Category Archives: Personal

Trail Running: When Fast is Slow and Wrong is Right

“Your time is too slow because you’re running too fast.” IMAG4164What? The first time I heard that I was convinced runners were as crazy as I had suspected. Once I told my road runner niece how I could never run long distances because I get winded too quickly. She told me I just needed to slow down. What kind of advice is that? I live my entire life in overdrive. How am I going to slow down? Why would I want to? And why do they call themselves road runners, anyway? They’re more like road tortoises.

Okay, so, I gotta be honest here. I know nothing about running and, frankly, I don’t care. For me, slow is boring. Jogging on pavement or a track is boring. The idea of anything over 5K has zero appeal to me. I like to sprint, jump, climb, duck, dodge, and weave. I like to lean through quick turns as if I’m riding motocross. I like to occasionally wipe out down a steep hill and blow up my legs climbing back up. I love unpredictable surfaces, landing on the balls of my feet, feeling the earth shift beneath my shoes, engaging my core, crossing creeks, and seeing branches rush past my face. The rest is, well, boring. But here is the problem, I can’t do all the things I like for very long because my cardio frequently fails me. Like, repeatedly, I burst then I walk. Yes, I happen to prefer that, but it’s not often by choice.

I’ve always been a strong gal, especially for my small size. Interval training appeals to me on every level. I like to explode then nearly die, recover, then explode again. The problem is that I carry all my extra weight on my hips and legs and there’s only one way to slim down legs – running. And you can’t run without good cardio. I’ve actually had days I could barely weight train because of my inadequate cardio. The thing is, I see these long distance runners whose heart rates never elevate over 130 and, quite honestly, many of them are shockingly flabby. Skin hanging on bones. They’re running for reasons I can’t comprehend. I’m thinking, dudes, seriously, go lift some weights. You’re too skinny. If my heart rate never elevated while I exercised, I’d never leave the couch. What’s the point? I like intensity, fat burning, and weight lifting. I like muscle density and lean, defined bodies. I like my curves. I don’t want to be skin on bones for the sake of cardio.

But if I can’t build up endurance, I can’t weight train for crap, and my technical trail opportunities are limited, so I really do need to figure this out. My legs are naturally strong and I can rarely give them a good workout unless I sprint up hills because I wind before I even feel a burn. My husband, Tim, says the problem is that I can’t actually max them out since I inadvertently rest my legs too often when I walk between sprints to rest my heart. When he runs trails, he feels it in his legs every time, not his chest. I rarely feel anything in my legs but my chest feels like I am boa constrictor prey. Hmm.

So for today’s run, I took advice from other runners and ran slower. Yawn, I know. I’ve run this one mile section of a 5K trail/obstacle course with Tim, who can do it in under 8 minutes – I can barely finish in 11 – so I have good checkpoint comparisons between his time and mine. He’s much taller with an average stride length of 1.2 meters while mine is .89 and he is a distance runner, yes, but he’s also a very fast sprinter so I suppose it won’t hurt me to actually take his advice. I think he’s wrong and just doesn’t understand me, but I’m willing to try. Three miles of trail running – can’t really go wrong either way so, why not? Besides, if it doesn’t work I get to say I was right.

For my first lap I left the starting line and immediately focused on form and pace – not speed. Normally I take off running to save time before I get too winded. I like to hit checkpoint #1 in about 45 seconds; Tim arrives in about 55 seconds. Too slow. This lap I arrived at just under a minute, which seemed about right for this new, boring pace. When I hit the second technical, which I love to sprint through as fast as I can, I held back and just jogged it. Not quite as much fun but still pretty awesome since it’s a real butt kicker. After that I walked briskly uphill for about 10 seconds but was able to jog again sooner than normal. By the time I get to Poison Ivy Pass I’m always walking but today I was still jogging – albeit, just barely. It honestly felt like I could probably walk faster than that pace. Kinda boring. Resisting the urge to second guess my goal today, I continued the slow jog uphill to the second checkpoint. Tim usually hits it at 2 minutes; it always takes me more than 3. Time check: 2 min, 45 seconds.

Wait, what? No kidding. I must lose more time than I think on those walking rests.

So at this point I’m pretty motivated, right? I jogged the next technical and realized that it actually is just as enjoyable as sprinting it and probably a lot safer. The next section is a long, steady incline. I always walk the first half to rest up then run the second half of this uphill section because it’s the only way I can blow up my legs but this time I bend my knees and basically power walk like a fiend to the top. I notice I can actually get my heart rate to drop just a tad while I handle the hill this way and still feel it in my legs. That’s something new. It’s a long hill but at the top I was able to run again at a decent pace through the technical before needing to briefly walk the next incline. As I approached the ladder obstacle I was tempted to walk a little to rest up then take off but instead I just kept plodding along. Hmm. Not that boring, I guess. Tim reaches the ladder obstacle in 4 minutes while I can rarely get there in less than 6. Time check: 5 min, 4 seconds.

