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The Role of Virtuosity

2 Feb

The best part of my Crossfit Level 1 certification was the half hour we spent discussing the role of virtuosity. It’s a word used often in gymnastics, which explains why it is relevant to a Crossfit class.

But its a part…maybe the most integral part…of Crossfit that I think is relevant for every aspect of life.

Virtuosity is defined as “performing the common uncommonly well.”

Isn’t this what we want to teach our kids in school and our direct reports in business and our students in music programs and our athletes on the field?

When it comes to any skill, technique, movement, or art form, we must begin with the fundamentals.  Eventually, we move onto originality and risk, although constantly reemphasizing fundamentals.  But virtuosity is, according to my Crossfit training guide “the mark of true mastery (and of genius and beauty).”

One of the ways I live a life that is rooted in the present and full of joy is by choosing something to study each week.  It helps keep work and gym and home life intertwined and enjoyable.  This past week, I observed people “performing the common uncommonly well.”  What better way for me to learn virtuosity than from those I interact with daily?

There is the Crossfit champion who performed the same shoulder to overhead movement as everyone else…but with an amazingly impressive cycle time and the ability to push 120% in the last crucial minutes.  The speed at which he moved such a heavy weight made people gasp.

There is my boss at work, meeting with employees on big issues and small issues and handling divorces and mental illness and child trauma with a grace and wisdom that I can only hope to attain a piece of someday.

There is the coworker who writes computer code for me – and does so brilliantly. Efficient, logical, fast, yet he puts his own “handwriting and style” as it were into the code in such a way that everyone else can tell it was his work.

There is the guy at the gym whose box jumps are so lithe and graceful, I am convinced that he is part wild cat.  It’s really hard to jump on your own box and not destroy your shins and still watch him jump on his but it actually (stupid as this sounds) feels like an honor to watch him jump.  That kind of mastery of something ordinary (don’t we all step up on stuff daily) is rare.

There is the former coworker who juggles work and school and three little sons, who is severely handicapped.  She has an amazing sense of humor, a deep love for those little guys, and a hard life.  Yet she, and my friend who just kicked some cancer ass, both approach their lousy odds with a masterful humorous approach and a desire to love life – even the bits that completely suck.

Sometimes its easy to want to skip steps at work (will the auditor really notice?) or skip movements at the gym (is someone else really counting my 75 burpees) or skip chores (will my clean apartment be enjoyed by anyone but me?) but the desire to practice virtuosity – to take the ordinary and mundane and make it uncommonly wonderful – as well as my ethics and personal honor code, always win out.

At the end of my Crossfit training guide, it says: “It is natural to want to teach people advanced and fancy movements. The urge to quickly move away from the basics and toward advanced movements arises out of the natural desire to entertain your client and impress him with your skills and knowledge…[But] If you insist on basics, really insist on them, your clients will immediately recognize that you are a master trainer. They will not be bored; they will be awed. I promise this. They will quickly come to recognize the potency of fundamentals. They will also advance in every measurable way past those not blessed to have a teacher so grounded and committed to basics.”

It is this statement which makes me happy I insisted that all my 7th and 8th graders show all their work on math homework or it was automatically wrong.  Basics matter.  It is this statement that makes me grateful for everyone: the teachers and pastors, my parents and siblings, my gym coaches and running partners, my bosses and coworkers who has taken the time to teach me basics. To insist on basics.  To not rush to anything showy and flashy and impressive but to help me build a solid foundation with the right skills.

Because, before you can perform the common uncommonly well, you have to commit to knowing and doing and finding joy in the common first.  Virtuosity is only a seasoning, not the whole meal.

 

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Living Out of Our Depths

20 Jan

“I don’t think it is always necessary to talk about the deepest and most private dimension of who we are, but I think we are called to talk to each other out of it, and just as importantly to listen to each other out of it, to live out of our depths as well as our shallows.” -Frederick Buechner

My last blog post was about burying the pain.  Or, more precisely, not burying the pain. Which is fitting because this weekend brought up lots of painful and prickly parts I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with.

