That Chapter Is Done

That chapter is done

That time of my life behind me

Young, carefree, all about me

Sexy, hot little Thang

Using my chest as an asset when I needed,

A burden when I just wanted to be free

That chapter is done

Stage 2, we don’t know how bad 

It really is yet

Poked, prodded, analyzed 

To determine my odds of life or death

I want to crawl into a warm blanket and disappear

December, 2019

I know myself really well; I should, after all, at thirty-nine years old. That includes knowing my body’s idiosyncrasies, like the fibroadenomas I had diagnosed in each breast twenty years ago. I know exactly how they feel, their size, and check them often. Ultrasounds and mammograms over the years confirmed I had dense breast tissue, and fibroadenomas to monitor for changes as time went on. I wasn’t too concerned about them; breast cancer doesn’t run on either side of my family as far back as anyone can recollect. I’m active, eat healthy, and live a low-stress lifestyle. There wasn’t a big cause for alarm, just awareness. I remained aware of those lumps, checking them multiple times a month, almost like a fidget. I would find myself watching television and touching one of them. I knew all the curves of them by heart. For years, they didn’t change, and no one worried. I had my last mammogram and breast ultrasound in 2018, about two years ago, and was told I was good for two more years.

Fast-forward to the holiday season in December 2019. Winter hadn’t even arrived, and California had already been blessed with an abundance of early-season snow. Ron and I had been snowboarding at Kirkwood a few times already, and were stoked about the upcoming season. At some point while fidgeting with the almond-size lump on my upper left breast, I noticed it felt significantly larger – and harder. The texture of it was not the same as the slippery little almond that used to be there. It was irregular, about the size of a chestnut maybe, and was a little bit tender to the touch. This was something different. 

I told my husband Ron about it, and he immediately replied that he’d noticed it a few days earlier; you could even see sticking out a little bit from under my skin. 

Always tell me when you notice something like that! I quickly told him. 

It was the start of Winter vacation now, and the Winter Solstice, December 21. I had two weeks off, and with the epic amount of snow, we had a lot of snowboarding planned. I opted for a January 13, 2020 appointment to get the lump checked out, and had an awesome Winter vacation. Ron and I got in nine days at Kirkwood and it was still early season. We had a White Christmas, like I’d never had. It was a magical time of year, and we soaked up vacation heartily. We kicked off the new year strong, mountain biking everyday we weren’t snowboarding. 

January 13, 2020

When my appointment to get my breast examined began, my doctor was with the mother of one of my former students. I was surprised to see her, but also comforted by her kind, familiar presence. It’s another example of what a small town we live in.
She examined me and felt the lump. There was a silence, how pronounced or perceived I’m not sure, before she said,

Yeah, I’m going to refer you over the hill for this one to get checked out.

I didn’t think anything serious of it, other than, Darn it, I’ll probably have to get this thing biopsied, finally. My appointment was scheduled for a couple of weeks later, and off I went.

We had a vacation planned for Canada from January 17-22. It was a trip of a lifetime, and is best summarized in my most recent post. I am so happy we went on that trip when we did! Kicking Horse was the best mountain I’ve ever snowboarded – yet. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 

My ultrasound and mammogram were at Kaiser San Jose, about a forty-five minute drive from my home in Ben Lomond; we call it over the hill. I wasn’t too nervous about the appointment, and was eager to get to the bottom of it. I started with an ultrasound, and then continued for a mammogram. 

Almost right away after the mammogram, I was told there was something suspicious in my left breast, and axillary lymph node in my armpit, that they wanted to take a closer look at; essentially, they wanted to perform a biopsy. We continued into a different room where some sort of care coordinator was suddenly present to hold my hand and just provide moral support during the procedure. While the nurses and doctor prepared for the biopsy with intimidating core-sampling needles, the woman was trying to connect with me – make small talk, answer questions, put my mind at ease, presumably. Once the local anesthetic was administered, and the biopsy began on my left breast and lymph node in my armpit, she held my hand for comfort. Although she was there to calm me, in retrospect, I almost resent that she was there; not resent her, but why she was there. She was probably only there because they knew it was bad. 

After the biopsy, I went home and was told I would get my results within two weeks. Ron and I went up to Kirkwood for snowboarding over Super Bowl weekend, February 1-2. We had an amazing time, as usual. I knew there was nothing I could do until I got the results, and based upon everything I’d heard over the years – You have lumpy, bumpy, dense breast tissue, but no breast cancer in your family so your risk is low – I didn’t worry about it at all.

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Monday, February 3, 2020

After work, I had a voicemail from a doctor. Her tone was somber. I called her back once I got home, about 4:15 p.m., and she asked if I was at home and in a good place to talk. I knew she was about to drop a bomb on me. 

We got the results of your biopsy, Katrin, and unfortunately, all samples tested positive for breast cancer. 

She paused long enough to make sure I’d heard her, before continuing on about the details they had. 

There’s a mass in the upper left breast, and a smaller mass in your axillary lymph nodes. I’m so sorry.

Shocked beyond belief would be an understatement. I asked her questions: what stage, what kind, what next. I told her to give me all of the information she could.

It’s early-stage, but we need to do more tests to really understand what’s going on. Translation: we don’t know how bad it really is yet. She scheduled an appointment for Friday of that week, four days later, to meet with my team of doctors. I had a copy of my pathology report, which confirmed Estrogen-Receptor positive cells in 90% of my breast, and 70% of lymph node tested. It was HER-2 negative, something I was only just beginning to understand. 

I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Translation: my life as I knew it was over. That chapter was done.

What followed next was deep fear and sadness, but I was mostly consumed with shock. Ron was out, so I called my sister Mary. Crying and slightly panicked, I texted her that I had some pretty awful news and to please call when she had a second.

Immediately, my phone rang. I asked if she was in a good place to talk, just like my doctor had asked me. I told her the devastating news, breaking down into sobs as I said the words out loud to another human being for the first time. This was getting realer by the second. She listened empathetically, crying with me, shocked with me, just right there with me. After a few minutes of talking to her and sharing what information I knew, I saw Ron’s van pulling up in the driveway. 

I felt guilty for what I was about to tell him. I felt sorry that I was about to dump this on him as I got off the phone with my sister. In the door he came, and I gave him a tearful hug right away. 

I’m okay, but I’m not okay, Baby, I began. I got the results of my biopsy. They found cancer, I sobbed. 

He hugged me tightly and let me cry like a baby before I shared with him what information I knew. He was shocked, cried, and then affirmed that we would fight this and get through this. The best way to describe how we were both feeling was simply blindsided.

We all deal with grief in different ways. This was no different; I had received news that was causing both of us to suddenly grieve the old me – the pre-cancer me, the pre-fight-of-my-life me. And we didn’t even know how bad it was yet. 

That first night was like getting on a roller coaster through anxiety, sadness, anger, and mostly, shock. We couldn’t believe it. Up until midnight, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to work the next day, so I scheduled a substitute. I was researching the Internet like crazy, reading all kinds of stories, studies, and statistics about breast cancer, and it quickly became overwhelming.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The day began with more shock. It was indeed happening. There was nothing I could do until Friday, however. I was also no different from the day before; only now, I knew some more information. I took it as a sign to go out and celebrate the day. 

Ron and I went on a beautiful mountain bike ride at one of our favorite spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We spotted unique fungi, birds, and signs of Spring. The weather was sunny and cold, no sign of the Winter storms that should be slamming the California coast during this time of year. 

Where is Winter? We both pondered. It had started off so strong in December.

We went to Bonny Doon Beach afterwards, and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets. Sitting atop the cliffs, it was starting to get darker. 

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Let’s go, Ron said. He seemed a bit impatient.

I kept stopping to take pictures of the sunset as we started meandering back to the car, and Ron seemed increasingly insistent about leaving.

Come on, let’s go right now, he nearly demanded.

Is everything okay? I asked. He mumbled yes and hied along, hurrying back to the car. 

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When we got back to the car, he broke down crying. 

This is not the last sunset we are spending together! We are not just going to sit there and wait for the sky to get dark; I had to get out of there, he said through tears. It’s like a movie, where it’s like They had their last normal sunset together before everything changed; I can’t do it, Baby. I can’t just sit there and think about that! 

I realized then that even though he didn’t have cancer, this was happening to him, too. He was every bit as scared as I was, if not more. After all, if I die, he’s the one who has to mourn me. 

We comforted each other in the car for a few minutes before heading into Santa Cruz for dinner at our favorite restaurant, Chocolate. 

I went next door to Bookshop Santa Cruz and thought I’d give the Cancer section a quick scan. Almost right away I noticed one book shining from the shelf – Running for My Life: My Marathon With Breast Cancer by Michelle Anne Stewart. The Michelle Stewart who works at the District Office in my small school-district; the cool, nice Michelle who was principal at the elementary school, and a teacher for years, whom I taught Summer School with back in 2008. I picked it up, read a few pages, and proceeded to the check-out line to buy it. I’m not superstitious or religious, but I did take it as a sign to read her book. I would end up reading it by the next evening, and it comforted me like a warm blanket during those anxious first couple of days. She is someone I look up to for inspiration!

I went to work the next day on Wednesday. I let my school principal, site secretary, and attendance clerk – all wonderful, caring women – know about my early diagnosis, and that I was still finding out more; that I would be absent again this Thursday for a Breast MRI, and Friday for a bigger diagnostic appointment. They reminded me compassionately to make work my last priority, and that they hoped for a good prognosis. 

I realized I needed to let my kids know something about why I’d been absent so much, and thinking about all of the time I’d need to take off in the future. I didn’t want to tell them I had cancer and scare them, but I also didn’t want to just abandon them with no explanation. I decided I would start by telling them simply that I was going through a personal issue that was very important, and I was okay, but would be missing quite a bit of school over the next month or so. I held it together, emphasizing that I was okay, but that there would be some substitutes over the next couple of months until I dealt with my issue. I would be out tomorrow and Friday, but back on Monday of next week. 

Seventh graders are astute for being kids, still. I could sense their concern, as if they knew I was facing something serious. I didn’t want to panic them, but I knew it was a matter of time before they would find out. I teach in a small community. My primary doctor is the mother of one of my current students; as noted earlier, my OBGYN is the mother of a former student. Word would get out sooner or later, but I wasn’t ready to go public yet. 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

I made it through Wednesday, and when Thursday came, Ron drove me over the hill for my breast MRI. There was a bad traffic jam on Highway 17, the main artery, so we took a back road, Bear Creek Road, to bypass it (catch the medical joke in there?). As we were driving through the mountain road, I saw a squirrel get run over by the car in front of us – not just run over, but every little second of it. I could swear I saw the horror on its face after the wheel went over it. 

I freaked out and lost it. 

It’s an omen – a bad sign! I’m going to die! I wailed like a child. I sobbed uncontrollably, feeling like I’d just seen a foreshadow of my breast cancer battle. 

Ron had been doing a great job of just letting me be all over the place emotionally, but suddenly his tone changed. 

Baby, you need to stop that, okay. I really need you to not think like that and put your game face on for me right now, okay? I could tell he was holding on by a thread fighting back tears. He couldn’t stomach me talking about dying anymore. 

We drove on in relative silence for awhile, him putting his hand in mine to comfort me. No words were needed. This whole situation sucked and there was no sugar-coating it. 