No way. No freakin’ way.

The next section is slightly downhill so I know I’m supposed to increase my pace there but I’m usually too tired from my sprint to the ladder obstacle. This time, however, I was able to enjoy that small decline and experience gravity’s gracious assistance, pulling me down the path. That was nice. After the hairpin turn it’s time to go back uphill. I’m about 6 minutes in and trying to save a little cardio on the uphills and use it on the flats and downhills. Buzz. Recovery Check: GOOD. Thank you, Garmin. When the hill flattened out I jogged again, when my heart rate approached my max, I backed off a little, and continued this pattern that, much to my surprise, seemed to be working.

Now I was that little girl who raced the boys in our neighborhood because I could beat most the girls too easily. On a short distance sprint, I’ve always been fast. So as an adult who enjoys interval training, I tend to sprint at max capacity then walk to lower my heart rate. Tim says that’s fine for interval training but, as far as overall time is concerned, I can’t sprint fast enough and long enough to compensate for walking rests over the course of longer distances. Since my new goal is to add distance training, and with every run I’ll certainly want to improve my time, and what I’d been doing wasn’t working, and this little experiment seemed to be working, at this point I’m now facing the fact that my approach was all wrong. That’s also something new.

For the final section of the course I decided to burst, knowing the end was less than 45 seconds away so I no longer needed to pace myself. Across the finish line I ran. Time Check: 10 min, 30 seconds. My best time to date.

Holy sheep caca.

A day I attempted to keep up with my cross country running husband ad nearly died.

A day I attempted to keep up with my cross country running husband and nearly died.

Usually I run it in 11 min and 15 seconds the first lap and add about 15 seconds each subsequent lap. I ran it once in 10:39 the previous week while racing Tim and nearly puked several times. It was miserable. I could barely breathe. This time I was tired but I never felt like I was going to die. Fascinated, I took four or five minutes to walk, cool down, drink some water then I tried it again. And again.

My USUAL lap times prior to today:
First checkpoint: 45 seconds
Second checkpoint: 3 min, 15 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 50 seconds
Total time: 11 min, 30 seconds

My first lap times today:
First checkpoint: 56 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 45 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 4 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 30 seconds

My second lap times today:
First checkpoint: 52 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 50 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 10 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 35 seconds

Blown away with surprise and encouragement, I tried for a third time today.

First checkpoint: 57 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 58 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 16 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 36 seconds

No way. Like, just no way.

I was killing myself at 100% to finish this course in 11 minutes and when I ran it at 90% capacity I actually improved my overall time significantly. And I did it consistently three times in a row. I know to distance runners this comes as no surprise but for me, I am blown away. I thought no bent-over-hands-on-hips-about-to-vomit walking rests meant I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Apparently not. Do you know what this means? Tim was right; I was wrong. That just happened. Tim is the tortoise and I am the hare. Perhaps I was mistaken and I can learn a little something from those boring road runners after all.

Walk a Mile In My Trail Running Shoes

Trail running is hard to explain to outsiders. Ageless. Timeless. Primal. As tranquil or intense as you want it to be. I can’t say what it is for everyone, but I can tell you what it is for me in one word: necessary. First let me state that I am 48, not athletic, and not a runner. In fact, I really don’t like running at all and you’ll never see me running on pavement. But trail running has crept its way into my blood and I can’t shake it. I promise my experiences won’t inspire you to run ultra-marathons in Australia but if you can virtually walk a mile in my trail running shoes, you may be inspired to get off the couch and get outside.

My trail run today was pretty typical for me. Currently I’m “training” on a one mile loop which is the first mile of our staff 5K trail run. Our company owns a private, 80 acre nature preserve with miles of trails. Last spring I plotted a 5K course as a sort of team-building type activity, mostly for fun, but it is quickly becoming an obsession. So today was one of my M-W-F trail runs. Yes, I hit it 3X weekly now, but don’t tune out yet. I’m no expert.

The first mile of this 5K course is my worst nightmare. It’s about an 18 minute walk with way, way too much mowed grass path and not enough narrow, curvy, obstacle filled technical for me. I hate long distance running in any capacity so, of course, because I suck at the typical-cross-country-endless-running-thing, I’m trying to master this first segment which is mostly about jog-paced distance for the sake of a good warm up before the next two miles which are killers. My goal is to complete this first one mile segment in under 10 minutes. Doesn’t sound like much to a road runner but this is no track. My first attempt was 13 minutes because I stop and walk so much on the flats. Yeah, I’m that bad at distance running. If it weren’t for my sprinting speed and agility on the technical sections, my time would be even worse.