First, there was an accident at my local Crossfit throwdown, where a large guy holding a 235 lb barbell in the front rack position held it to close to his windpipe (according to his partner) and passed out.  When he passed out, he fell backwards, onto the guy I was judging in my lane who was maybe half the size.  So tiny kid ended up on the floor with his legs bent behind him touching his butt, and two 235 lb barbells on top of him (one on his neck, one on his core) as well as a large guy.  Both of them appear to be fine, maybe a knee ligament tear.  The time it took for them to get the barbells off, check out that they weren’t paralyzed, call the EMTs, etc. seemed to take an hour.  It took me 9 hours to fully stop shaking.

Why?  I think part of it can be traced back to the Boston bombings – athletic event, people in pain, unexpected loud noises. And part of it can be traced back to my shame guilt  whatever emotion it is that makes me think I should have done something. Since I was the closest.  Either to prevent it OR immediately after to fix it.  Same with the suicide I saw happen – I still wake up some nights thinking I should have known what that stranger was going to do, or just run a little faster and smiled at her, or jumped in the water after her.  Intellectually, I know that none of these accidents had anything to do with me. And I don’t really have a superhero complex and think its my responsibility.

Living out of my depths means acknowledging that somehow, after years of being the tough little kid who didn’t cry and wasn’t ticklish, I transformed into an adolescent/adult who does experience hurt and pain. Thank God I’m still not ticklish. And I care about other people’s hurt and pain, too. Maybe that’s a normal progression into adulthood?

“We are all of us adolescents, painfully growing and groping our way toward something like true adulthood, and maybe the greatest value we have both to teach and to learn as we go is the value of what Walter Brueggeman calls amazement – the capacity to be amazed at the unending power that can be generated by the meeting and trading of lives, which is a power to heal us and bless us and in the end maybe even to transform us into truly human beings at last.”

The second incident that happened was that I read a book called The Art Forger over the past two weeks.  It was a fun read – set in Boston with places I am very familiar with, based on the true art heist at the Isabelle Stewart Gardner museum (a few blocks from my apartment) which is the largest unsolved art heist in history.  The book was about the forgery of the famous Degas picture After the Bath that was stolen.  I like art, I like Degas, I like forgery, I like reading about crime and it all reminded me of the tv show White Collar, which didn’t hurt either.

But there was one character, named Nancy Sinsheimer, that kept rubbing me the wrong way.  As in, the first time I read that name, I had a physical reaction.  I got tense and cold. It took me a while to figure out why.  That was the last name of the defense attorney in the trial I was in this summer.  (I know, I know, I swear I’m moving on, really.)  I’m sure he’s a fine person but he was quite a bulldog, rude to the police officers, rude to us jurors, treated us like unintelligent babies most of the time.  His antics and tactics were probably par for the course when it comes to criminal defense lawyers but it wasn’t an act that I appreciated.

Boston is a small city. Really.  Because I reached the end of the book, and saw that the author personally thanked this particular lawyer for his help in writing her book.  Then it dawned on me – she had clearly used his last name in her novel in order to honor him.  It made me mad. Mad that I hadn’t figured that out earlier. Mad that being an adult means accepting that there are people I don’t like who other people will be best friends with.  Mad that I can’t even read a random book without it triggering a reminder of a trial I would like to move on from. Mad that in some way, reading and enjoying that book, meant reading and enjoying something that he had helped create.

So I spent today choosing to live full of amazement.  The meeting and trading of lives.  Embracing the power and joy in humans being human but also humans being good.