I took an Ativan before the MRI, since I’m really claustrophobic. Luckily, it was an MRI in the prone position, so I was face down, like a massage-table, not supine on my back, where the ceiling of the tube is mere inches above you. I also felt the sedative kick in. I laid there peacefully, earplugs muffling the odd sounds of magnetic resonance imaging. I was doing something to help with my diagnosis, and I felt a mild sense of relief. 

After the appointment, I was completely drowsy from the medication. Ron drove me home and I slept like a baby for four hours. I stayed up late that Thursday night, until almost 2 a.m. I was so wound up about the next day’s appointment. I was to get more information about my diagnosis and prognosis, and although I was worried, I was looking forward to getting an antidote to fear: more information.

Ron’s grandmother, Blanche Deetz, passed away in November 2019. There was an interment ceremony planned in Riverside at a military cemetery, months in advance, for Friday, February 7, 2020, the day of my big appointment. He wanted to be there for me, but I really didn’t want him to miss it. He didn’t want to miss it either, but he was consumed with worry about me. He drove down early Friday morning for the service, and I drove myself over the hill. 

My mother, Kristin, and stepfather, Al, insisted on supporting me that day at my doctor’s appointment. I told them it would be hours, but my mom didn’t let that stop her. We’re coming down to support you! She lovingly insisted.

Friday, February 7, 10:00 a.m. 

I met my breast care coordinator first, a Nurse Practitioner. She was compassionate and patient with me, but also looked at me like I was dying. The sad look in her face as she put her hand on mine and said I’m so sorry seemed like she knew it wasn’t good. I didn’t like it. They’d found signs of cancer in my right breast on the MRI; she described it as a sort of ropy, long mass extending into my armpit. The tumor on the left side was actually bigger than shown on the ultrasound; it was about three by two centimeters in size. They’d need to do a biopsy of my right breast and axillary lymph node that day. As she comforted me, I appreciated the sentiment, but it just made me more nervous. 

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In the few days I had before Friday’s appointments to process the news, I’d considered all kinds of scenarios. Mostly, I’d been concerned that it was worse than they thought. That instinct was now being substantiated. How much worse is it? I wondered.

I met my surgeon next. She explained my options for lumpectomy with breast conservation surgery versus double-mastectomy. We didn’t have all of the information yet to really weigh our best option, but either way, surgery would be needed. 

I met my oncologist next, who explained I would need anywhere from two to six months of chemotherapy, followed by five to ten years of hormone blocking therapy, like Tamoxifen. This would trick my body into some form of menopause, and there was no guarantee I’d get my period back once I stopped it, presumably at age forty-four at the earliest. It would prematurely age me. This made me really angry; now it wasn’t just my life in jeopardy, but my mojo, too? I was becoming overwhelmed. 

I am a sharp cookie. My memory is meticulously detailed and vivid. I soak up information like a sponge. I didn’t need to take notes on what they were telling me; I was taking in every word. I felt myself getting mentally exhausted for a moment, feeling less sharp than usual. I was tired. This was a lot to take in. My mother was wonderfully supportive of me as I sat quietly, sobered by the news I was getting.

Around noon we got coffee and a snack, enjoying a reprieve from the onslaught of information. We waited around until nearly four o’clock for a biopsy on my right breast and lymph node. This one hurt worse than the last. My node under my armpit was so swollen and tender, the ultrasound wand alone was enough to make me wince in pain. The technicians kindly did their jobs, but there was no avoiding how sensitive it was. The needles for local anesthesia came next, and I let out a whimper like a puppy. 

If this hurts, how’s treatment going to feel? I quickly thought to myself. 

They extracted core-samples from two locations efficiently, considering what was being done. By the time I was finished, it was 5:15 p.m. I’d just spent my first full day of work at my new unpaid, mandatory job. This was just the tip of the iceberg. 

Saturday, February 8, 2020

I’ve known for only five days now, and it’s been an intense roller coaster I wish I could get off. My father Laird came down to visit today, and we had a magical hike on the Zayante Trail in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, one of my favorite places in the world. We stopped off on a beach on Zayante Creek to take in the view and tranquility. We talked and talked, and walked and walked. There were as many empathetic messages communicated subconsciously between us as there were spoken. My father grounds me, and I know he is right there with me through all of this. I am exceptionally grateful for all of my family right now – my sisters Bonnie and Mary, my mother Kristin and stepfather Al; Ron’s family; relatives. I feel the love from so many directions, and that’s comforting. I haven’t shared the news with everyone yet, as I’m waiting to understand my diagnosis more. 

My cat Beau even knows. When Ron and I cry and talk together about it, he interrupts us with persistent mews, demanding our attention. He keeps looking at me like he’s seen a ghost – perplexed, concerned, and a bit scared. He knows something is up. Perhaps he’s one of those pets that can sense it; maybe he’s just picking up on our stress. Either way, he has been demanding cuddles on the couch, all the while looking up at me with a forlorn look on his face. Right now as I type, sitting on the couch, he is on the footstool next to me in guarding position – paws tucked under his chest, looking out for intruders. 

Beau came into our lives nearly ten years ago on June 20, 2010. Ron and I don’t have children, but Beau has been the closest thing to it. We love this cat whole-heartedly. I’m 99% sure he knows I’m not well. He keeps looking at me with a terribly worried look on his face, and it’s making me a little unsettled. 

How am I doing?

I am a melting pot of emotion, but the shock has definitely gone down. While I have a lot of information, I don’t have a complete picture until I get my biopsy results next week, likely Wednesday. Then everyone will have a clearer picture of the next steps. However, it could also mean more testing is needed; that they don’t have a clear picture yet. Perhaps it is a lot worse than they thought and has metastasized to other areas in my body besides the lymph nodes. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

I love people, but I’m an introvert by nature. I’m kind of a loner; I am really good at spending time alone. There are so many interesting things to do and learn about! I enjoy the company of others, but really need my time alone. 

I recently took the Myers-Briggs Personality Test as part of one of my student’s Science Fair projects. I tested as the rarest kind, apparently: the INFJ, or Turbulent Advocate. Though the subtitle Turbulent raised some hackles when I heard it as I always thought of myself as pretty easy-going, I strongly identified with the descriptions when I read them. It gave me more confirmation of why I am the way I am. 

When I’m going through a hard time, I tend to retreat and withdraw, going inward to deal with the problem. I don’t want to talk about it with many people; I need to sort it out for myself first. Though I am researching like crazy online, I am feeling like a wounded animal, retreating to its den for protection. I am scared to be so vulnerable and weak in front of others, let alone the general public. 

The thought of people fawning over me and helping me makes me nervous; I don’t want to accept help from my loved ones. I fear the stares of strangers; the shock of students at my school. I want to be the strong, independent woman I am. I don’t want people to see me like this. I don’t have a lot of friends, anyway. This isn’t a complaint or a pity-me hook; it’s merely the truth. Sure, I keep in touch with people via social media, but on a weekly basis, I don’t physically hang out with many friends. I know few people give two cents about what I’m up to anyway; this blog post will probably go ignored like most others I share. 

I realize how overlooked and dismissed I feel in my life in general. I’ll never forget the final Oprah Winfrey episode where she articulated three key questions we all really want to know from others in life: 

Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?

I do not always feel this way, I realize. 

I know I can put up walls, but if I die tomorrow, I don’t know that I’ve felt seen, heard, and significant. Though I mostly feel that way about Ron, family, and close friends, there are times I just feel dismissed, underestimated, and flat out overlooked. I’ll go to gatherings where no one even asks how I am, what I’m up to, or cares to hear about my latest mountain bike races or adventures in the mountains; or, they listen with a placating Um hum… before moving onto a more presumably interesting topic. I’ve literally sat through so many social gatherings just feeling invisible, like I could just disappear and no one would notice. The last thing I want is sympathy from people who think less of me.

I love talking with others, but again, I’m introverted. I don’t want to make myself the center of attention, so I won’t just start sharing stories about my life unless someone shows interest. Over the last couple of years, I’ve felt more and more lonely. I admit I can act reserved, or may not seem too open at times, with people I don’t know very well. I know I’ve contributed to this feeling of loneliness; that my actions help build those walls. Although I love my alone time, I need love and connection, too. I feel like many people just don’t care about getting to know me. Some people are just not very good listeners, of course, and you can’t be everyone’s cup of tea; I try not to take it personally, but obviously, I can. We all want to belong. 

Then there are some holier-than-thou people who dismiss me because I don’t have children; some women legitimately look down on me, or anyone like me, for not doing so. No matter your confidence level, it doesn’t feel good to be criticized. I’ve dealt with passive-aggressive barbs, judgments, and intrusive questions throughout my reproductive years, and there are some people who just can’t stomach that I wouldn’t want to have kids. Now that I’m no spring chicken, I feel written off by some people as boring or unaccomplished. Chemotherapy will all but destroy my eggs and any future chances of having children, unless I freeze my eggs now, which I don’t plan to do given my hormone-receptive tumor. Though Ron and I are all but certain we don’t want children of our own, we’d rather not have the door slammed in our face prematurely, and it does sting a bit. 

Did I mention I am feeling a little defensive? Suddenly I want to fight the world. 

I want to care less about whether others see me, hear me, or care about what I say. I want to get that in perspective, because caring about what others think of me should be the least of my concerns, especially right now. 

I am mad at my cancer, but suddenly, every little thing I’m angry about in life is coming into clear focus. 

I am angry at the mean memes about me on Instagram that a few students made, circulating them among abetting kids who liked, commented, and followed along in cyberbullying. Kids are kids, but this was different. I’m mad my name was trashed, at least among some people, in our small town. Thirteen years at this school, and the last two have been somewhat of a roller coaster. There’s a lot more to that story.

I wish I were immune to people’s actions, but I’m human, too. I’m angry I’m giving that nonsense any energy at all during this time, but I truly wonder if all of the stress from that time contributed to my cancer. I’m angry at myself for the times I lost focus on all of the other good kids in my classes who need and deserve my attention. After all, for all the thirteen years I’ve taught at my school, the majority have been wonderful. That’s what I should focus on, of course.

I realize every and all area of my life I feel wronged. I can’t help but point it all out.

Now that I have cancer, yeah, part of me feels like rubbing it in any potential hater’s face: Are you happy now that I have cancer

Maybe one of my biggest lessons will be to learn to truly not give a darn anymore; to not give a darn that I can’t please everyone; that not everyone will like me. To not give a darn what others think about me at all.

I want to keep enjoying the world; I don’t want to sour in bitterness. I’ve always had a bright spirit. I’ll always remember trail running at DeLaVeaga years ago, when a passing hiker paused and looked at me with a somewhat astonished look on his face.

Is everything okay? I asked him.

Yes; I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just, you have this sort of glow about you. It’s really strong and just, beautiful. I hope you don’t mind me saying so.

I was instantly flattered, and thanked him for his sweet observation. I ran off, and yes, I felt like I had a glow about me. 

Another guy in high school, Rhett, once told me, You have good color, like your overall tone and everything is just really pretty. It was one of the nicest compliments I ever got.

Right now? That glow feels dimmed.

This flame wants to flicker alone.

I want to be alone; then, maybe, no one will notice at all. I can just fade into the background.

Deep down I’m terrified I’m going to die; I fear I might actually die. I fear the battles of surgery, radiation, and chemo that will lie ahead. I fear being a bald near-skeleton in front of my husband. Mostly, I fear I will die young. I don’t have a good feeling about any of this. 

