shaming me?  Who were they to judge me and my body?  Most of the time, they were projecting their own body issues onto me, but it hurt my feelings and made me defensive.  I can’t make someone who doesn’t exercise regularly understand how hard I push my body, and it’s futile to try to change their mind or control their views.   

It didn’t happen right away, but I became more curt in my responses to weight comments.  Now I just frankly say, “I think it’s best not to talk about other people’s weight”, and change the subject.  I try not to take it personally, even though I still feel a bit offended.  If I’m feeling feisty, I’ll retort, “Want to go run 7 miles with me?  Want to ride a bike through the forest up and down (mostly up!) steep hills for two hours?!”

It’s important to keep our opinions in perspective; to take them with a grain of salt.  Who are we to decide what’s right or healthy for someone else?  We should be supportive of each other, and positive with our words.  Although we may interpret someone to be “too skinny” or “too fat”, that doesn’t make it so.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the old adage goes.  Look at all of the different cultures around the world, and all of the different types of beauties, lifestyles, and diets they embrace.  

At the end of the day, we’re all the same: human.  There is no one right way to eat, no magic diet.  There is no one perfect weight, body type, or way to live your life.  As I always say, just do you.

To each their own Flow; to each their own Grace.  

   

Out With The Phone, In With Awareness

As a product of the 80’s, I’ve seen a large part of the evolution of technology.  I remember our first computer in 1985; my dad’s carphone in 1989.  I had my first pager in the seventh grade, my first cell phone by sophomore year of college, but held off on my first smartphone until 2010.  I’ve seen communication go from labored to effortless; physical to virtual.  I love technology, but I don’t love it enough to be married to it all the time.  Time spent outside in nature, fully present with heightened senses, is the technology I value most.  By “technology”, I mean it in the sense of skills and processes used to increase success and understanding.

“Instant gratification” is the buzz term of our generation, because it’s a well-fit shoe. We have so much at our fingertips, it’s often overwhelming.  Most questions and problems can be solved in lightning speed without leaving the comfort of the couch.  New technologies are developed and aggressively marketed to us, living up to the economic axiom of planned obsolescence.  When we’re not interfacing with our devices, many of us become anxious, wondering what important post, picture, or breaking news story we’re missing out on.  In that quest for constant reward, however, we can sacrifice being fully present with ourselves.  

How many of us reach for our phones (or computers, for that matter) when we feel uncomfortable?  It’s a quick escape, with endless possibilities.   Surely, I’ve done it before; there are many tasks one can complete while waiting for their coffee, after all.  But the more that phones become like second appendages in our civilization, the more I enjoy being  free from it.

I miss the days when the phone was tied to the wall; when you left the house, you were actually unreachable.  I still don’t bring my phone everywhere with me.  If I’m running or biking, I’m not carrying my clunky phone.  If I’m enjoying a meal with company, I don’t have it on the table.   If I’m out, I’m out.   I’d rather give my full attention to the experience at hand; to talk with those I’m present with, catch up on how we’re really doing; take a walk somewhere.  If I’m sharing someone’s company, I want to be fully with them, not texting, liking posts, or talking with someone who isn’t there.  I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of someone lost in their phone; they’ll disappear into their screen, occasionally interjecting back into the conversation after hearing only a piece of what was said, expecting a full summary of what they’d just ignored.  Conversely, most of us have done that to somebody else at some point.  Either way, it can feel like you’re in two separate worlds though “present” in the same room.  

I worry about our future generation of children who’ve grown up with phones in their hands.  In the over ten years that I’ve taught kids ages 12-13, I’ve seen some changes among them.  Their perseverance seems to be in decline.  If they can’t get the answer quickly from googling it, they’ll often give up.  Their physical awareness seems to be on the decline as well: a lot more bumping into each other, knocking over things.  I’ve seen many students walk into each other simply because they weren’t looking up; a couple of students have hit their heads on desk-corners from hurriedly reaching for something. Their conversational skills have changed, too.  Less questions are asked of each other (“How was your weekend?”); less eye-contact is made.  There is an impatient cadence to their tone.  I hope they learn to balance the constant rush of technology with real, meaningful human interactions.  

Recently I was in line at Starbucks, and they were particularly busy.  Every single person in line was looking at their phone.  There I was, like a time traveler from the past, just standing there in one place, doing absolutely nothing, looking at nothing in particular, no phone.  Just standing there; contentedly, no less.  It’s not the first time this has happened, but it’s becoming more pronounced over the years.  It seems that most people have adapted to always having stimulus – whether from an Instagram alert on their phone, to the TV or computer on at home – that they seem to get anxious when confronted with empty space and unstructured transitions.  The ability to wait patiently, and presently, seems to be a thing of the past.  People’s patience seems to be on a short fuse these days.  No judgment, just observation.

