Sunday, May 31, 2015

Connections to Professional Life: Eventually's and Living in the Moment

With only 5 instructional days left, it's hard to be reflective, but when something or someone helps clear the way, you just gotta go there and be there for the long haul. The last two years have been hard with my particular class of students - mostly related to maturity levels, pettiness and evasiveness notwithstanding, but also a sense of entitlement (another topic for another time).  I don't know what it comes down to because it all matters, but the bottom line is they are really good at living in the moment and they have this overriding sense of "eventually's" as their guide.  It goes something like this: 

Eventually I'll make that transition . . .
Eventually I'll clean around my desk . . .
Eventually I'll start writing  . . .
Eventually I'll respond to the prompt . . .
Eventually I'll read that article  . . .
Eventually I'll get around to the topic . . .
Eventually I'll keep track of my homework . . .
Eventually I'll finalize that project . . .

It's as if their lives are ruled by ellipses and a habitual use of hesitations, creating a build up of anticipations and expectations that turn a 10 second moment of calm into 10 minutes of angst - not for them, but for me. In my fast paced day where even 10 seconds makes a difference, it's a good lesson for me to practice as the year winds down . . .

Live in the moment.

Eventually can add an element of suspense to my day. 

Ellipses can mean there's goodness ahead.  

So . . . I actually wanted to share some of the work from last week and why teaching matters and how a student of mine was the epitome of forever living the eventually's.  The kid wrote a personal letter to me that reminded me dead-on why I teach.  His letter was prompted by a poem written by one of my closest friends and teaching partners who admits she is not a poet nor does she make her feelings public, but she did as she read it out loud to the class.  Kate's sharing was then followed up by a lot of kids expressing gratitude through spoken word for our class as a team with family being the redundant theme. The entire experience was like a calling to every kid and every grown-up about spitting out the verses in your head - 'cause when you do, you get substance and heart and you get to reframe the eventually's and ellipses into something more optimistic like living in the moment.

Check out this student's letter - it's pretty sweet, and he also wants to beat me in the pull-up contest.

To hear Kate recite this poem she wrote for me, well, lets just say me and several students were not dry eyed at the end of it.   It's a little blurry, but just know my favorite line from her poem was "A woman's strength can be her greatest weakness," because she brings up the paradox of some of my closest women friends, herself included, who are unafraid to live life, however complex it can be.

"And I've got somewhere to dress for, and I've got no need to stress for, and so I'll always put my best forth and count my blessings."  --Nas and Damian Marley

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Climbing: A Timely Trip to Red Rocks

When Suzi Lee sent a text basically saying she'd been working long hours and it was time for a climbing trip, we booked one within 24 hours.  That quick turnaround decision resulted in another favorite trip to Red Rocks.   Here's a quick recap in a few pictures ... 

We actually got on ROPE for the excellent sport climbing but it's hard to capture those routes with just two people.  Karen McNeill's voice went through my head though -- mostly to the tune of goddesses in the desert.  I thought about her and my best climbing sisters on this trip.  Y'all know who you are.  

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Changing Passions: From Running to Climbing

For a variety of reasons, I'm interested in passion and how and why people come to develop and express theirs. Not only does it inform the public and private work I do, but it's a chance to hear and learn from different voices. I thought of Mollie Stolbova because of her position and enthusiasm for climbing, and her leadership role with the Madison Women Climbers (MWC). When I started climbing in 1997, MWC was one pathway that led me towards enduring friendships formed that I still have today, and it was largely responsible for upping the presence of women climbers in our community. I really appreciate Mollie's voice and her enthusiasm for sharing how she went from being a runner to a climber and all things in-between her active life. -Vera

I was a runner who liked climbing - not the other way around.  I loved it, especially running long distances. I think I felt like I was a super woman or something for running so far and taking on the challenge of marathons. In January 2013 I ran one of my bucket list marathons, the Disney World Marathon. Basically it’s 26.2 miles of pure Disney magic. I loved every second, especially giving Mickey a high-five at the finish line. I still smile thinking back on this day.

But it was after this my love of running waned. I was tired of the training it took for marathons and half-marathons. It was solitary, exhausting, and time consuming. It distracted me from making gains in climbing or the ability to do anything else physical.  My love of running had ended.