  • The woman offering a Charlie Card to my friend on the bus who had lost hers.
  • Seeing a friend do her first kipping pull-up.
  • Remembering the judge in the lane next to me on Saturday squeezing my shoulder whenever he passed and making sure I was clear of the area before his athlete lifted anything heavy.  His speech on “We’ll watch each other’s backs, this won’t happen again” which calmed me down.
  • The coworker/Crossfit friend who gave me a paleo pizza (grain-free) recipe which tastes just as good as real pizza.  (In case you don’t understand how happy this makes me, after my initial bite, I wanted to bike to his house and hug and kiss him…to thank him for a pizza recipe.  Yep. It was that good.)
  • Baby Hudson’s huge smile when he saw me.  His sign language of “please” which can roughly be translated as “Put me down, Daddy! I need her to hold me right now!”
  • The man in the grocery store letting the elderly woman go ahead of him in line because she looked tired and taxed.
  • My coach keeping an eye on a very packed Crossfit class today, ensuring everyone had space so no one got trampled by a barbell. Maybe no one else cared…but I did.
  • A friend teaching me how to wrap my Rogue wrist wraps correctly. Especially when he incorporated the phrase “wax on, wax off” which gets me every time.

Maybe I’ve had it all wrong. Maybe it’s not the bombings and the suicides and the barbell accidents in life that make us who we are. Maybe the pain is only one piece of our depths, not the whole ocean.

Maybe its this

the shoulder squeeze
the gift of a Charlie card
the perfect pizza recipe
a baby’s smile and unfiltered want
a grocery store Boy Scout
a considerate coach
a helpful friend

that transform us into truly human beings.

Burying the Pain

8 Jan

Most of us are quite familiar with the Parable of the Talents – the men who are each given money to invest.

For those of us who grew up in Sunday School, we know a moral: each of us has been given gifts and talents and we need to use them and invest them rather than hiding them.  Don’t waste your life in fear of displeasing God, because that would displease him the most.

For those of us who went to business school, we know another moral: don’t hide your money under your mattress or bury it in a hole.  At the very least, invest it in something safe because of the principal of compound interest.

So I found it interesting to reread the parable through the eyes of Frederick Buechner who takes a different approach with his interpretation.  An approach that I’ve been grappling with a lot these first few weeks of 2014.

“Bad times happen, good times happen; life itself happens and happens to all of us in different ways and with different mixtures of good and bad, pain and pleasure, luck and unluck. As I read it, that is what the parable is essentially about, and the question the parable poses is, what do we do with these mixed lives we are given, these hands we are so unequally dealt by God, if we believe in God, or by circumstance or by our genes?”

Buried pain in particular and all the other things we tend to bury along with pain, including joy, which tends to get buried too when we start burying things…instead of burying it, to live fully with the faith that one way or another it will work out.”

The next part makes perfect sense for those of us who now live in a world of Social Media.

The trading of joy comes naturally, because it is of the nature of joy to proclaim and share itself. Joy cannot contain itself, as we say. And so it should properly be with pain as well…We are never more alive to life than when it hurts – never more aware both of our own powerlessness to save ourselves and of at least the possibility of a power beyond ourselves to save us and heal us if we can only open ourselves to it. We are never more aware of our need for each other, never more in reach of each other, if we can only bring ourselves to reach out and let ourselves be reached…We are never more in touch with life than when life is painful, never more in touch with hope than we are then.”

I constantly remind myself to share in other people’s joy. Even if I never have a chance to share in their pain. Because they can’t share it or aren’t brave enough to share it or are too fearful of people not respecting it and just allowing it to be rather than offering advice or shallow words.

I like the thought of trading joy.  Of offering mine to you and taking yours in return. Of delighting in joy as it is – joy – without becoming consumed with the WHO and the WHY THEM, NOT ME and the HOW COME of the joy. Because all of those thoughts tarnish the joy. Even if the person sharing their joy can’t tell, you know deep down that it has lost its shine.

Being a good steward of your pain…involves taking the risk of being open, of reaching out, of keeping in touch with the pain as well as the joy of what happens, because at no time more than at a painful time do we live out of the depths of who we are instead of our of the shallows. There is no guarantee that we will find a pearl in the depths, that our pain will have a happy end, or even any end at all, but at least we stand a chance of finding in those depths who we most deeply and humanly are and who others are. At least we stand a chance of finding that we needn’t live alone in our pain.”