Perhaps we are over-convenienced.  Everything is so easily obtainable, it’s changed our metric for how long things should take.  I realize phones are computers with many conveniences.  I enjoy mine as well; I remember how much harder some things were without a smartphone.  But I will not give up my independence for a device that can (and will) fail at some point in time.   I like being able to wait patiently in line at a crowded Starbucks, not going anywhere, yet totally comfortable.  To not need to reach for that escape feels good.  If I need to use that waiting time to occasionally check an important email or text, then so be it.  But I set the boundary.  I think of it as a lesson in detachment and awareness.

When I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, I participated in Wilderness Orientation, a 10-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevadas, which I later volunteered to help lead two trips.  We did an activity in awareness that I’ll never forget.  We had been discussing the themes of mindfulness: the importance of stillness, presence, and breath; observation and inference.  We went on a hike through Pogonip, but started at different intervals so we’d be alone.  The goal was to notice as many details as you could.  I turned a bend in the trail, and took a few steps, when a dangling leg caught my eye.  I looked up and saw several of our crew perched up in an Oak tree.  

In unison, they shouted, “AWARENESS!”  I climbed up and joined them, and we waited for the next person to notice, or not notice, us.   It took me about 5 seconds to notice them; not bad, but not as good as a few others who noticed right away.  One person got almost past us until  we all shouted AWARENESS! at him.  When I feel my focus drifting, I still think, AWARENESS!

As a birder, awareness is especially important.  You don’t want to scare off your prize.  Eyes should be softly half-opened, not widely opened so the whites of your eyes are pronounced like a predator’s.  Scan the landscape overall for any movements or shapes that don’t belong.  Fox-walk: slowly transfer weight from heel to toe as you stalk, trying not to make a sound.  Listen.  Be still.  Be patient.  No sudden movements: Flow with Grace.  It’s kind of meditative. The reward of seeing a beautiful bird in its element is worth the wait.  

Anything that allows you to just be still is a great opportunity to focus on awareness, especially if it’s in nature.  Having the time to connect with ourselves and the Earth is important, especially in this fast-paced world.  It’s even better if you leave your phone at home.  

 

The Sacred Silence of Snow

“BOOM!”  The explosive, unmistakable POW! of an avalanche bomb reverberates throughout the canyon like a seismic wave.  

It’s a Powder Day at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, and the Mountain Safety Team are working avalanche control before opening the backside of the mountain.  We are lucky to be staying slope-side at The Mountain Club for a few days.  Staying on-mountain is one of the most underrated conveniences of snowboarding.  When your hotel is at the base of the chairlift, it makes everything significantly easier.  Cold, snowy weather isn’t so bad when you know a hot tub is waiting for you a few hundred yards away.

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Morning view from our balcony at The Mountain Club, Kirkwood

This current Winter season of 2016-2017 is manifesting itself as one of the wettest and most damaging storm seasons we’ve had in years.  After some five years of punishing drought, we are in the throes of a relentless, powerful deluge of a Winter.  With that deluge comes feet of snow in the Sierra Nevadas, where The Sacred Silence of Snow can now be found in sweet abundance.

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Kirkwood, 2/11/17

Atop the mountain-top, away from the chromatic groan of the chairlift, lies the true essence of the mountains: Silence.

This isn’t your average type of “Silence”, either.  Certainly not the Silence  you experience when going to bed at night; not the Silence we experience in a quiet park outside the city.  This is a full kind of Silence: thick, rich, and enveloping like a warm blanket, no matter how cold it actually is.  It holds you like a baby in its mother’s womb – secure, happy, and exactly where you want to be.  Peaceful, calm, and comforting.  Sacred.  It’s a total perspective-check, too; suddenly those concerns you had down-mountain don’t seem so pressing anymore.  I’m not religious, but being here is the closest to any kind of “Church” or “Religion” I’ve experienced.

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Riders scoping their entry to Thunder Saddle

Snowflakes of varying textures fall with an imperceptible pit-pat on the downy snowpack.  From moisture-laden Sierra Cement, heavy with vapor long traveled from the Pacific Ocean, to nearly weightless, buoyant fairies of snowflakes with just enough moisture to crystallize, each type of snowflake carries its own story.  We cherish the drier, lighter fluff of colder storms from the Gulf of Alaska, but are more often pommeled with the Pineapple Express of subtropical moisture from the likes of Hawaii.  This brings us our namesake “Sierra Cement”, which falls in copious amounts in short amounts of time, piling up feet upon feet like bricks of a wall.  This precious precipitation is not only our insurance for our state’s Summertime drinking water needs, but insurance for our desire to play in Mother Nature’s playground.