I try to leave these thoughts pretty soon after I accept them. I allow them to enter, and then I try to escort them out the door. I realize a lot of this is out of my control, so worrying about it right now won’t help. I try to let it go and distract myself with something – cleaning the house, writing, singing, riding my bike, listening to really loud music, going somewhere beautiful outside – and for awhile, it really helps. But there is undoubtedly a shadow following me around, and I don’t know how dark or foreboding it is yet. It could be a tornado cell, or a blizzard. I know it’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, regardless. 

The plastic surgeon said something that really stuck out to me: You’re about to go into a tunnel, but there’s a light at the end of that tunnel, and you will get there.

I feel like I’m preparing for battle. I feel good, physically, but I am overwhelmed and exhausted. I am reflecting on all of the things I’ve done in my life that could have contributed to this. During my appointment on Friday, I shared those concerns with the doctors, prefacing it with the obvious dilemma of patients trying to understand why. Why did I get cancer? What did I do to deserve this?

She patiently listened as I rattled off hypotheses, from drinking milk all my life, to not wearing good enough sports bras, before warmly stopping me. 

I’m sorry, but that’s the mystery of cancer. We’ll probably never understand why, so there’s no value in blaming yourself for every little thing you didn’t do perfectly in your life, she interjected kindly

She added that it was rare for someone of my age and family history to get cancer, and that they’d be doing genetic testing to see if I carried any mutations for aggressive breast cancer, but otherwise, there wasn’t much they could do to determine the exact cause. I knew this before the meeting, but somehow thought she might concur that, Yes! That’s what might have done it

This is probably the hardest part about accepting my diagnosis – I will never fully understand why this is happening to me. Worse? If I beat it, it may come back someday to haunt me again. If I beat this, I’ll have to live in fear of it for the rest of my life. 

My life will never be the same again. No matter what, I will never be the same girl I was. 

That chapter is done.

I will never be the Energizer-bunny, go-getter, thirty-something Katrin again. That chapter is done. Those memories lived, those paths trodden, I am walking in a new direction.

Should I recover from this, I will turn forty on October 10, 2020, starting a new decade of my life. I hope I get to start that new chapter, but I fear who I will become. Will I still be able to do the things I love now, to live the lifestyle I so cherish? I’ll have menopause, aging, and a shadow following me around for the rest of my life should I beat this. Not exactly inspiring things to look forward to, but it beats being dead, I suppose. 

My last post, The Gravity of the Hill, mused about whether aging is harder for athletes, like myself, since we have built our identities so strongly around the sports we love. Will I lose myself even further than my breasts and physicality? Will I lose that sense of belonging to those sports I love so dearly? Will I ever be competitive again? It’s never been about winning a race, but darn it, it felt good when I did. 

There’s one thing I’m feeling pretty proud of right now, at least: I’ve lived my life with a carpe diem spirit for years, appreciating it pretty darn fully. I haven’t taken my life for granted too much, as far as I can tell. My life has been incredibly rich so far – full of experiences, fun, and beautiful, loving relationships that have shaped me. I am so lucky for all I’ve been able to experience so far, and ought to be grateful I am still here after all this time. Others who’ve died younger than I didn’t get that privilege. I feel guilty thinking about people who’ve had it worse than I have.

It is a privilege to be alive. Life is a real gift; I find its sanctity in everything from insects to giant old-growth Redwood trees. 

But this changes everything. No matter what, my life will never be exactly the same again. 

Being grateful for what you have doesn’t protect you from getting cancer. I’ve read many sentiments along the lines of, Getting cancer made me stop and realize how much I needed to appreciate life more, and while I know there is always more room for gratitude, I feel like I don’t really need that wake-up call. I’m sure I will grow more grateful in ways I don’t even know are possible, but for now, I am proud that I have lived thus far with such a deep reverence for life. 

I hope I come out the other side a survivor. I hope I still am a sexy little Miss Thang, not just for my husband, but for my own self-esteem. While I may not seem like a make-up and heels kind of girl, I take pride in my image, like any woman. I’ve always believed you can be naturally beautiful, even as a tomboy, which I was often called all my childhood. I may not dress up in fancy outfits and full make-up very often, but I still appreciate being beautiful and sexy, even if it’s in a t-shirt and jeans, or riding my bike.

I hope I am still a badass mountain biker. I hope Ron and I can still spend our Winters snowboarding together. I hope I can simply go for a walk with my husband.

Mostly, I just want to live – not just survive, but live to get old. While I care immensely about the five-year and ten-year survival rates of breast cancer, I care most about the forty and fifty-year survival rates. I want to live to see one hundred, or at least eighty. I fear it will come back and kill me later in life. 

I fear so much, but none of it is helpful. 

This is a true lesson in patience. I must wait for more information, more clarity. Then, I think things will start happening quickly. I will enter the Tunnel. And life willing, I will emerge out the other side healthy.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

It feels different already, Ron said, tears in his eyes. It feels different between us already. It wasn’t a complaint, a judgment, or a plea, just an authentic observation.

I feel guilty. I feel like I’m going to be such a burden. I honestly think this might be harder on you than me, because you’re going to basically watch your wife die – or maybe, actually die. Then hopefully I’ll come back to life again, but I’ll never be just like I was now, I offered. 

I sometimes think it is harder for him to grieve the loss of his old wife, all the while uncertain about how much of the old wife is going to come out the other side, if at all, after all of this. 

We were in the thick of a sad, reality bites conversation, sitting on the kitchen floor in front of the heater. 

I can sense you withdrawing. I understand you need to process things yourself, but Baby, I’m on your team. We’re in this together; don’t shut me out, okay? I know you want to just curl up and retreat, but I want you to fight that. I need you to let me fight this with you, my loving husband said earnestly. 

I felt genuinely guilty that there were times over the next several months or so that I wouldn’t be there for him – emotionally, physically. I felt sorry for him. 

He noted how I was cowering like an embarrassed child, and told me not to feel guilty, not to hang my head low. Look me in the eye, Baby. I love you. 

A few minutes later, he showed me something he’d found online about the difference between guilt and shame. He read me some of it, and it resonated like a bell. I was feeling guilty, yes, but mostly, I was feeling shame. I am pretty in touch with my emotions, and usually can express them clearly and timely. As soon as he said the word shame, though, it clicked. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how I’d been feeling since I found out about my diagnosis, but shame was underlying all of it. 

Once the emotion was identified, I felt relieved. Ron added that although I’m entitled to feel whatever I need to feel, there is nothing for me to be ashamed of throughout this whole process; to not shut him out and withdraw.

I was blown away by how much of a revelation it was. It was an example of how teamwork and love change your life; how I wouldn’t have come to that realization, at least not as soon, without my husband’s love. I felt so grateful for him. It was such a powerful moment between us: I needed to let him in, worst self and all, and trust him to love me through it. There was nothing to be ashamed of. I was not a failure.

Emotions are like rocks, at least to a Science teacher who loves geology. I’ve been allowing myself to feel whatever I feel, visualizing each emotion as a rock.

Some are light pebbles, soft and polished from years of wisdom, and nearly bounce off me like wedding rice being thrown on a bride. Some are jagged stones, rough and fractured. Some are heavy like boulders, needing heavy lifting to maneuver. 

I’ve been letting myself sit with each rock, each emotion, taking it in for what it’s worth, before gently setting it down. I am trying not to carry any of them around, although there is a constant circulation of samples inside me. 

This emotion – shame – was a boulder I could not move out from under on my own. I needed the help of a loved one to set it down. I needed my amazing husband to show me what I could not see for myself. 

First, I needed to feel all of that shame – that I am thirty-nine years old and got cancer; that I am losing my younger self. 

What did I do so wrong to get this? 

I’m ashamed that it wasn’t caught earlier, if that were even possible. I’ve been a mild hypochondriac all of my life. I used to look up illnesses in the PDR all the time when I was a child. I have always been super on top of my doctor appointments, screenings, and know my body well. 

Over the last couple of years, there have been a couple of changes I noticed: increased fatigue, which I attributed to sleep apnea and aging, and I started getting a day-long flu every couple of months or so. Some would say it was kind of like an exercise-induced migraine headache. I experienced two mountain bike races in this state of nausea, tension like a mammoth vice grip on the back of the neck, and total exhaustion. I suffered through teaching, and some days, I couldn’t make it through sixth period, having to go home early. The best solution was to go to sleep, and not just for a short nap, but at least a few hours, if not longer. 

I wrote off entire days from these experiences. I investigated all sorts of causes, from dirty water bottle mold, lack of proper nutrition while overexerting myself, to my sleep apnea; I thought of so many different things. I went to the doctor and got bloodwork; I was healthy on paper, and in the flesh, seemingly. I still don’t know exactly what the culprit was for this onset of sickness at somewhat often intervals, but now I think it was related to my cancer. 

I’m ashamed at the thought of looking like a dying skeleton while I’m going through treatment. I don’t want my kids to see me in such a bad state. I don’t want to scare the hell out of them, and I also don’t want to feel completely embarrassed – ashamed – by my haggard presence. 

I’m ashamed that my body is failing me at such a young age. I’ve always considered myself to be in prime physical shape, an athlete. I’ve been pescatarian for twelve years, and haven’t drunk alcohol in seven. I try to avoid pesticides, and the multitude of chemicals that we’re exposed to in this day and age. I’ve long thought about living to be 100, but now, I know my odds are decreased. No matter the outcome, this shadow will follow me around for the rest of my life. 

I am mostly ashamed that I am failing my husband as his wife. We met when I was twenty-four years old, waiting tables together at Shogun sushi restaurant in Santa Cruz, before getting together when I was twenty-five. He’s only known me as a young, pretty thing, and that’s how I want him to always think of me. I felt like that version of myself was about to die. 

He reminded me of a time I had foot surgery at twenty-three years old. Though we didn’t know each other then, he knew I was off my feet for eight weeks, and that it was a full year before I felt fully strong again. It was a big challenge for someone so used to being active, and the first time in my life my mobility was legitimately limited. He analogized cancer to that recovery time: yes, the gravity of the situation was much worse, but there was nothing wrong with me as a person. I was just injured and would need to heal with a lot of downtime, but there was nothing to be ashamed of. 

I wasn’t failing him as a wife by having breast cancer. Yes, things were going to be different between us on many levels, but we would face those obstacles as they come. It was going to be terribly difficult, full of peaks and valleys, crests and troughs, but we needed to fight.

That began with fighting the shame; fighting the feeling that I had failed as a person. 

Next, we would be in for the fight of our lives – or the fight of my life, specifically. That’s what we needed to focus on.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Anger. Just anger. I am so freaking pissed off at everything. I went to work today, and realized how much I need to not be there. I need to focus on my health, not my job. 

After work, Ron and I were going for a bikeride, and he forgot his helmet at home; I just about lost it. 

The world is conspiring against me! Nothing is working out! I cried. 

We had time to go back home, get the helmet, and go for a much needed, stress-reducing ride together, fortunately. MTB Therapy. But I am so mad today at everything today. Screw cancer.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

I feel fragile. The gravity of the situation is getting quite heavy. Work was really hard. I feel sober in the truest sense of the word. I have started letting some close friends and relatives know.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I took today off work for my genetic testing appointment. Ron and I were able to go for a fun bikeride together which temporarily lifted my spirits. More MTB Therapy. Realizing my rides are numbered as I approach treatment, I feel somber. 