A year or so before this my brother, Cody, challenged me to try climbing (bouldering to be specific). Being the competitive and adventurous person I am, I took the challenge on. I had fun, laughed, met some new people, and overcame (somewhat) my fear of falling off the climbing wall while bouldering. I had fun, even though I could barely drive my stick shift car home my hands and forearms were so sore.

As I kept coming back, I realized this was my new challenge! What I love about climbing is that there’s no end, there’s always a harder route, a new problem, or new beta to try. You can always get better, but you don’t necessarily “top out” on your skill.

It was this that reminded me I needed challenge in my life more than adding another marathon to my list. So I climbed away from running and haven’t looked back two years later. My passion for climbing has become intertwined with my passion for nature, animals, veganism, and my friends.  

My relationship with climbing has not always been rainbows and sunshine. July 2014 while bouldering with a couple of friends, Mother Nature sought to teach me a lesson. I was climbing the route Wingspan at Gov. Dodge (a V3 at the time) at the end of the climbing day and feeling good about this being my last climb. The others had sailed right up to the top out so I was confident I could do the same and we’d be on our way home. The routes at Gov. Dodge are sandstone and subject to weather and other elements. In the middle of the route is a beautiful jug hand hold which I was gripping comfortably in my left hand to reach up for the next hold. Before I could make the grab, the hold itself broke off the boulder and I with it. I went down hard. I was so shocked by the hold breaking that I forgot the rule of falling -- don’t put your hands out. So my hands went back and I hit the crash pad, fell back on the pad and rolled off to the ground. I’m pretty sure that route is now a V4 after pulling the big hold off.

At first, I was shocked, but then some pain set in through my right wrist. No swelling, but I couldn’t clench my fist or bend my wrist back. My friends went into boy scout mode -- using a towel and climbing tape to splint my wrist, helping me out of my climbing shoes and into hiking ones, and they wouldn’t let me carry a thing on the hike back to the car. The hike back had some added excitement of a downpour -- we used the crash pads as lean-tos and rested a bit. Some how I drove my stick shift car home (using mostly my elbow to shift if I recall). Urgent care was closed and the nurses hotline said I could come in the next day if it wasn’t any better.

My husband took me in the urgent care that morning. (Side note: Sunday mornings at 8:00AM are the BEST times to visit urgent care -- no one is there!) I was so certain it would just be a sprain, but the doc came in an announced, “Whelp, you broke it.” I was devastated. All my hard work and gains in climbing and now this???!! Oh the humanity! The doctor reminded me that at the end of your life this moment and these weeks that I couldn’t climb would be just a blip compared to all the other great stuff.

I ended up getting two titanium screws put in my wrist to aid in the healing. On September 15th, I got the OK from my surgeon that I could climb again and guess what I did that very evening? You bet--- went climbing!! I was so grateful for my friends to help keep my spirit up while I couldn’t climb. The wrist still gets sore and I have a scar from the surgery, but I’m thinking about a climbing tattoo to go with it.

Now I am focused on my climbing. I have even added yoga to my regime and feel it has greatly impacted my life. Since climbing and yoga, I feel more grounded, centered, and peaceful. I don’t get agitated or stressed out as easily -- something not everyone can boast.

My passion has also turned to leadership. With my friend Katie, I am the co-chair of the Madison Women Climbers group. This is a group about celebrating women climbing and creating camaraderie in the sport. We host skills clinics, outdoor climbing trips, camping, and other fun stuff. The group had been dormant for a few years until Katie and I were asked to take it on. It has been a great experience so far and hearing positive feedback and gratitude from members makes us feel great and happy we took on this challenge. I am a natural organizer and leader, so this was a great role.

When I think about it, the doctor was right -- that broken wrist and those weeks that I thought of how upset I was I couldn’t get out there is just a blip. Through climbing I have made amazing friends, found my tie to nature, appreciated my veganism more, have become stronger than I thought I could be, inside and out. When you can say all that, how could this not be my passion?

Thank you.