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Kirkwood, 2/12/17

I am lucky that my parents took me and my two sisters skiing from such a young age.  I learned to ski at age 3, between my dad’s protective legs, much the way I see dads with their children today.  I started snowboarding at age 12, and never went back to skiing except for a few cross-country excursions here and there.  Memories of ski trips, snowstorms, and cool rental cabins fill my childhood.  I am so thankful to my parents for taking us to the mountains so often.

Flowing over the snow is one of the highest highs I’ve ever experienced.  The float of fresh powder buoying you up, gracefully adding to your momentum, is almost like surfing a wave. Each move is graceful and resistance-free.  Speed is totally irrelevant because even if you do fall, it won’t hurt in such cushy powder.  So you just let yourself go, weight back to keep your nose up, and savor the sweet stoke of sailing down the mountain.  Pair this feeling with absolutely breathtaking views of gorgeous, expansive mountains, and it’s a dreamscape.  There is a pure and simple joy in moving over the snow that makes you laugh from your belly, whole heartedly, with total abandon.  Happiness is an understatement.  It’s like the meaning of life is unfolding before you.

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Ron and I

It’s kind of like a piece of bread becoming perfectly buttered toast, ready to eat.  If there were a giant bowl of perfectly-smooth room-temperature butter, and a piece of toast is carving its way down, with each turn, the toast gets butterier, tastier, and its edges are smoothed.  The process of flowing down the mountain is satisfying and inspiring, each move self-edifying.  By the end of the run, that plain piece of bread has metamorphosed into the most perfect piece of toast there ever was.  Your appetite is insatiable for that toast, so on you go to the chairlift as soon as you are done with one run.  It’s somewhat addictive, but in a healthy way: no artery-clogging saturated fat to worry about.  

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Kirkwood with Pyramid Peak in the background

Juxtaposed with the Sacred Silence of Snow is the chaos you likely went through just to get here.  People don’t always talk about what a huge inconvenience it is just getting here; we’re more likely to expound about how “epic” our trip was as opposed to the seven hours of edge-of-your-seat, gut-wrenching traffic it took to get there.  It’s the marathon of inconvenience we go through that tests and proves our commitment time after time.  

Trying to get to the mountains during a snowstorm?  Better make sure the highways are even open.  The Carson Spur, just a teasing couple of miles before the entrance to Kirkwood on Highway 88, is notorious for closing at a moment’s notice, fresh snow or not.  It’s steep face makes it highly avalanche-prone, and its snowpack builds up like two-story buildings along the highway lanes in heavy Winters such as this one.  When it’s closed, Highway 50 to 89 and back to 88 is an alternate route, turning a roughly four-hour trip from our house in Ben Lomond into more like six or seven hours, depending upon traffic and how much it’s snowing.  Worse, 50 and I-80 will be closed, leaving no way to get to the mountains at all.  It’s these long days that we have to remind ourselves of the pay-off while sitting uncomfortably, and at times claustrophobically, in our cars for hours on end.  Conversely, we’ve gotten stuck many times at Kirkwood, holing up in their old Red Cliffs Lodge with blankets and a deck of cards until the highways open again.  We always check the highway conditions from Caltrans and Sigalert, but conditions are often so dynamic you never know until you’re there.  We always come prepared to spend the night if needed.

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Carson Spur, Highway 88, 2/11/17

Driving in snow can be stressful.  Regardless of having a 4WD, it’s hard to see when high winds and high rates of snowfall combine for blizzard conditions.  Cars slide out into snowbanks, or worse, each other.  2WD cars may struggle in traffic on steep hills, slipping out when trying to start again from a stop.  There’s a saying on Kirkwood’s Facebook page that’s often used, probably most by its ubiquitous purveyor of stoke, Kevin “Coop” Cooper: “Slow Your Roll”.  Indeed.  Everyone needs to drive slower in the snow, and give plenty of space in front of them in case they end up sliding out on a downhill.  I love my 2004 Subaru Forester; it’s handled safely and stably in snowy conditions over 13 Winters of getting to Kirkwood.

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No matter the inconvenience it can be getting to the summit, the effort is always outweighed by the reward.  The mountains are one of my “happy places”, to say the least.  Snow-covered or not, they always provide the solace, inspiration, and beauty I need to stay motivated and happy.