I finally got my right breast biopsy results today; some positive news, finally. The biopsy was negative for cancer; all samples were benign. I celebrate this sliver of good news and celebrate the rest of the day.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

It’s been five years to the day that Ron proposed to me at Indicator’s break in Santa Cruz, tandem surfing together. I cannot believe it’s been that long. 

I had my last day at work today before my medical leave of absence starts next week. I couldn’t bear to tell the kids since I felt like I’d just start balling in front of them; I didn’t want to scare them or make them sad. I’m going to miss them, though; their levity, humor, and energy keep me going! It felt too real once the bell rang for my last class. I was done. I didn’t need to come back until August for the new schoolyear, but this wasn’t a happy leave. I fought tears until my car, crying all the way home. I emailed all of the parents that evening to let them know I was taking a medical leave of absence to fight breast cancer, and how much I’d enjoyed teaching their students this year. 

Friday, February 14, 2020

Ron and I have never been big Valentine’s Day people. We slept in, and went for a beautiful bikeride together. I am cherishing each and every ride. I don’t know how long it will be until I can ride again like normal, whatever that will become, but I do know how therapeutic it is for me. It is a true anti-depressant. 

Later, my amazing sister Mary came up from San Diego to visit. We talked and talked and talked, and laughed over a ridiculously expensive shopping trip to the local health-food store.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

It’s been almost two weeks since I was diagnosed, but it might as well have been two months. I am already in a different place with the news, and I realize my emotions will keep evolving. Ron has been an absolute hero for me – listening, talking, comforting me every moment I need him. 

My family has rallied around me and surrounded me with love, with phone calls, emails, and visits. Today, my mom came down and took Mary and me out to lunch at Rocky’s Cafe down the road. I always feel good being with my family. We got one-hour foot massages afterward, which was a lovely respite from everything. We had a wonderful time together, and although there were somber moments, I was grateful for all of the laughs we were able to share. That’s one thing our family has going for us: we’re all pretty positive people. Even if we’re realists, we tend to keep a good attitude. 

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Orchids Grown by My Mother

That evening, my dad came down for dinner with Mary, Ron, and me, at one of our favorite restaurants in Felton, Cowboy Grill. We had a rich, satisfying dinner, followed by a special treat after dinner: looking through old photo albums from my father’s family. I always love looking at old family pictures. He even brought down a priceless family Bible, signed over the generations with people born into the family. It was a sentimental end to a pleasant evening.

My oldest sister Bonnie has gone above-and-beyond to reach out to me from across the pond in London, and I can feel her warm presence although we’re thousands of miles apart. Skype calls, emails, phone calls, all lovingly and thoughtfully sent; questions to consider, cool blog posts she found, words of encouragement, and sweet friends of hers to connect with who’d survived breast cancer themselves. She’s already planning trips out here to come visit, too. The biggest gift of all has been feeling her empathy, but she gave me another huge gift: Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. I am nearly through reading it, and it has informed me beyond my expectations about cancer, my treatment, and what I can expect should I beat it. Knowledge quells fear, and reading this tome has really quieted some nerves for me. For example, I was surprised to read that fibroadenomas don’t typically turn cancerous. Whatever this new tumor was, I could find some comfort knowing it was a different beast.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

I am really feeling the love from Ron and my family right now, and am extremely grateful for them. I look forward to building more fun, light-hearted memories with them in the future; to traveling; to sharing inspiring moments out in nature. 

Soon, into the tunnel I must go. May I emerge into the light as a healthy woman. It is nearing go-time. Time to face reality and start treatment, with surgery first. This is getting real. I’m terrified, but remind myself it could be worse.

Whatever happens in these next several months, I know one thing for sure: I won’t ever be quite the same again. Though my spirit is strong, my life has already changed.

My youth fading into the background, that chapter is done. 

Here’s to writing the next one. 

 

Scratching the Surface of the Canadian Rockies

I love the mountains. I’ve spent my life exploring them on bikes, snowboards, and my own two feet. This California girl has seen a lot of mountains, but I hadn’t ever been to Canada. I only scratched the surface of the Canadian Rockies on my maiden trip, but I was blown away by what I experienced. For someone who loves the mountains, it was no wonder I felt like I’d been missing out all my life.

Dramatic, stoic, imposing. Majestic, dynamic, towering. These are some real mountains, alright.

My husband Ron’s father, Ron Sr., lives in Invermere, British Columbia. We got a fantastic deal on plane tickets to go see him from January 17 – 22, and booked our trip excitedly.

Flying into Calgary at roughly midnight, we were picked up by Ron’s stepmother Cindy’s daughter Michelle – a real trooper picking us up at 1 a.m. from the airport, taking us to her house for the night. It was about -30°C (or -22°F) that first night.

Early the next morning, we set out for Invermere with Michelle, her boyfriend Sheldon, and their adorable dog Kasey, who would rest his sweet head on my lap every now and then along the beautiful drive. As the sun came up, we stopped in Canmore for a quick coffee. I was stunned by how gorgeous the landscape was revealing itself to be, and so excited for the trip!

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It was about a three and a half hour’s drive from Calgary to Invermere, where Ron Sr. and Cindy have a nice condo. Cindy’s kids Angie and Garrett, along with their spouses Pipes and Katie, and their children, joined us for what would be a fun weekend of snow, adventuring, and getting a taste of Canadian life.

We settled into the beautiful condo, and set out to Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, about fifteen minutes down the road. With kids and family in tow, we had a great time frolicking among the slopes. Ron and his father skied their first run together in 25+ years, which was an awesome moment to capture. Fairmont is a great family resort, with about 1,000′ vertical descent, and just a few runs.

The icing on the cake was playing on the sledding hill at the base of the mountain with all of the kids at the end of the day; Ron even served as a sled for them all to ride atop! We had a great family dinner that night with everyone, and went to bed happy and content.

The next day, Ron and I went for a morning adventure with the kids and Ron Sr. out on Lake Windermere. I’d never walked upon a frozen lake, and it was such a cool experience. The lake boasts the longest ice-skating track in the world at 34km. We watched as some competitors hied past us along the ice before returning back to the condo.

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Next, Ron and I set out to Panorama Resort. I’d already been in awe of the mountains I’d seen so far, but driving up to Panorama I was like a kid in a candy store. The steepness! So dramatic! All that snow! I could tell we were in for a treat.

We spent the day excitedly exploring as much of the mountain as we could. Although there was a lot of good snow, it hadn’t snowed much over the last week or so. There were some moguled sections that we avoided although they were soft on impact. There were some nice off-piste lines, but the trees were generally densely packed, making tree-skiing difficult in most areas.

There was some genuine champagne powder over at Taynton Bowl, though, and it was worth the effort. You have to do a short hike, about fifteen minutes, from the Summit to the bowl. It was by far our best, and longest, run of the day. Panorama boasts 4,300′ of vertical descent, and charging down from Taynton Bowl all the way to the base was definitely a journey, bringing a smile from ear to ear.

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I Couldn’t Put My Camera Away – So Many Stunning Moments!
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Breathtaking Views Abound
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Happy Face
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Heaven on Earth

We finished off the day exploring different chairs and runs, and I had an insane run down the Downhill, just carving fast from top to bottom. This is an Olympic training run, and it doesn’t disappoint! The angle will get your heart pumping if all those turns don’t. So much fun! We had such a blast at Panorama, and headed back to Invermere for dinner at the Copper Point Resort, which was hearty and complimented by the latest football game on multiple televisions.

The next day was Monday, January 20, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As I listened to U2’s song “Pride (In the Name of Love)” on the radio, I thought about his innumerable contributions to society, his selflessness, his inspiration to others. Although I’m sure he’d rather inspire others to act in defense of others, I felt inspired that Monday to really seize this day, to make the most of our biggest adventure yet: we were heading up to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, BC.

We’d spent the previous night looking at trail maps and YouTube footage of Kicking Horse, giggling like school children at all of the black and double-black runs, but most of all, we were ridiculously excited to snowboard over 4,300′ of vertical descent! Our longest runs at our home mountain Kirkwood boasts about 2,000′ maximum vertical drop. Little did we know just how much longer these runs would feel!

We got our tickets and boarded up the Golden Eagle Express, a high-speed gondola that whips you up to the top of the mountain at 8,218′ in just a few minutes. I was so impressed by the quality of amenities at all of the resorts we’d been to so far; compared to Kirkwood, which has awesome terrain but sometimes lacks in conveniences, it was eye-opening to see so many high-speed quads, mid-mountain cafes, nicely maintained facilities, even warming Yurts on the mountain. Canadians do Winter better than we do, that’s for sure. Then again, their version of Winter is a lot more intense than ours, especially when it comes to temperature.

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Breathtaking

We were lucky it wasn’t super cold during our trip, about -5°C most days. Everyone kept asking if I was cold, which I found comical as I spend most of my weekends snowboarding. California may not get Winter like Canada, but we get Winter weather, down into the negatives, too. The coldest I’ve snowboarded in at Kirkwood was -7°F (-22°C), and the solution was to bundle up more. I’ve been skiing since I was 3, so I’ve got some experience when it comes to keeping warm among the cold. I did come prepared with good snow clothes, layers, jackets, gloves, boots, and a hat. I’m pretty prepared when it comes to Winter activities, and felt that way in Canada on the slopes.

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When we got to the top of the mountain, it was howling windy with limited visibility. We high-tailed it down to the Stairway of Heaven chair, which accesses the famous Ozone wall. There was a ton of amazing terrain in this area, and good tree riding. This is one of the few zones where the trees are well-spaced out; most stands were densely packed, which made finding tree-spots extra special.

We bounced around the mountain trying run after run, smiles growing wider by the chair. It was sunny at the top of the mountain, and then it snowed mid-mountain. There were ferocious winds with blinding, blowing snow, followed by leeward slopes laden with fresh, champagne powder. We were just blown away by how awesome the mountain was. All of the variety it had – from bowls, to groomers, to chutes so steep you feel like the bottom might drop out from under you – was overwhelming, in the best way possible. We’d never skied such a big mountain like this, with such expanse, dramatic drops, long vertical descent, and light, fluffy snow. They call it the Champagne Capital of BC. Kicking Horse truly kicks ass! This was our favorite resort of the three we sampled this trip.

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Sunshine!

Coming down a chute into Crystal Bowl was like snowboarding blind. It was so windy and snowy, the visibility was almost nil. I could barely see Ron coming down from the top, except for some of these pictures I got. The snow was still soft underfoot, and we went for it with flow and grace.

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Ron

This was our day. We attacked with passion and kept going back until the last run of the day, which we used to do a little hike and skate over to Super Bowl. Super Bowl is a wide bowl with chutes entering it, but the chutes were closed off to public for an upcoming contest (they always save the good stuff for the pros, of course). We came down the main bowl, best run of the day, stopping several times to take in the breathtaking views of the Rockies.

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Skating Along the Ridge
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Interesting Geology to Explore!

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River Valley

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SuperBowl, Here We Go!
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Choosing Our Lines

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Looks Super!

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Such Amazing Views

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Taking in the Gorgeous View
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Top of the Stairway to Heaven Chair
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Mmm…Drop!