If you are interested in joining the Madison Women Climbers, please contact Mollie at

Mollie is from Wisconsin even though she left for a bit to go to college in the Twin Cities. She lives outside of Madison with her husband, Roman, of 7 years and beloved cats: Gilbert and Sophie. She is an animal lover and has been vegan for over a year (plus one year of vegetarian) and loves to discuss these topics and help others go vegan. Mollie also speaks French and performs with the Madison Community Orchestra in the violin section. She has been climbing for about 5 years. While she primarily boulders, she’s also been known to top rope and sport climb.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Artistic Expression Comes In-Person and Blows Minds

Sofia Snow inspiring young minds

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” 


Aristotle has this one right. In the microcosm of room 105 in the west wing of my school there's a lot of deep work happening.  Artistic representations and presentations are going off in a safe space where students are writing about racism, stereotypes, prejudices - not in a hopeless way, or with blame or shame, but with concern and personal connections.  They're using their pens to move across a page like garden tools digging in to find its root.  And where it meets is best seen in poetry and personal narratives, where stories find rhythm and flow, and where every Friday, students have been signing up for Open Mic.  To artistically represent what's going on internally, and to face a sea of expectant faces - nervous yet free - is what grounds me.  

#hiphoppedagogy #TheWork

That, and the intellectual work I demand from my students to carefully infer, analyze, and question text from multiple genres tires them (and me) out.  Admittedly though, some days even the dopest music artist, funniest poet, or engaging story won't rock their minds to action.  But other days when they meet the artist - in whatever format presented, they will let you know.  

I wrote a unit based off of the book Rad Women A-Z, and though we investigated a few of them from the book, I mostly strayed towards women who represented the values and traits I wanted my students to notice.  With the letter S coming up, Sofia Snow was the only radical woman I wanted on my lesson plan, and not only that but my students let me know in their minds and actions that I chose well.  After watching Hazard Lights and In the Library: List of Demands (Because Anger isn't Lady-Like), and then using her poetry as mentor text, there was no stopping my students from bringing forth the inward significance Aristotle referred to.

#artisticnoise #truth

I could go on and on but I needed to document the work because it was powerful to watch, and even more significant that my students could meet Sofia in-person when she came on Friday to do Open Mic and gave a performance workshop.  She killed it.  They killed it.  #TheWork was killer. Here's how it went down . . .

Since my students already felt like they "knew" Sofia, they dove right in with questions like, "Why did you title your video 'Hazard Lights'?"  "Why did you become a spoken word artist?"  "Who in your life influenced you most?" "Does 'List of Demands' have a story?"  She was so gracious, answering every question with truth and dignity and there was no doubt (based on students thank-you letters) that many connected to her story in ways that were unimaginable in their young lives.  When students asked her to perform List of Demands, it was their high - as one student said, "I so much want to be like you, Sofia, thank you so much for inspiring me."

Sofia Fans

In other news, it's Mothers Day and John-Pio's card said I'm brave and courageous and thanked me for sticking by him for 10 years.  Misa made me pancakes and fruit, and Brad and the kids put in the traditional potted veggies and herbs.  And my trail run with Kate was scented with rainfall dew and trails littered with purple flowers.  The day was finally complete with a loving text from Emma - It was a good day.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Total Exhaustion: On Switching Passions from Climbing to Windsurfing - Todd Mei

This introduction won’t be long because this piece by Todd Mei is paramount to any intro that could do it justice.  I asked him to reflect on his life as a climber-turned-windsurfer because I’m interested in passions and how people come to find them.  My favorite part of Todd’s essay is about exhaustion - a perspective I haven’t always thought of until recently.  I love this narrative, not only because it’s thoughtful, but because it’s about Todd, and like many people I know, I've just always looked up to him as an athlete and mentor. Here's to the challenge of "finding your total exhaustion." Enjoy!  