The challenges Mother Nature may throw at you in the mountains usually adds to the value of the experience in some way.  I’ve had many difficult, uncomfortable situations in the mountains, but each one taught me something important.  Whether it was being stuck in the car on a snowy highway for hours on end, or stuck in a powder field for what felt like hours on end, it’s not always easy to be graceful in the snow.  It’s not always Silent, either; more often than not, there are signs of people to be heard (chairflifts, cars, talking), the sound of wind blowing (or howling at hurricane force speed), or the sound of your board scraping down hard, compacted snow fallen weeks ago.

Everyday can’t be a Powder Day.  But somewhere in most experiences there are moments of total Silence, total calm.  Some last longer than others.  Most of the time, you have to put in some work to get there.  The further away from the parking lot, the better.  In those moments of Sacred Silence in the Snow, is the grace and magic of the mountains.  When I am having a stressful moment back in the day-to-day world of work and responsibility at home, I can visualize the unfettered freedom of flying down the mountainside atop feet of Sacred Snow.  It reminds me why all we Powder Hounds work at all: to play our hearts out in our off-time.

 

Just Do You…I Got This

“Oh my God! What are you doing out here all by yourself?!” the man asked incredulously, resting with his bike on the side of the trail at Soquel Demonstration State Forest.
“Um, riding the same trail you are. What are you doing out here all by yourself?” I retorted. Why was I being questioned by a total stranger again? And not just anyone, but a dude?
“Well, some people don’t know where they’re going, or what they’re getting into out here. Just making sure. Looks like you ride a lot,” he replied, trying to recover.
I continued riding my bike past him, my irritation visible on my face. This wasn’t the first time I’d been questioned by a male rider. He saw that I was a girl, and immediately doubted my riding abilities. What was he doing alone?! Could he not see the hypocrisy? Later on that ride, I zoomed past him as he was taking a break on the side of the trail. It always feels good to speed past someone who doubted you could keep up at all.
All of my life I’ve been called a “tomboy”. I’ve always loved to be outside, doing athletic things, and taking risks. I couldn’t care less how my hair looked, or what clothes I wore. I was pretty much accepted as “one of the boys” with my childhood friends. I continued to have many guy friends that I enjoyed doing sports and other outdoorsy things with as I got older.
But an undertone of doubt developed at some points, whether it was questioning my running speed, my ability to drive in the snow, jumping from a creekside ropeswing into a swimming hole, or snowboarding down a steep run.
When I really got into mountain biking several years ago, I was perplexed by the questions I was getting from total strangers, all of whom were men. In summary, I got a lot of, “Hi; nice to meet you. Now let me question your shit”.

Specifically, these are some of the things I’ve heard from dudes on the trail:

1. “Do you know where you’re going?” looking at me as if I’m lost while I’m taking a rest on the side of the trail.
2. “You know there’s a gnarly section ahead. You got this?” As I fly down it proving him wrong, yet again.
3. “You’re all alone out here?!” Oh my gosh! Call Search and Rescue! It’s a girl by herself!

4. “You look so tiny on that big bike. This is a serious race; you sure you’re ready to race it?”. This came from someone at Northstar during the California Enduro Series. I held my tongue to say, “Good things come in small packages”. I also went on to win first place in my Beginner category that day.

5. “This trail has log drops, you know – not that you do those”. Thanks for the underestimate from someone I barely know, as I proceed to fly down said logs. Ride on, Dog.
There were all these little things adding up. I felt like I was being judged the minute these guys saw my long hair. I’d be resting on the side of the trail, perhaps letting some air out of my tires before a downhill, and be asked if I needed help; if I knew the trail I was on. While it’s nice to be offered a helping hand, the tone was often more quizzical and doubt-filled. “Are you okay?” they’d ask, with a look of concern on their faces. Just because I’m a girl alone in the woods doesn’t mean I need help, thank you very much.

Then, on a mountain biking trip to the Tahoe area, I spent a day checking out Kirkwood’s Mountain Bike Park (which compares none to Northstar’s). I rode up the chairlift with a guy who immediately started questioning me: I was alone on my trip? Planning to ride Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? And then Downieville? He seemed quite concerned.
“You know, Mr. Toad’s is a gnarly ride. Like, even I walk sections,” he said, with a know-it-all tone. “And then Downieville? That’s even gnarlier. You know what you’re getting into all by yourself? You ride a lot?”

Why did he feel he could question me like this? I wasn’t asking him about his skills. He had no idea what my abilities were, and was just operating off of assumptions that were, in my opinion, quite sexist. I humored him by answering his questions: yes, I ride a lot; yes, I’ve heard the rides are “gnarly”.