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Top of Stairway to Heaven

I can’t explain exactly how I felt, but on the drive home from Golden back to Invermere, I teared up, feeling like I’d just found a new home; like I’d been missing out on something all of my life, and now I knew what it was. It was a spiritual feeling in a sense, that I needed to explore these mountains more; that scratching the surface of the Rockies on this trip was just the beginning of a new passion for me. Again, I’ve always loved the mountains. I live and breathe the mountains as an avid mountain biker, trail runner, and snowboarder. To finally experience this level of mountains was life-changing for me. It reminded me of what a big world we live in, and how much more I want to see. It reminded me that I am always at home in the mountains, no matter where they are. It made me want to go back.

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On Tuesday, it was time to head back to Calgary. We stopped off for lunch in Banff with Ron’s dad and Cindy, enjoying a quick stroll through a snow sculpture exhibit. I can see why people would enjoy coming here! It was beautiful for the little bit we saw.

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One of my Favorites
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Awesome Snow Sculptures!

We had pizza in Calgary at Pipes and Angie’s house that night with the family, which was wonderful. Ron and I checked into our hotel near the airport, enjoyed a nice hot tub, and a good night’s sleep.

The next day on Wednesday, our flight was to leave at 4 p.m. Ron wanted to go snowboarding once more to Nakiska, a resort about an hour out of Calgary. I was exhausted and wanted to sleep in, content with all the snowboarding we’d already done, and opted to sleep in and take a nice, long hot tub instead. He returned about 12:30, having said it was a fun morning, but ice-rink hard without any new snow. I’m glad he went to check it out, but I enjoyed my spa morning very much at the hotel!

We flew home that evening on Air Canada Express into San Francisco. I felt rejuvenated, inspired, and enlivened from our vacation. Seeing family was enriching, and experiencing the Rockies was, too. Though we’re not ballers, Ron and I keep talking about how awesome Kicking Horse must be after a two-foot dump, and how awesome it would be to just buy some plane tickets and head on up to BC when that happens. Revelstoke is also in the same area, and we’re excited to check that out next. And if we were true ballers? We’d go heli-skiing, duh. That’s up there on our bucket list.

Maybe we’re already ballers enough, though. To be able to take this trip was a true gift I’ll never forget. That’s balling enough for me.

Life is short and passes quickly, even when you take the time to cherish everyday, appreciate what you have, and seize the day doing what you love. I’d always wanted to go to Canada, and I’m so happy I went when I did. You never know what life will bring next. Take all those trips you want to take when you can, because there’s no guarantee of someday, only today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gravity of the Hill

Life is but a series of cycles, symbiotically played out over the course of time. We are born and we die only once, but we experience many different stages throughout our lives. Our childhood, youth, and phases of adulthood can feel like different lifetimes. Weathered by the climbs and descents of life’s peaks and valleys, we grow wiser and more resilient with each hill we summit.

Special attention is often given to one particular hill in life: the hill of getting older. Being over the hill is often associated with being over the age of forty, although that’s just another stereotype. I’ve mused about this topic before, but now that 2020 has arrived, it’s taken on a new significance: this year I turn forty years old.

I recently registered for a bike race, and was shocked to see myself in the Women’s 40-49 year old age bracket, as race age is determined by the last day of the race year, December 31. I’m still in my last year of my thirties, but a new decade has begun, even though my birthday isn’t until October 10. Until then, I’m in the trite position of contemplating my senescence and mortality, like every other person on the cusp of adulthood and middle-age (cue dismissive eye-roll). It must be a rite of passage to ponder your aging body as you approach what society, and some medical research, to be fair, has deemed the top of the hill.

Forty is the notorious hallmark for the gateway to middle-age. As I cling to being thirty-nine years old for ten more months, I question my own hullabaloo about turning the big four-o, as I can see the signs of its arrival already etched into the lines on my face. As a woman, I am also immensely aware of closing the window on the reproductive stage of my life. I feel like I’m sitting near the cusp of my physical peak, getting ready to go down. Clearly, it’s giving me some unpleasant feelings about getting older, especially in regards to athleticism.

This is not a rant about a woman getting older, however. That’s a story as old as time, and my intention is not to be a spoiled brat complaining that she’s getting older; yawn. I am genuinely curious about the psychology of aging. I am particularly interested in how athletes feel about physical aging, since so much of our identity is tied to our bodies. Many professional athletes have described having a hard time letting go of their prowess, of course.

I know I am lucky for every day I get to grow older; it beats the alternative, as they say. It’s an absolute treasure to have lived so long. I’m extremely grateful for the years I’ve been blessed with so far. All of the experiences, relationships, and knowledge I’ve gleaned made me who I am today. I’ve lived most of my life feeling like an eighteen year-old, physically speaking, but my looming birthday carries a weight I cannot ignore, and not simply for the societal emphasis it gets. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve built my life upon daily exercise, based upon a pure love of movement, and getting older presents the possibility of slowing down.

I am not afraid of getting older in and of itself, as I firmly believe people get more interesting as they age. There is something so inspiring about a ninety year old woman sharing stories from The Depression, or a one hundred year old sharing heroic stories from Pearl Harbor. Our elders are our guides in society, and deserve recognition for all of the wisdom they have cultivated in their storied lives. Everyone has a story to tell. I hope I’m fortunate enough to live so long to tell my tales, to be an esteemed sage.

I am especially inspired by our elders who continually break age barriers and expectations, running marathons in their eighties, mountain bike racing in their seventies, and swimming laps into their hundreds. I am equally inspired by my elders writing books, helping charities, and being amazing grandparents – there are plenty of activities besides sports that enrich someone. These are the idols I aspire to be like as time goes on; the ones who prove the old adage (ahem), Age is just a number.

What am I so afraid of then?

My greatest fear is not being able to feel the gravity of the hill – or feeling the gravity of the hill, depending upon how you look at it.

First, there’s the gravity of flowing downhill, and then there’s the gravity of climbing the hill of life, a cliche metaphor for aging. The former stokes a lust for life, while the latter challenges it. Though we all know we’ll age and die someday, it’s not until the footprints of age emerge on our lifepaths do we heed its gravity. I am starting to feel the gravity of the hill of aging; I can’t deny I’m entering a new stage of life. Though I may still feel young physically, knowing what lies ahead is humbling.

What worries me most is losing the gravity of the hill – the good hill, that is; the fun hill, the sweet flow of moving downhill. That scares me, and keeps me up at night as I watch the sands of my hourglass trickle near the half-way mark. I think any athlete feels this way when they evaluate their own mortality. 

When we’re young, we don’t have to think much about aging, although we often do anyway. The gravity of age hasn’t hit us yet, and we are free to live with freedom and abandon, recovering quickly from injuries and setbacks. We progress in our given sports, getting good, and grow proud of our finesse. As we approach older age, and big birthdays that usher in new decades of our older lives, it’s only natural to reflect upon our health, lifestyle, and goals for the future. When you’ve spent your life centered around sports and physical pursuits, the prospect of losing your acumen in those realms is not only humbling, but disconcerting.

I’ve never really struggled with insomnia, but lately I’ve had a few restless nights, caught in the tunnel of aging anxiety. Ron and I only have so many more bikerides together, I fret. Only so many more snowboarding trips, so many more adventures in the mountains… I start panicking about running out of time. I visualize the number of rides left in our lives counting down, shrinking by the day. I think about aging loved ones and family, and all the memories I still long to create with them.

When you think you’re running out of time, any second spent idly is a second wasted, even if it’s the middle of the night. There’s an urgency to seize the day, enjoy it as much as you can, and fill your heart with as many memories as possible. I don’t take life’s blessings for granted, but even when you appreciate every day, time still goes by too fast. My husband Ron and I do a pretty decent job seizing the day, going riding and snowboarding as much as we can, and I still feel like there’s not enough time.

I remember being in my mid-thirties and consciously thinking to myself, I’m at my physical peak; I’m the best physical shape I’ll ever be. Appreciate this time. I did appreciate it, and still do. Gratitude doesn’t slow down the hands of time, though. Inevitably, time catches up with you. I appreciate all of the experiences that got me where I am today, the wisdom I have, the peace of mind (except about aging, obviously), but it still doesn’t make aging any gentler.

Aging isn’t easy no matter who you are, but is it emotionally harder on athletes?

Athlete or not, we all need our bodies to live a good life. We are nothing without our health. We all want to live independently, to move comfortably by our own volition. Whether reading a book, knitting a sweater, or running a race, we enjoy the world through our bodies, manifesting our dreams.

As athletes age, though, we face not only physical decline, but losing part of our identity; at least that’s how it feels to me. The threat of losing my ability to be outside doing what I love seems insurmountable. Feeling the gravity of moving downhill is exhilarating, breathing life into our veins. We cherish the feeling of a good day on the mountain or on the water; we chase the rush of flowing through a gnarly section with grace. The inherent challenges of the sports we do provide us not only with a sense of accomplishment, but happiness. Stoke and flow are popular buzzwords for good reason. Meaning of life stuff, as I often remark.

The deep-seated joy we get from doing our sports is like therapy – clarifying our minds, sharpening our skills, and leaving us with a contented sense of calm. The emotional benefits of exercising outdoors are grounding and powerful, but the fun part is what hooks most of us into a sport.

For most athletes I know, physical activity is simply part of who they are; it is more than just a hobby or sport, but part of their existence. They live and breathe their passions through physical movements, honing their craft over years of muscle-memory building experience. They are their sports. They’re often also happy, contented people. One of the main reasons I am so active, aside from feeling like I’m driven by a motor at times, is how amazing, even euphoric, it makes me feel. I’ve always been active, and I love how I feel during and after being physical. There’s also a spiritual aspect to it, as if being in a holy Land.

I love the intensity, rhythm, and focus of mountain biking; it’s my main love. The Santa Cruz Mountains are a dream for riding. I enjoy the feeling of freedom I get from trail running – powerful and independent, relying on my own two feet, no gear or interface between me and the Earth, except my shoes. I feel like I can seriously do anything when I’m in a solid running stride. Rock climbing, yoga, snowboarding, a little surfing and paddling have also been big interests over the years. I’m happy if I can just go for a walk through the forest, though. Being outside in nature is where I belong.

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Living in Santa Cruz, California, there are plenty of active people living in our community; most notably, surfers and mountain-bikers, which makes sense given the waves and terrain. Weekend parking lots are full of trucks with bike and surf racks. West Cliff Drive teems with runners, walkers, bicycles, and sightseers from all walks of life. It’s a beautiful sight to see so many people out enjoying the incredible natural habitats we are lucky to live among. There are many towns like Santa Cruz across the world, full of active, outdoorsy people taking advantage of the gorgeous areas they live in. Whether it’s a mountain town, beach town, or valley town, if there’s a strong contingent of athletes living there, you’ll notice pretty quickly. It definitely keeps you inspired, and occasionally, accountable.

Perhaps just as important as the physicality of sports is the camaraderie and community we develop within those realms. It’s deeper than the stereotypical image associated with our sport; more than the clothes and brand names, more than pop-culture references from movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Vertical Limit. We experience bonding adventures, overcoming challenges only other athletes within our sport would understand. We share knowledge, gear advice, and time together doing what we love. There’s a lot of unspoken understanding and communication. If we don’t share our sport with someone directly on the trail or on the water, we most likely share our love for it online through social media or websites dedicated to our passions. I read the Comments section of many forums, and I usually learn something new from them. In this day and age, we are tied in many ways to the sports we love, and develop a sense of belonging from that relationship.