I realize this is heady stuff.  Especially when we are recovering from the holidays (how can something be so simultaneously fun and exhausting?) and planning for our next year and trying to get through the day without frostbite?

But I feel convicted this year to not just continue to Choose Joy.  But to also Choose To Not Bury My Pain.  The truth that one learns as one becomes an adult (and maybe the precise process that forms a person into an adult) is that pain is inevitable.

Since I cannot avoid pain, maybe the next best thing is to accept it?  To accept that there are no guarantees, to find the joy tucked amidst the pain, to allow each pain to help me reach my depths and to allow other people to glimpse my depths?  And in doing so, maybe others will let me into their pain?  You can showcase your joy to any old acquaintance. But only true friends are privileged to share in your pain.

It’s easy to list pain we have buried. Take 30 seconds. Go. Start listing. And stop.  My list was: “the Boston bombings, the murder trial, witnessing a suicide on the Mass Ave bridge, witnessing a boy crushed by an SUV on that same bridge, the loss of a friendship, the lies that nearly ended another friendship, times of loneliness and frustration and being passed up for promotions, and…”  I could have kept going.  As I’m sure everyone else could.

Sometimes at work I get to share in people’s pain. It’s hard, particularly when its divorce, death of a child, returning adopted children to their parents, putting a child on a suicide-watch (I’ve dealt with all of those this holiday season). And it’s hard because I’m not always the person they should be sharing with. And afterwards, I just want to run to shake off their pain. Or go to Crossfit and sweat it out. I resolve this year to try harder to sit with people in their pain, to remember that they are plumbing the depths of who they are. And they don’t want to do it alone.

I remember my second phone call after the suicide (the first one being to the police).  I called a coworker knowing he would already be at work. “You have to come here and be with me because this is too icky and sad to handle alone.” And he did.  And while I waited for him, the cop waiting with me said “Pain diminishes, but it never disappears.” And he looked very old and sad when he said that and I almost wish I had asked him how much pain he was carrying. How he handled a job where not enough diminishes before new pain arrives.

So the question remains as I prepare for work in the morning, clean and jerk a barbell overhead, navigate the streets of icy Boston on bike, sit with employees in their struggles, laugh with friends over silliness: “What do we do with these mixed lives we are given?” Here’s to another year of figuring that out.

The Couple that Deadlifts Together

16 Oct

A few weeks ago, I found myself working on my one rep max clean at my Crossfit gym. The guy in front of me hoisted heavy weight after heavy weight and then said to the coach “I’ve never lifted this much before.” He was a bundle of excitement and nerves. Mostly nerves.

Then he turned around. “Liz, I’ve never lifted this much before. I don’t know…” And I had to cut him off. Although I don’t believe in the hokey “believe in your mind and you can achieve anything” I do believe that you can be strong enough, warmed up enough and skilled enough, and let your mind hold you back.

“Look at this weight,” I said. “This is about to be your new one rep max. You’re about to PR.”

And he did. It was fantastic. Particularly when he realized he’d done his math wrong and not set a 10 lb PR but a 20 lb one. How good does that feel?

This is one of the reasons I love my Crossfit gym. Much as I love encouraging others to run, it’s still a constant challenge to be happy for their successes and not feel bad about myself if my own PR times don’t match up. It’s definitely a work in progress. But I feel differently at Crossfit and I find myself celebrating with each new strength, gymnastic, endurance or other skill that is improved on. By anyone. Even those I’ve only met that day.

So when I woke up yesterday and knew it was a deadlift day and I hadn’t done a 1 rep max since August, I figured it was time to try for a PR. And I also knew I owed it to myself to twist any negative thoughts into positives. Replace every “I’ve never done this” with “I’m about to do this.” Then, if I fail, at least I know it’s because I’m just not strong enough yet and not because I doubted myself. Self-doubt always wins. If you tell yourself you can’t do it, you can’t. Simple as that. (Not that people who don’t yet have the skill and instruction to do it correctly should try for heavy Olympic lifts that they’re aren’t prepared for yet.)