“What do they call it, joy de veever?”
—Leo O’Bannion, Miller’s Crossing

“I need my pain.”
—James T. Kirk

From rock to wind and water. I still think of myself as a rock climber, even though it’s not a sport I have seriously done since 2003. I suppose this sense of identity has largely to do with the amount of time I put into training, setting and achieving goals, and of course having some of the best experiences with friends who share the same passion for more or less the same reasons. In 2005, I moved to the UK and stopped attempting to climb for lack of access to decent rock and a climbing gym in my local area. As a result, I had a large gaping hole in my life for about six years. And it was made worse by devoting the majority of my time to an academic career—finishing a PhD and trying to get a foothold in the ever worsening higher education market in the UK. The frequent encounters with bureaucratic pettiness and the alarming divorce of physical endeavor from the academic life made for some frustrating times.

Then in 2011, my wife put a challenge to me. Care to try sailing? “I am not a water sport person,” I replied. Actually that was a lie. As a native Southern Californian, the reply meant something like, “Any water sport that does not involve riding waves is a waste of time.” But my wife was ever so keen to learn how to sail, and I agreed to have a taster session at Wild Times, the nearby sailing school in Whitstable, Kent (UK). Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Not only was the school a bit revolutionary in how it taught sailing and windsurfing—senior instructors really focus on one-to-one tuition—but the adjacent yacht club had a long history of spitting out successful dinghy champions at the national and international levels. (And no, it’s not an uppity yacht club; just a bar on the beach with a lot of men and women hanging out in wetsuits.)

A few weeks later, I found sailing a little Pico dinghy as about as much as I wanted to handle. I’m still not a good sailor, and I remember thinking at one point that I had a handle on things. But attempting to land the boat in onshore winds, my mind blanked and I forgot how to slow down. Going rather fast at my instructor, I felt a sense of despair. He dodged the dinghy like a matador, grabbed the boat, glared coldly through his sunglasses, and admonished, “What gives, dude?”

I promised my wife, who by then was hooked on sailing and giving dinghy racing a go, that I would complete a level two certification—doing things like man-overboard exercises, coming-to, and gybing and tacking in slightly higher winds. After that, I was going to give windsurfing a try. Why not? It might be worthwhile. After all, it involved something like a surfboard.

I thought I might pick it up rather easily since the beginner boards were as large as dinner tables, and I had a fair amount of experience skateboarding and sponging (body boarding). Little did I know how hard the damn sport was. In fact, to this day, I think of all the sports I have done (wrestling, skateboarding, skiing, sponging, surfing, snowboarding, climbing), windsurfing is by far the most technically difficult. More on this later—if the reader is still with me!

I want to pause here to try and explain how I became so taken with windsurfing. It has to do with exhaustion. Not just any exhaustion, but the kind that comes from how one becomes totally engaged in a sport and how it demands every ounce of mental and physical commitment—either on the day or in preparation, training, and visualization. Of course, not every sport will elicit the same feeling of exhaustion for everyone. But I think for each one of us, there is at least one sport that results in this kind of satisfying, total exhaustion.

For me, windsurfing—like climbing—has a very satisfying kind of exhaustion to it. With climbing, the combination of trying not to fall (whether out of fear of injury or resolve to onsight or redpoint a climb) with the expenditure of maximum effort creates one of the most complete senses of being exhausted. After one day of climbing, nothing feels more well-deserved than a rest day of doing absolutely nothing but lounging, watching films, drinking, and eating. My fondest memories are filled with bouldering circuits at Devil’s Lake (Wisconsin), weekend sport climbing trips to Jackson Falls (Illinois), and trad days at Tahquitz and Lover’s Leap, California.

Windsurfing has a different type of total exhaustion. The beginning stages of learning are quite technically challenging, and if you think that as a beginner you’ll be blasting along the water in a few hours or a few days, then it can also be frustrating. It takes a lot of patience and work to get the skills of blasting and carving. This is not to forget that beginning skills are quite hard to master. Non-planing, beginner turns are difficult not just for their balance and timing, but because failure means falling over and having to constantly haul the sail from the water (a good core workout). What’s more perplexing is that the beginner skills don’t translate directly to those intermediate and advanced skills where you can plane along in the straps—that is, skim on the surface of the water at high speeds, powered only by the wind. Indeed, etched in my memory is my first encounter with high winds that required such advanced skills.