Our sports also become part of our identity, something we can label ourselves as with pride. When athletes are asked to describe themselves, we are quick to identify ourselves as mountain bikers, runners, soccer players. While ego can get involved with sports, and it’s okay to be competitive and proud, most fellow athletes I know are in it for the true love of it.

How can we maintain our connections to the sports we love as we get older? Aside from the established efforts of a healthy diet, exercise, and low stress, one piece of advice emphatically stands out lately:

Keep on moving.

That’s it. Just keep moving, as long as you’re able. I’ve heard this from more elders than I can remember, and succinct as it may be, it rings true.

I thought of this recently when I was snowboarding at Kirkwood, one of my favorite places on the planet. It was a super cold day, maybe 12℉ with wind chill at the top. I’m used to wintry weather, but I was feeling especially tired. I thought about the warm hotel room waiting for me, the hot tub, the comfortable bed to curl up in. It sounded so wonderful, and though lifts were turning for another hour or so, I considered stopping early. I took a short break and got some hot coffee, which always helps improve the situation.

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Looking out on the windy, icy expanse outside, I got a gut-punch feeling to go back, like a push. Get out there. The memory of how fun it is to glide down a snowy mountain face is like nothing else, and powerful enough to motivate. It’s the same thing that happens every time it’s a uniquely cold Winter day. I went back out and got a few more runs, getting one of the best of the day.

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Returning to the hotel room later that evening, and basking in the heavenly embrace of a perfectly heated hot tub, I appreciated it down to my chilly bones. Though not the coldest or hardest day I’ve had by any means, I reflected on how moments like these shape us into more resilient beings. Every time we are uncomfortable, cold, nervous, whining (especially whining), and otherwise reluctant, it is easier to just stay home and give up. It’s easier to find one of the many valid excuses not to subject yourself to freezing winds and blowing snow, and stay cuddled up in the hotel room nice and warm.

Every time we get outside, despite our complaints and minor discomforts, we persevere as more confident, and disciplined, athletes. We also streamline our habits and get the best gear possible to stay as comfortable as possible; we evolve, ideally, to become more efficient at withstanding any kind of weather. Think back to when you were a kid and first went skiing; you likely complained that it was cold, wet, and uncomfortable. If you kept at it, though, you soon got over those inconveniences and accepted them as part of the fun; you probably also found what clothing worked best to keep you warm.

As we get older, it may seem easier to just stay home and skip the discomfort, which is why that sage advice becomes more important: keep on moving. Especially when it’s cold, especially when it seems tempting to just stay in, keep on moving. Keep going outside. It’s always easier to stay comfortable, but we grow stronger when we make ourselves just a little bit uncomfortable, and then push through it. I’ve learned this lesson before in more challenging situations, but as I reflect on aging, it carries a lot more weight.
There’s another piece of advice I live by, that came to me years ago when I was being hard on myself and comparing myself to other athletes:

It’s not what; it’s that.

It’s not what you’re doing, it’s that you’re doing it at all.

It’s not what trail you’re riding; it’s that you’re riding.

It’s not about what boulder problem level you’re sessioning at the climbing gym, it’s that you’re climbing at all, that you came into the gym in the first place. You could have stayed home, but no, you chose to challenge yourself and move. You kept moving. You showed up to the trail, gear and all. It’s about honoring our efforts to show up and participate, which is often the hardest part.

It doesn’t really matter what level you’re at; it just matters that you’re doing something you love. While it’s wonderful to be talented at something, we can always find someone better than us, or someone we think we’re better than. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, especially as an athlete. The mantra that, not what keeps things somewhat in perspective for me. Moreover, keep on moving.

May I be so blessed to live long into elderhood, for life is so unpredictable. Life is more than just peaks and valleys, stages and phases; it’s a vibrant, emanating force that drives us all to feel the gravity of the hill, to love deeply, to live courageously, to examine our short little lives for all they’re worth.

I don’t know if aging is any harder for athletes to cope with, but I do know life is sacred, and warrants our full attention. More importantly, it calls for reverence – for those who have lived before us, and for all of the experiences we have had in our own lives. The collective experience of humanity bonds us all, from zygote to ashes. Someday when I die, these words will evaporate into the universe. Until then, everyday is an opportunity to appreciate life, and that includes the gravity of a sweet downhill.

When I’m eighty years old, I don’t expect to be charging down the same trails I ride now, but if I can ride my bike even just a little bit, I think it would bring a smile to my face. When I’m ninety, I may not be snowboarding like I do now, but if I can get on a pair of skis and hit the hill, I’m going to do it. When I’m one hundred, I may not be running up and down hills through the forest, but if I can stroll through the Old-Growth Redwood Loop at Henry Cowell, I know that’d satisfy my soul.

When I’m old, I may not be winning mountain bike races anymore, but if I’m riding a bike at all, I’ll be stoked. If I can’t ride? Then by all means, put me on two wheels somehow and tow me around so I can feel the wind in my face. The gravity of the hill is what I need.

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Team KatRon

 

Humble Pie With A Side of Compassion, Please

Every generation has its challenges to face, from Generation Z to the Greatest Generation. Anyone alive today, regardless of age, shares a common challenge: how to live in a world that is increasingly dependent upon the Internet of Things, while maintaining our Humanity in our interactions with each other, especially in the Wild West of social media.

The year 2020, just over a month away, marks the end of The Teens. It also marks over ten years since billions of people around the world have embraced some form of social media in their daily lives. It is the largest psychological and sociological experiment done on humans. We’ve either been born into, or grown into, a life of staring down at our phones; of constantly being plugged in, logged in, checked in. We live in a strange new platform for relationships and human interactions, with ramifications unknown. Over ten years in to this complex dynamo of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and the way in which we relate to one another has changed dramatically.

Our collective challenge today is to be more humble and compassionate; qualities which are fading from today’s public discourse. I’m no expert on sociological research; I’m just an Elder Millennial woman who has lived through the advent of the Internet, Y2K, and the birth of social media. I am also a middle-school Math and Science teacher for the last fifteen years, giving me a unique perspective into today’s upcoming Generation Z. I’ve seen enough changes over these years to grow concerned about what Internet use is doing to us as a society, especially today’s youth, the Digital Natives.

I’ve watched their learning styles change over this time, including using computers in the classroom. My seventh graders are on their phones up until the minute the first bell of the day rings, and on them the minute the last bell rings. They sit in the hallways before school in small groups, heads down to their phones, hanging out only in parallel, not directly. They are savvy at finding information quickly online, but they view computers as an entertainment device. Despite the flux of online resources available today in the classroom, I have found myself going back to pencil and paper for many assignments merely because the temptation to go off-screen, like playing a computer game, is far too strong for many of my seventh graders. Self-control is not a known strength at this age anyway, but when you throw in the world of exciting online browsing, some kids cannot help themselves.

In spite of this temptation to play online, you can learn an endless amount of information by spending time on the Internet; this is where most people gather their information today, myself included. Learning online is like an infinite set of staircases. Every which way you look, somewhere new to ascend, aspire to. We are endlessly learning as we grow older, exploring a fascinating network of paths, interwoven and intricate, going places in our minds that only through the acquisition of new understanding can we achieve. It has its place in the classroom, but with a balanced approach that works for the teacher. Every teacher’s philosophy on computer use may vary slightly, but I know we wish we didn’t have to use Web Nanny services to monitor our students’ use.

Aside from being a gateway to entertainment, it is an amazingly convenient and powerful tool with which our society has developed a symbiotic relationship. This relationship is mutualistic to the extent that goods, ideas, and monies are exchanged via the World Wide Web through its multitude of platforms, from the Khan Academy math program I use in my classroom, to the small-business jewelry designer who sells a necklace on Ebay, to the World Wildlife Fund’s website, which not only educates, but invites donations, which add up to tangible preservation efforts for endangered species around the world. It’s also nice to share family photos with Grandma across the country. The ease of communication across thousands of miles is certainly a benefit to billions of people worldwide.

There is a parasitic, insidious side to the Internet and our relationship with it, though, and it is eroding our humility and kindness. Our cultural norms and accepted behaviors are evolving alongside today’s technology, and it’s reaching a tipping point.

First and foremost, it lies with the amount of time we spend online everyday, from the laptops, desktops, and mobile devices we check thousands of times, to the pictures we post on social media. The simple ergonomics of looking down, across, and up at screens of varying heights wreaks havoc on our necks, eyes, and bodies overall. It’s far too easy to spend an hour watching YouTube videos on autoplay, especially when all of that content may be educational or instructional. You can learn so many interesting things online – teach yourself a new skill, learn a new language, get a college degree. The depth and breadth of available knowledge – often in free format – is incredible, and is not to be underscored, but the toll it takes on our bodies is significant. Neck, wrist, and back problems are bred from bad ergonomics with our devices.

The next parasitic side of the Internet is the Instant Gratification Effect. We’ve grown so accustomed to everything being fast, automated, and tailored to our needs. When we want to know the answer to something, we Google It. Many of my students will look up the simplest answers online, despite having the answer within text on a worksheet or textbook in the classroom. They want the answer now, and aren’t so concerned about learning the process, or practicing by rote the “old-fashioned” way. They want the answer now, and they don’t want to work hard for it.

Their perseverance is suffering; they are prone to give up on a Math problem, or difficult Science question, without seeking guidance from the Internet, or myself. I believe I am not just teaching them content, but teaching them how to help teach themselves, ultimately. When they think they find an answer online, or on their calculator, or some other technological device that they deem more trustworthy than hand-calculated, “old-fashioned” Math, they are 110% certain they are right. Their confidence is high when it’s sourced from a website that looks official. They aren’t the only ones who fall into this trap, however. Adults of all ages do this too; we research a topic, cling to a few somewhat-vetted facts and figures we glean from websites that may or may not be reputable, and then we decide they’re fact.

We want the instant gratification of understanding something, and though well-intentioned, can rush to judgment on issues that may extend beyond a day’s research. We consult Dr. Google, and diagnose ourselves with medical issues (at least I know I do). We comb through forums and comments from people far and wide for information, all the while subconsciously gravitating toward that which we already agree with.

Confirmation bias is the essence of the Internet today. We operate within our own echochambers, sending out and receiving messages that confirm our beliefs, morals, and identities, at the expense of living within our own cyberspheres. The scary part is the misinformation that circulates online – the kind that undermines political elections (ahem, 2016), and breeds hate and racism.

This is where more humility is needed: people of all ages in today’s day and age need to be discerning of the information we come across online, especially on our social media feeds, and hesitate to commit to a stance on a topic we may not know a lot about. Coming from a place of always learning, and not having it all figured out, would be a welcome presence both online and in face-to-face interactions.

I’ll never forget being a Senior in High School, and I was on a pretty confident high – spouting off random facts from History class, correcting others’ grammar, basically being your typical teenage know-it-all. My awesome older sister, whom to this day is one of my best friends, said to me in some form or another: “I don’t care how smart you ever get. People don’t like being condescended on and talked down to”. She meant it in that loving yet firm older sister way that I took to heart and am grateful for to this day, from a place that only someone who knew me well could say. I was already a nice person with a good heart, but in my friendships and interactions with people from there on out, I was more thoughtful about how I spoke to others, and instead of acting like I knew everything on a topic, tried to shut up a little and listen more to what others had to say instead of waiting for my turn to speak. I also grew up, which usually cures all teenagers of their overconfidence. You quickly realize when you go to college that the world does not revolve around you and your adolescent dreams. Your humility deepens, too, as you experience the highs and lows of life; that we are all equal as humans, and no one is “better” than anyone else.