When I made it to Downieville, I was told I would be walking many sections of the trail by the guys on the shuttle with me.
“You’ll be able to do about 80% of the trail,” they predicted.

It felt awesome to not walk anything on Mr. Toad’s or Downieville; to not just do it, but ride it with true Flow and Grace. And it felt even better to pass some of those skeptics on the way down. But their doubt still bothered me.

Then there was the day I was on my way to my usual ride (Sweetness and Magic Carpet, Upper UCSC in Santa Cruz) when I saw a friend gearing up by his car to ride.
“Wait for me a sec,” he said. In a few minutes, we were off riding together. When we reached the top of the climb, he turned to me and said,
“I don’t mean to sound condescending, but I’m going to be charging down this trail, going off the jumps and everything. I don’t want you to get hurt. Do you have the skills to make it?”
I took a deep breath. Yet again, here I was being questioned. Seriously?! I have to answer to this? I tried my best to be diplomatic and gracious, but couldn’t hold back my rankled reaction.

“What ‘Magic Carpet’ did you think I was referring to when I said I was going to ride Magic Carpet? This is my regular ride. I do all those jumps too; it’s the same trail you’re doing,” I defended. “Honestly, I think you’re being sexist by asking me that. Assuming that just because I’m a girl I can’t ride the same trail you can? I’m sensitive to that, and that bothers me.”

He immediately justified his questions by saying a friend (male) had gotten hurt following him down the trail once before; that he just wanted to be sure I could do it. I was irritated, though, and considered the fact that I could’ve been ageist and questioned his skills.

My redemption came in flying down the trail as usual. I didn’t need his praise as I cleared all the jumps he had questioned me about. Then, at the very bottom there is a rocky section that dumps you onto Highway 9. It’s very technical, full of rock drops, and many people walk it. I rode it all the way down, and he looked at me with surprise.
“Wow, I don’t see many girls make that section. Impressive.”
“Just doing what I always do,” and off I went, as if I needed the approval.

Recently, my husband Ron and I were boarding The Wall chairlift at Kirkwood. The lift operator turned squarely to me (not Ron), and asked:

“Hi there; this run is for experts only. Have you been down The Wall before?”

“Yes, many times. You going to ask my husband the same question?” I asked him back, skating ahead on my snowboard to board the chair.

“Sorry just checking and doing my job!” he called back, as we boarded the lift.

Another time, it was a rainy day, and I was at the gym doing the elliptical. I was reading People magazine, and drinking a Yerba Matte. There was a man next to me on the treadmill walking. I kept feeling his gaze dart toward me, when after a few minutes, he said:

“I don’t know what’s worse for you. That ‘People’ magazine or that Yerba Matte,” he judged. I couldn’t believe I was being interrupted with such a rebuke from a total stranger.

“Seeing as how I’m a Math and Science Teacher, I like to unwind sometimes with something light. Would you like to see the Geology book I have in my bag over there? I read that, too.”
More notably, there’s all of the messages we see in advertising and media. Whether it’s commercials where a girl needs a website to help her negotiate a good car price, or the roles women play in movies and television of being helpless and dependent, the list goes on. There’s one particular ad that’s common in mountain bike magazines, whose caption reads: “Actually, I can: get up at dawn, fix my own flat, ride that trail…” and the list goes on. The statement, while seemingly based on empowerment on first read, bothered me the more I looked at it. “Actually, I can”? It seems like they’re assuming most women don’t think they can do those things. Thanks for underestimating us, yet again.
It’s not that I think every man (or woman, for that matter) who questions me is malicious and sexist. I also don’t doubt that sexism goes both ways; that men feel sexism, too. And I certainly don’t think every man is sexist. But when enough things happen, it feels like I’m being singled out just for being a girl. That’s what’s frustrating. I don’t need everyone I meet on the trail to assume I’m a pro, as much as I don’t need them to assume I’m a complete newbie. I think the important part is not to assume at all; to not make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”, as the old saying goes. I wish people would remember that when they question someone’s ability to do the same thing they’re doing; that they would have the grace to just do their own thing and not question at all.

Instead of, “Hi, nice to meet you; now let me question your gear”, let’s just start with the “Hi; nice to meet you” part. What works well for one person doesn’t always translate to another anyway. Our genders don’t necessarily mandate the best sporting equipment for us. Different strokes for different folks. I love my 29’er, workout pants, and cotton T’s. I may not ride with a matching kit, but I have fun and enjoy the ride.

And please don’t tell me I should be riding a 650B.
After all, does it really matter what I’m doing? Just do you; I got this, Bro.