The sailing school had a cohort of 4 dedicated student windsurfers who came back month after month in the summer of 2012 to make progress. None of us really understood what it meant to be in high winds of 20 mph or more. How could we? Since I had started, I was just focused on mastering turns at low speeds, not really understanding what it meant to go fast. Then one day, Jason Wild (the bloke running the school) mentions to me that there’s going to be a good breeze in a few days. He asked if I wanted to give it a go, along with the other three students. Sure, sure.

Mentally, I was determined to do well and was preparing myself for expending a lot of energy. On the morning, Jason met with us and said something like:

“So these are the kinds of conditions windsurfers hope for. I’m not instructing you today. But you’re welcome to take the kit down to the beach and have a go.”

This meant Jason would be out having a blast with the other veterans while we got a chance to flail. It also meant there would be no rescue boat in case we got in trouble or sucked out by the tide.

Honestly, I was nervous. It had been a long time since I had been a beginner at a sport. And while I have been taking windsurfing lessons the summer before, this was the first time I would be flailing in view of experienced windsurfers. And flail we did. But, and I have to emphasize, the veterans—while they may have had a laugh at our expense—seemed to be supportive. I think every windsurfer knows how difficult it is to make the transition from beginner to intermediate. And even to this day, the Whitstable locals who blast, rip, and shred are always encouraging and motivating novices.

Jason leant us two boards, one to a pair. I tried uphauling the sail close to shore and spent a great deal of effort trying to get a hold of the boom as the sail flapped and snapped in the wind. When I finally got going, the board was going so fast that it was a completely different sensation. I was planing. I was in awe of the force and speed. Having not learned how to use a harness (I was notorious for using arm strength to hang on the boom), I held on for dear life and realized the only way to stop was to let go of the boom and dive off. Trying to get back to shore was epic, and I and the other student with whom I was paired soon realized using beginner skills in such conditions was futile. So we sat on the shore practicing beach starts—where you don’t uphaul the sail but use the wind to lift the sail and take off. Every now and then a veteran surfer would take a break to give us tips.

Before that experience, I was intrigued by windsurfing because it was technically hard. After that morning I was hooked for very different reasons.

Windsurfing started to become a sport for me. The experience in high winds is what I would soon come to know as that feeling of total exhaustion . . . but in a different way distinct from climbing. With windsurfing your body is part of the rigging. You are a conduit between the force of the wind and the resistance the board puts up against the water and waves. The slightest move with the hands or feet has huge consequences, and trying to do carving turns, trick turns, and loops always involves doing lots of small things with the right timing. Things move so fast that you can’t think about when to act. Your body has to be attuned to the wind speed and direction and how the water is playing. Force of nature and technical challenges. Total exhaustion.

It’s now coming to the end of four years since I took my first windsurfing lesson. As my friends know, I am absolutely obsessed with it. I still think of myself as a climber, but since 2003 my life feels as if it has become whole again with the kind of pleasure and fatigue that the right sport can bring.

Yesterday (May 3, 2015) was a stellar spring day at Whitstable Beach—low tide, sun out, strong winds, about a dozen of us out. A good mix of novices trying to find their comfort zones, veterans blasting and carving, and freestyling wizards looping, spinning, and twisting in the wind. My back is sore from trying to complete a forward loop, but it’s a good soreness . . . the kind that makes you feel alive.

“Today’s the day,” a local freestyler said to me when rigging his kit for the session. “Going for a forward loop?”

“Got my helmet,” I said nodding.

“The pain doesn’t last long,” he replied smiling and anticipating me smacking my face and back against the water at high speeds in failed attempts.

“The learning curve never stops,” I said to myself.

This thought didn’t make fully committing to the loop any easier. But on my first time around and landing on my back . . . it somehow made the pain worthwhile. So I tell myself.


My thanks to my wife, Patricia Baker, for pushing me into a sport I once thought ignorantly to be a waste of time, and to the Wild Times Sailing School, Jason Wild, Stuart France, and Rupert Kilburn for all their motivation, tuition, and used kit! And my thanks to the reader for lasting this long. If you’ve found your sport, I hope you find the foregoing to be both accurate and affirming. If you haven’t found your total exhaustion, you’ll never be able to stop once you do. “Git on it!” as the climber Eric Zschiesche would say.