As I biked to the gym, I thought about the Deadlift Couple at my last gym. “The couple that deadlifts together, stays together” we used to joke. Until they broke up. They deadlifted every day. And they only deadlifted. In an hour, they would lift 5-12 times total. And they videoed each lift and watched each one over and over. It was a little strange as neither one appeared to be an Olympian or anything. In fact, the female looked quite unhappy most of the time (she got critiqued a lot). And she often commented “I don’t know why I haven’t lost any weight or gotten stronger with all this lifting we are doing.”

One day, they broke up. It was sad to see him deadlift alone but it also made me happy to think that maybe she was doing other things – growing a stronger healthier body with a diversified exercise program. Hopefully the next time she deadlifts, without the harsh words and the videos and the 5-10 minute rest in between, she will see progress.

I am not part of a deadlift couple. But I do work out in a community that watches my form and pushes me to get stronger and cheers me on whether I fail or succeed.

Today, I succeeded. Maybe it’s because I’m stronger than when I last tested my one rep max before the half Ironman and the recent marathon and half marathon. Maybe it’s because two coaches were standing there watching my form and my fellow classmate was cheering me on. Or maybe it’s just because over time, if you train correctly, and if you train in something you love, you will see improvements. And you don’t need videos of yourself to get there.

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I PRed at 195 lbs. Excited to hit 200 next! And then I was kept humble when our workout was 8-6-4-2 deadlifts at 80%, 2-4-6-8 push-ups, and 10-10-10-10 lemon squeezers and my coach lifted double the weight and finished in 2/3rds of my time. Nothing like celebrating a PR with a visual reminder that there’s no need to rest here – always more to accomplish.

That First Step Away

15 Oct

There we were, running the BAA Half Marathon, and I noted that nearly everyone was running with a portable device for listening to music. Except me. I’m sure there were others but we were few and far between. It made me think: When did I decide I was brave enough to run without music? Without distraction? With just my own thoughts?  I’ve run a smattering of marathons now and not a single one of them with music. Is it easier to take the first step out of a comfort zone when you don’t know its a comfort zone, when you don’t know that what you are doing is going to be unusual?

In Crossfit this week, I PRed in a few lifts. None of them as scary as when I finally committed to trying both the push jerk and the split jerk and actually jumping forcefully enough to bring my feet off the ground.  I know, I jump all the time. But a 24″ box jump can’t compare with the sheer terror of jumping while simultaneously pushing heavy weight over your head. And granted, a few hours later, while watching the Crossfit Games, I saw men split jerking 355 pounds.  I was only trying for 85.  Not even in the same ballpark.  But anytime you try something new, that is slightly dangerous, its hard to take that first step.

We are running now through crowds thick with spectators, after a 2 mile hush where the only sound was pounding feet and heavy breathing as we labored up a hill. And I see a lot of children and think – maybe that’s the first time we ever do something that scary – when we take our first step away. Often away from the couch. Or a coffee table. Sometimes a hand.  We learn to stand, then to shuffle around holding on for dear life. Gradually, our legs grow stronger beneath us and we learn to balance. We get a little cocky and land on our padded diaper butts and then we get up and do it all over again. But that first step – that first attempt to strike out on our own without the protection of a firm grip on something solid is frightening.

And empowering?

Most often we are not just stepping away from security but also stepping towards something we want – an encouraging parental face or an enticing object we probably shouldn’t have.  There is danger of failure but also potential reward in victory. And at some point, the desire for victory succeeds the risk of failure and we look at the giants around us, walking around with seemingly no effort and we decide its time to join them.