I am constantly learning, reading, pondering; I love working in education, especially teaching Math and Science, which I have no problem talking at length about, no shortage of interest and passion. I try to talk to my students as young adults, keenly aware of how much I disliked being talked down to like a child when I was a student. It’s a balance of leadership and getting out of the way. I also love it when I don’t know the answer to something. I like showing my students that there is always more to learn in life; that we are never done growing and evolving, and that we shall always nurture the sense of wonder and curiosity which serves as a catalyst for learning. I learn a lot from my students when they share their knowledge and experience, too. Staying humble to the vastness of the world keeps you open to learning new things, and it’s exciting that we always have something interesting to dive into. Every educator wants to nurture this innate love of learning. Using digital resources to effectively foster such learning, without watering down the depth of knowledge, is a twenty-first century challenge for all educators.

The third, and perhaps most influential impact on our emotional well-being, is the effect social media is having on our lives. We’re living in a brand new world, dominated by an incessant rush of images of people we barely know having more fun, looking prettier, happier, richer, better than us. The Internet, and social media in particular, is the essence of comparison; it is nearly impossible not to compare yourself to others, no matter how secure you are. Like we comparison shop online, we compare ourselves.

It’s easy to feel like we are always missing out on something, and we are, to an extent. The images we see remind us that we cannot do everything humanly possible in life; we can’t live both Jetsetter life and have a simple farm life, be an Antarctic researcher and be a tulip grower in The Netherlands. We can’t live the nomadic life of a Bedouin on the Arabian sands, and that of a rich actor in Hollywood. Yes, we can do many things in life of many varying degrees, but we just can’t do it all, and though we know this on a superficial level, it’s easy to forget in practice. We are reminded of this often in our online worlds, and the cumulative effect over time can dull our own confidence and pride. If we focus on being humble for the life we do have, and more compassionate with ourselves, we might compare less and appreciate more.

Amid this compare-and-contrast platform that social media provides, there is a genuine desire to connect with strangers and family alike on social media, sharing our life highlights to paint a carefully crafted avatar of ourselves. It’s only natural to want to be seen as your best self, and present yourself in the best light. We all take selfies, and we all tend to gloss over the hard parts in our lives, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whether we choose to share our deepest or shallowest selves, our online interactions can foster authentic connections that otherwise may not happen everyday. There are positive interactions. There are mutually beneficial aspects to the Internet, but it’s not all good.

We are directly affected by the feedback we get from our social media communities, and though we ache for connection with others, our messages can get lost in translation. We can be misunderstood, or misread someone’s comment. Our self-esteem can be lifted or lowered based upon the number of Likes or comments we receive on our posts. Whether affirming or rejecting, the endorphins we get from these online interactions can become addictive, keeping us coming back for more.

This is where our relationship can become parasitic, where we’re the host and our social media feeds are the parasites. We can spend hours online, when we could be doing something cool ourselves. Or, inevitably, there comes a time when our posts go unnoticed or unliked, and that can leave us feeling rejected or inadequate; was I not good enough? We can feel overlooked. Share something too deep, too long, or too awkward on your social feed, and people will probably just ignore it, where your post will sit there like a stinking turd for digital eternity, unless, of course, you delete it out of shame. We can’t help but take pride in our online identities, whether we like to admit it or not. The bottom line is we’re still human, and we want to be liked; the desire for group acceptance is only natural.

Aside from fluctuating self-esteem levels based upon our social media, we can fall victim to being GoogleIt armchair experts, spouting off the top three statistics from a quick search, acting like we know everything on a topic. We dig our heels in and double-down on our positions, and soon after the name-calling and vitriolic back-and-forth begins. We’re so afraid to be wrong, we put the blinders on and declare battle with our opponents.

It gets ugly. The comments section online is a dark, mean place – Humanity’s underbelly on full, grotesque display. People start condescending on one another, placating with comments that convey a pious, holier-than-thou message. We talk about others’ lives and choices, judging them as if they’re fools, so pitiful to not see things from our point of view. People write some atrocious things that make me shudder. I am disturbed by the recent youth fads of bashing older generations in the Cybersphere, with various hashtags and memes that demean the wisdom, honor, and value of their elders. The blatant disrespect is unsettling, and shows a lack of compassion that is representative of our time.

Divisive is the word the moment, and nowhere is that more apparent than the comments section online. Our political climate is frothing with staunch left, right, and everything in between warring with each other on a myriad of websites and social media platforms. We live in one of the most divided societies the United States of America has ever seen. Our current President embodies all that is wrong with social media today: the cultivation of insults, misinformation, and lies designed to further separate our country into Us versus Them. The clash among the divide of those who support him and those who don’t is palpable right now, but most would agree that his behavior on Twitter is negative and demeaning to others.

It’s no wonder the world takes notice and follows suit, including today’s youth. We live in an age where anyone can attack our character online, make up mocking memes about us, and free speech protects much of it. Cyberbullying is a real, terribly powerful problem not just for today’s youth, but adults as well. People can be viciously cruel to each other. I had an eye-opening introduction to cyberbullying a couple of years ago which showed me what a big problem this is today. I am genuinely concerned for today’s youth, growing up in a world that values making fun of others online so much. This is the generation that has grown up watching others for entertainment – whether watching wipeouts and “epic fails” on YouTube, making up memes, or just laughing at someone’s Instagram post, there is always a laugh to be had at another’s expense.

We ought to be more humble with each other; we ought to focus on being the best versions of ourselves in our real lives, not just in the facade we manicure in the cybersphere. We ought to be more compassionate – get off our high horses, and stop throwing shade at the expense of others’ happiness, judging other people for being different than us. We’re not better than anyone, just different.

Though we will not agree with everyone in life, we can keep our decorum civil. I always loved the old adage, trite as it may be: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. It really is that simple. I am so moved by kindness activists like Wendy Sullivan and the #imkinderthanthat movement she began to spread more kindness around the world! We need all the compassionate leadership we can get. It would be awesome to see people be kinder in their online interactions.

Undoubtedly, the most important way in which we need to be more humble and compassionate is in our interactions with our Planet Earth. We are overharvesting, overmining, overpolluting – overeverything – our ecosystems to the point of permanent damage, as in species extinction. With nearly eight billion of us, it may seem like we are the most important species on the planet. The Human Race is not the center of the world, no matter our celebrated technological advancements and innovations. We share this planet with thousands of other species, all with an inherently equal right to co-exist; after all, we are one of the most recent species to emerge in the tree of life. They were here first.

We have so overpopulated the planet, exacerbating climate change and a multitude of human rights issues with everyday that we grow more ubiquitous. Part of the reason I don’t have kids of my own yet is my ambivalence about adding another human into the world. There are simply too many humans on our planet, and the last thing we need is more of us making things worse.

Humility is missing from the arrogant, domineering swagger of humans. We think we can outsmart the domino-effects already set in motion from decades of worsening inaction, and though we can invent our way out of many issues, there are natural systems in place that we cannot control.

We cannot outsmart the power of Mother Nature when she unleashes a hurricane like we’ve never seen, or a multi-year drought that leads to infernal blazes in my home-state of California. We’re only starting to see the catastrophic effects of climate change, with the endangerment and extinction of species, shifting agricultural zones, rising sea-levels, and the hottest years on Earth all occurring within the last decade – to name a few. There are many unknowns that we have yet to see unfold over the coming years.

We’re seeing the effects of our pollution in our bodies. We’ll be living with the yet to be understood effects of all the toxins, additives, synthetics, hydrophobics, antimicrobials, you-name-it chemicals that we’ve polluted our bodies with over the years. We’re in the midst of a huge experiment, one among many, happening on the human race. We are the test subjects of a nascent industry of chemical engineering that has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives, from the toothpaste we use, to the waterproof GoreTex jackets we depend on in the snow, to the laundry list of pesticides and chemicals we ingest from our food and water. We are suffocating in our own carcinogenic haze, like a fish in warm water, slowly inuring to the conditions. Even if one ate a perfectly organic diet, the odds of being exposed to pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals is high simply from the air we breathe and the water we drink. Microplastics are in our air and water, our clothes, and increasingly, the seafood we eat. The pervasive plight of plastic will be our age’s bugaboo, but so will our bioaccumulating, persistent compounds like PFOA’s, and DDT, which has been banned in the US for decades, but stubbornly remains, a testament to its toxicity.

The story may vary from place to place, but the theme is the same: human manipulation of nature, with dire consequences on the environment. We need to be humble with each other, but more urgently, with the Earth. Our choices and voices matter; we need to do something, because everyday species are threatened with extinction, the environment gets more polluted, and the climate just keeps on changing with all the greenhouse gases we keep pumping into the atmosphere. I am deeply affected by the pain and suffering we are causing today, especially on animals.

When I see images of poached, slaughtered elephants, or desperate sea turtles getting run over by cars on artificially lit beachside roads, I want to cry. When I see footage of commercial livestock facilities, or read yet another study showing how bad things are getting with the environment, I am crestfallen. I am not worried about humans going extinct, or us destroying the planet to a wasteland apocalypse. What I am worried about is what we are doing right now, and have been doing for years – ravaging our planet’s resources with little regard for its inhabitants.

When I read about the last Western black rhinoceros dying off several years ago, I felt like a piece of garbage, so guilty for mankind’s wrongs. What kind of species causes so much pain and needless destruction to so many others? What is wrong with us that we allow this to happen? Regardless of how complex the issues are, the simple fact that we are in the sixth mass extinction right now should grab everyone’s attention and command action. The first five major extinctions were caused by natural causes, while this event is anthropogenic, and happening at a faster rate than previous events. I recommend reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which elucidates the severity of our current situation, or check out my book report on it for a quick synopsis.

I know I’m not alone, that there are millions of others who feel the same, but it doesn’t help to commiserate when the injustices continue on a daily basis. I try to do my part by being a Science teacher, and living in ecofriendly ways; I was an Environmental Studies major, and am always learning more to deepen my understanding of ecology and the climate crisis. Being informed is important, but there’s so much more I could do; there’s so much more all of us could do. I am tepidly hopeful for the future, inspired by activists like Greta Thunberg and Jane Fonda who, among many others, are protesting for our elected leaders and corporate executives take responsibility, and more action on the myriad of climate issues that press everyone alive today. No matter our age, if we’re living today, we ought to care about the issues we face. From teenagers to our esteemed elders, we all have a stake in how we treat our planet.

Sometimes we need to get out of our own way to see what’s truly in front of us. We need to set our egos down in order to actually hear the message so clear. We need to act as though we don’t have it all figured out, and act as though that is an exciting, and valuable, place to approach life from. We ought to listen more and talk less. It is only through teamwork and the exchange of ideas that solutions to some of our world’s problems will be found.

It would help if we all had a big slice of Humble Pie, with a generous side of Compassion, when it comes to dealing with each other, and our Earth; when I say we, I mean me, too. We all have growth to do. It’d be nice to see more humility and kindness in our real-time and virtual human interaction all around. Let’s put down our phones a little more and practice being good humans with other actual humans, in person. Let’s drop out of the social media contest that we can’t win, and instead celebrate our potential to help the world be a better place, from the environment, to our relationships with others. Let’s be comfortable with not being the center of the world, with understanding our small place in the grand scale of the Universe.