I think of a baby’s first steps often during this race – not because its a new race to me or a particularly challenging one. But because I am attempting to take my first steps in areas that I never would have previously imagined. Areas that will challenge my desire to stay quietly hidden in the crowd, areas that will require me to meet new people, even areas that will require jumping with heavy weights over my head. Each new skill – each new recipe tested – each day at the office – each hour of exercise is a chance to push our boundaries and test out legs. Can we stand? Can we balance?  Ok, let’s get moving then. It’s just one step…

Stories are Paths, Bulls, Nations and People

11 Aug

“Imagine the truth as a chain of great mountains, their tops way up in the clouds. Writers explore these truths, always looking out for new paths up these peaks.”

So the stories are paths?” Pasquale asked?

“No,” Alvis said, “Stories are bulls. Writers come of age full of vigor, and they feel the need to drive the old stories from the herd. One bull rules the herd awhile but then he loses his vigor and the young bulls take over.”

“Stories are bulls?”

“Nope.” Alvis Bender took a drink. “Stories are nations, empires. They can last as long as ancient Rome or as short as the Third Reich. Story-nations rise and decline. Governments change, trends rise, and they go on conquering their neighbors. Like the Roman Empire, the epic poem stretched for centuries, as far as the world. The novel rose with the British Empire, but wait…what is that rising in America? Film?”

Pasquale grinned. “And if I ask if stories are empires, you’ll say—“

Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story…your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we’re less alone.”

“But you never answered the question,” Pasquale said. “Why you come here.”

Bender pondered the wine in his hand. “A writer needs four things to achieve greatness, Pasquale: desire, disappointment, and the sea.”

That’s only three.”

Alvis finished his wine. “You have to do disappointment twice.”

(excerpt from Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter)

I’ve always preferred non-fiction to fiction. I like real life. I like true stories. But it’s only been the past few years where I’ve realized the truth that people are stories. I could never quite understand the love my parents, especially my Dad, had for people and their lives and their interests and their hardships. I much preferred the introverted activity of reading about people from a distance rather than the extroverted practice of learning about people from across the table.

But people are stories. Good stories have lots of unexpected twists and undesired turns and highs and lows and villains (not always human) and growth and perseverance and triumph. All of us can recite stories from memories – fairy tales and popular movies and classic literature – but sometimes sharing our own personal stories helps us make sense of them.

And when our stories join together…for however long…it is good.  A random comment made about a fellow gym-goers triathlon shirt turns into us realizing we are training for the same half Ironman and marathon…turns into training bike rides…turns into a friendship.  A random offer to walk someone home turns into many walks around Charlestown…turns into laughs at the gym…turns into laughs outside the gym…turns into a friendship. A friendship between two couples in their college years turns into friendships among their children…turns into racing together and suffering life’s hardships together…turns into late night conversations.

I could go on.

But then there’s the greatness: desire, disappointment, and the sea.

Desire is what propels us to set goals and pushes us to reach those goals. It forces us to reach out when we cannot succeed on our own. It keeps us standing up when life pushes us down. It gives form and structure to the tyranny of each day.

Disappointment is what keeps desires from simply being accomplishments. Disappointment is what brings the flavor and texture to our lives. Disappointment is what molds our character and makes us stronger, helps us clarify our desires, often makes us adjust our expectations of our desires.

And the sea. The sea is what reminds us that life is bigger than us. Our stories are bigger than just us. When we become too inwardly focused on our desires and our disappointments, we look to the sea. And we remember that we are not as powerful, not as large, not as constant and steady.

We are the boy splashing and the man fishing on the surface of the sea. We are the teeming fish and radiant coral below the sea. We are the sunken ship resting on the sea floor. But we are not the sea.

We are the hero of our own stories. We are also the villain of our own stories. We are the author of our own story, and yet-

We are not.

We cycle through: desire, disappointment, and the sea.  And we do disappointment twice.  At least. Twice a year? Twice a day? Twice what we ever plan on.

But our stories join together, and we are less alone. And that makes all the disappointment, the unfulfilled desire, the vastness of the sea reminding us of our smallness bearable. And it makes the story better.

Competition, or Chlorine Smells Equally Bad on Everyone

5 Aug

This past winter I was ice fishing.

I know, I’m allergic to fish. But it’s the silence and solitude, the early morning hours, the ritual of it that appeals to me. Not to mention a lot of grandfatherly types and it has been nearly 5 years since I had one. As well as the fact that doing pushups on ice are way more fun.

During this particular ice fishing trip, no one was talking. I talk a lot for work so it was refreshing to be alone with my thoughts but surrounded by people. My other “alone with my thought” activities are usually much more solo – long runs, hot showers, cleaning my apartment.

And then, my friend and I began our ritual pushup competition (he’s much faster, I’ve got more endurance). And one of the fisherman, watching our poles in their little ice hole, said “Chlorine smells equally bad on everyone.” At the time, I thought it was just a statement on life. In fact, I thought it was a polite attempt at the statement “Everyone poops.” And I enjoyed wondering what he’d been thinking of during all those quiet moments that led to “Chlorine smells equally bad on everyone.”

* * * * *

This past week I emerged from my third pool practice a bit discouraged. Sharing a lane makes me swim faster. Sharing a lane with a coworker who is training for the same Ironman makes me swim even faster. And yet I was constantly getting lapped by him…and the other coworker across the buoys.

“The thing is” a third coworker said nicely the night before, “they were both made to swim and your body type, well, it’s not swimming-friendly.” It’s true. I’m not over 6 feet tall with single digit body fat. I’m short and muscular. Swimming is not my best friend or my first choice. Thanks to practice, I’ve managed to gain some respectable speed and can finish in the middle range of the average triathlon event (Timberman, unfortunately, not being average, I will probably be the last to finish.)

As I hoisted myself out of the pool, and prepared to shower off the chlorine smell, I thought about how I could swim faster – can I turn over faster, can I breathe more efficiently, should I kick more or kick less? Deep in my thoughts, I didn’t notice my coworker get out with me until we were side by side, walking to the locker rooms. “We smell of chemicals!” he said brightly.

Why yes. Chlorine smells equally bad on everyone.

And now I wonder if the fisherman’s comment was based on seeing us doing pushups and pointedly about competition. Some sweat more, some sweat less, but everyone sweats. Some finish first, some finish last, but everyone finishes. Some swim efficiently, some flail a little bit, but everyone smells equally of chlorine.

I’ve been thinking of this a lot. I do not believe that competition is all good. It can become destructive (ruin friendships or keep you from making them) and it can become obsessive (judging oneself on one’s ability to compete). And I do not believe it is all bad. It can be productive (most of society’s advances are built on competition) and it can be empowering (to push yourself past your limits and realize those weren’t your limits). Some of us thrive on competition and it doesn’t have to be with other people. Some of us compete against our own abilities, our own speed, our own efficiency. Finding a better way to do something at work that saves me time makes me pretty darn happy. Training to run faster than I have before also gives me energy. Competing against my own ideas of what I can do grows me as a person and an athlete.

But its all about balance. Not everything is competition. And the times I take it too far and begin to think less of myself for silly reasons (I will never be 6 foot tall and 8% body fat but I’ve also come a long ways in a year of lap swimming) are the times I need to remind myself that everyone is alike, even while everyone is different. We all sweat and stink and smile and have insecurities and fears and doubts. We all want joy and stability and love. We do not all think, act, or feel the same way but we are also built with the capacity to understand those who think, act and feel differently than us (engineers struggle with this last part).

I can’t play basketball. I can’t flip turn in the pool. Handstand pushups are pretty hard for me and muscle ups are impossible. I don’t have the patience for most crafts, the rhythm for most dances, the time for gourmet cooking. But chlorine smells bad on me. Just like it smells bad on you. Proving, as if I needed proof, that we are all just human. And I can live with that.