Now, we don’t need to quit using the Internet and social media altogether, but it would behoove us to reflect upon our relationship with it. I realize we are so interdependent upon our online connections that you may not be reading these words if not for social media. People have their own boundaries and balance to find with their online use; I encourage everyone to be humble and kind no matter what they do online. We don’t need to go back to living in caves, either, but we ought to take responsibility for our immense impact on the environment.

Let The Humble Twenties begin. May it be a decade of humility, compassion, and action to improve our climate crisis. May we all embrace a future less divided, and focus on the ways in which we are united – on working together for a sustainable future.

Enduro World Series Northstar 2019

#gnarstarNorthstar California – sure lived up to its reputation at this year’s Enduro World Series of mountain biking, which dominated the mountain resort August 23-25, 2019. The fastest, most adept riders in the world came here to prove their own gnar factor on some of the dustiest, loosest, and rockiest trails. With end of Summer moisture at an all time low, it was akin to dirt surfing or powder skiing, with some television-sized boulders thrown in for good measure. This was one of the toughest races on the EWS circuit, and amateur racers like myself had the chance to join in on the fun by riding the EWS80 (80% of the course – 4/6 trails), or EWS100 (100% of the course; exactly what the pros ride). This was the penultimate round of the EWS, and Round #4 of the California Enduro Series.

Fun? That may not be the first word that comes to mind when racers think of Northstar. Crazy. Scary. Survive! These were some of the buzz words I heard throughout the weekend. For riders who weren’t familiar with its moonscape silt, it was a bit unsettling. You can’t trust it. I could see the timidity in many riders; there was an “on your toes” edge to many of the racers, from amateur to pro.

Northstar is the closest thing to a local race for me, aside from Toro Park in Salinas. I’ve done a lot of racing over the last few years, but this was just my third race this season. I’m a self-proclaimed soul-rider, riding for the pure bliss of it, and I’ve all but given up on racing. I love to ride fast, but not under pressure, even if it is completely self-induced. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to race the EWS80 when Northstar came on the EWS schedule this year, though, and registered early. This would be an awesome weekend!

When it came to practice day on Friday, I arrived to a parking lot full of half-open cars, bikes in various states of repair or tuning, and eager riders setting out to the gondola. The energy was abuzz with the prospect of seeing a pro rider at any turn; those were the Gehrig twins! I caught myself giggling. From the start of the weekend, I knew the real highlight was seeing the pros – from the California Enduro Series, to elite Enduro World Series riders. I found myself feeling like a gawking fan among celebrities.

I rode two of the four stages at Friday’s practice: Stages 1 and 3. I’ve ridden here several times this Summer, and raced Boondocks (Stage 4) at the downhill race in July, placing first for Cat 2 Women. My first week of teaching had just begun, and I was certainly tired from the long week, even with Friday off for practice. I had a good dinner, and slept hard at my hotel in Tahoe City on Lake Tahoe. Though it would have been prudent to ride the other two stages, I knew I needed an early night in to be ready for the next day.

On raceday morning, I was excited about the format. We were given a roll-out time, but were to complete the remaining stages, in order, at our own pace without set start-times; we’d have three hours and eight minutes to finish the race, lest get a time penalty.

The best part? All stages were lift-assist! I was ecstatic about the new format, as I often felt a lot of hurry up and wait at past Enduro races, which could take hours on end. One of the things I struggle with at races is nutrition; eating solid food is all but impossible for me. You can get some calories out of powdered mixes, juices, and other fortified liquids, but I always felt myself bonking toward the end of the longer races. After about hour four I was done. Seeing the schedule for this race was encouraging; I knew right away this format would work better for me.

Every rider got their own introduction off the main stage by the race announcer; it made us all feel somewhat special, no matter how cool we may have tried to act. It certainly felt exciting to drop in to a little crowd after being introduced!

Stage 1 was the new River Styx trail, a good flow trail with just enough loose dirt to wake up your senses. This was a fast run, and had a good technical section through KT.

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Stage 2 was mostly down Karpiel, with a turn off for us EWS80 riders to skip the infamously difficult lower section that the EWS100 and pro riders would tackle on their second day of riding. I caught myself lagging a bit on this run, noticeably enough that I told myself to pick up the pace about halfway down the trail. You are racing, after all! I got passed by another rider, and that added to my feeling of being behind. Racing is such a mental game above all else, granted you have the physical fitness, skills, and experience part down. If you’re not fully present, or doubting yourself, it can cost you precious time. Staying focused is an understatement. You definitely have to balance riding clean and safe with charging fast. At the end of the day, it’s always better to go home in one piece than in no peace, as in hurt or injured. But I have a competitive side, and I do love to ride fast.

Stage 3 was the Queen Stage, the longest stage. We had a short climb from the top of Vista chair to the Tahoe Trail. This had a new trail called the Tahoe Cut, which was basically a steep dirt chute with about a foot of talcum-powder like dirt menacing all those who dared ride down it. Before I’d even ridden it on practice day, I’d heard the stories of people falling, sliding downhill, over the bars tales to tell.

When I rode it in practice, there was a line of people waiting their turn to try it because not because it was so intimidating, but because the dust was so thick you couldn’t see until some seconds had passed in between riders. As I stood in line behind a few male riders, a young man approached and sidled in front of me.

You don’t mind if I go ahead, do you? he asked nonchalantly.

I probably don’t have to elucidate the frustration a woman feels after years of doing male-dominated sports when questions or comments like this are directed at us. Though subtle, it’s a dis. After so many experiences like this, I just want to say, Just do you…I got this.

Or be humble, per the Ferda girls. Preach!

Yeah sure; go right ahead, I curtly replied, moving my bike out of his way. I’ve just been waiting my turn here like every one else in line.

He caught my drift, and readied his bike back down the line.

Or not, he quipped.

It’s okay; I’m a girl. I’m used to it. Sorry if I’m short, but it gets eggy after awhile when guys do stuff like this, I explained. Why was I apologizing again anyway? I hate this stereotypical quality that women are often known for, and I wear it to a tee.

Hey dude, that’s not cool; don’t do that, a fellow rider down the line chimed in supportively. You don’t go up and just cut the line like that, let alone to a girl, he added.

A few others added in to the gentle scolding, which made me feel good. It reminded me that most riders are cool. Manners matter; respect is important. I’ll always stand up and say something when this kind of stuff happens.

My turn was up, and with all that build up, I was fired up to send this scary dirt chute. Part of me wanted to prove myself to that guy; to show him what riding like a girl looks like.

This chute was gnarly, though. It was nearly impossible to find traction as I started fishtailing down the trail, carefully, and barely, correcting myself until a small slideout at the bottom, which I pushed out of and kept going. Though not yet graceful, I’d made it.

On raceday, I had the confidence I could send it smoothly. I charged into the chute and managed a controlled slide down it, balancing carefully to not slide out, and finishing with a quick turn. I was so stoked I’d sent it, especially because it was one of the toughest sections of the race. Even cooler was photographer Aaron Lesieur catching my descent in this sequence; these pictures are the best I’ve ever had of me on a bike.

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Stage 3 Dirt Chute
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Dirt Surfing

I came across another rider soon after this turn, and though we were riding at somewhat similar paces, it took a quick minute to pass him. I announced I wanted to pass, but there wasn’t a good spot. I should’ve been more aggressive about passing earlier on; that’s my ridiculous tendency to see a male and assume he’s faster than I. Once I passed him, I tried to fire up the engines and make up for time. I finished this stage two seconds off the Stage Win, and take it as another lesson to be more forthright about passing in the future. You always learn something new in every race.

Stage 4 was Boondocks, probably the easiest trail of the race, though still double-black. We had our longest climb of the race from the bottom of Stage 3 up to Vista, and then rode Crossover up to Boondocks. Though most people liked the new racing format, by this point we were all commenting on how we felt a bit pressed for time.

I only have fifteen minutes to finish, one rider noted en route to the stage start. I had twenty-five minutes by the time I reached the start of stage 4, and had I come across any mechanical issues like last year, I probably wouldn’t have finished in time. We weren’t dilly-dallying; it was just a tight ship they were running.

I cruised down that final stage of Boondocks with the excitement of being done in a little under six minutes. One of my favorite parts of the entire race is going through the final gate, hearing the beeps, and knowing it is officially DONE! I love this feeling. After all of the planning, preparation, anticipation, nerves, energy management, focus, feeling like you have to be on, it is so nice to let go of the rope and be done with it all. Racing isn’t easy, especially at challenging venues like Gnarstar. It’s one of the reasons I don’t really do it anymore; I just want to ride on my own schedule, for the simple joy it brings. Every now and then my ego fires up and I want to prove myself in a race, but I don’t know how much longer that will keep up.

I went through the final gate, and gave the course marshal my timechips. I went straight to my car and drove to my hotel in Lake Tahoe, where I immediately went for a heavenly swim in the lake. I was so happy to have ridden the course clean with no falls; I’d even enjoyed the experience and had fun. Sure, I could’ve picked up the pace in some sections, but I felt strong.

When I checked my results, I was quite happy to get third place in the Masters 35+ category. The first and second place girls were experienced, local racers who know the terrain well and have a lot of experience. I felt good with my finish, and I made the podium. I returned in the afternoon for the awards ceremony, and felt really content about the whole day.

The next day, I went for a swim in Lake Tahoe; it was already hot by mid morning. I made my way back to Northstar for Day 2 of EWS racing; the EWS100 and pro riders were to ride stages 3-6 today, which included Dog Bone, and the newly built trail, Tell No Tales. This was the main event, why I decided to come here in the first place.

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I watched some of the pros rollout off the main stage, and checked out the plethora of vendor booths.

I then hiked up to watch them down Stages 3, the Queen Stage, and Stage 5, Dog Bone. The flow and grace they ride with is humbling and inspiring. If you want a good laugh, check out my videos of Karpiel and Dog Bone; that lower part is crazy hard!

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Unknown EWS100 Rider off the Diving Board

The waterfall rock garden on Dog Bone was the apex of the event, with the best riders even showing some struggle down the relentless, rocky drop this section was. A boisterous crowd of cheerleaders lined the sides of the course, with a bullhorn and siren to boot, making it feel more like a party than a race. I was simply awestruck by the riders charging this section! It’s one thing to watch their videos online, which I do all the time, but to see them up close in person was mind blowing.

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Pedro Burns Contreras

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There were dedicated cheer sections on every stage, and from what I hear, the riders appreciate it. Aside from a spastic barking dog at a quiet moment, the cacophony of screaming fans makes a unique harmony in the key of positivity – lots of encouragement, admiration, and reverence for these men and women!

Check out the Pinkbike EWS Full Highlights video for a good summary of the weekend; I even appear in it at 13:48, standing next to a tree on Dog Bone – my claim to fame! Totally kidding, of course.

I also made a video of raw racing footage; it was so much fun to capture their dust!

Full results can be found on the EWS Northstar page. Isabeau Courdurier took first for Women’s Pro, and Richie Rude secured victory by .8 seconds! It was a stacked field of riders in every category, and was especially tight.

Experiences like this are once in a lifetime, and this weekend was one of the best I’ve had in a long time. I always love the collective pulse of being around a bunch of other mountain bikers, especially in a remarkable landscape with thrilling trails. There are so many cool people in this community. I look forward to more EWS events in the future, hopefully again at Northstar!