So today I warm up for about half a kilometer then start my Garmin Forerunner and jog away from the starting line. Down the grass path I go, eyes darting all over, steps landing hard, winded in 20 seconds when the self-talk starts. Why am I even doing this? I hate running. Quick right onto the first, introductory, mini-technical trail. Spider webs. Yuck. Always right at face level, too. Back out to the main course. Find your line, focus, stop landing so hard, you’re going to blow out your knees. Next quick right, up along the fallen log, touch the first checkpoint and now we go on the purple segment. One minute in, I’m warm, I’m ready, let’s do this! I jump over the next log and go. Hands up, protect your face from the evergreen branches, duck, watch out for that poison ivy, loop right, break left, back right, one more left, one more right, and bam! There it is: the first wall. Ugh. The trail opens back up to an uphill mowed path.

I suck.

Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. Heart rate check: 160. Whatever. Move your ass, old lady. My max is 170, target area 140-160. Quick right then a quick left through the trees and there it is: Purple Poison Ivy Pass – a slow, steady incline path past a poison ivy forest with a checkpoint at the end. I hate it. Voices on. Go! Look at all that poison ivy! Did you know poison ivy grows in bushes, on vines, and can even stand free, five feet tall, like a tree? Such a lovely looking plant. I really wish poison ivy wasn’t harmful. It’s so pretty. Slowing down now…twenty feet, maybe thirty. That’s all I’ve got. I’m done. Time check: 2 minutes, 30 seconds. Yeah. Seriously. I’m that done already. I’m a terrible runner.

More self-talk. I hate running. Why do I even do this? What’s the point? This is stupid. OH! Hello, Mr. Grasshopper! Pow! Right in my face. Did I just squeal? I think I squealed. OMG. Now I’m laughing which reminds me how much I love these trails and suddenly I’m able to at least jog again. Up along the pass to checkpoint number two. I know cross country runners love the opportunity to increase their pace on the open, flat paths but, to me, the only good thing about these grass sidewalks is the lack of spider webs. Here we are, the second checkpoint. I’m three minutes in and it feels like thirty. Welcome to the orange segment!

Path Through Sumac in FallI take a quick right through the sumacs and evergreens, hopping over this branch, ducking under that branch, sharp left, watch out for spiders. Man, I love the technical trails! Then I see it right as I hit it – the underside of a huge garden spider suspended in midair right at chest level. In a split second it’s on my shirt, crawling up toward my throat. I’m not even remotely afraid of spiders yet I scream and flail as I frantically brush it off. That’s why most runners slow down on the technicals. Not me. I freaking love sprinting through those tangled, bumpy messes. Heebie jeebies be damned I press on. The red colors of the Sumac leaves in Autumn are stunningly beautiful. Exit the technical trail and oh…ugh…another mowed path incline. Greeeaaat. Heart rate check: 145. No excuses. Go! Lift those feet, lean into the incline, smile, have some fun. I got this, I can do this, look at me go! Red Sumac Leaves

Bam. I can’t breathe. Heart rate check: 165. I hate everything.

Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. You’re almost to the next technical and there it is! Break right, left, hop that fallen tree. Go! Go! I take a hard left, jump the fallen branches, head south along the road to…ugh…the next mowed path, yet another slow incline. I wish for a car to drive by so I’m motivated to run. Walk, walk, walk. This is stupid. And why are there so many grasshoppers out here today? Time check: 4 minutes, 38 seconds. What? Yes! I know if I run hard right now maybe I can make it to the ladder obstacle in less than 5 minutes which will get me back on track. Heart rate check: 138. Run!

Head down, find my line, engage my core, land light on the balls of my feet, kick, kick, go! Go! Ladder obstacle time check: 5 minutes, 40 seconds. Dang it. Not terrible but not good. Next is a mowed path with a slight decline which means it’s time to run while I still can. I catch a new wind. Hair pin turn to the right and back up I go. Pull with your arms, breathe in (step, step, step), breathe out (step, step, step). Snake! Yes, that was a snake, slithering away into the tall grass. Rock on, dude! I am a beast! I am one with nature! This is such a primal experience. Look! Deer poop! I’m tired but I like this part. Duck down, through the trees, break left, I love this! Run, run, jog, jog, slowing down. What?! Heart rate check: 165. *Expletive!* Why can’t I ever exceed 165 anymore?!

Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. Getting old sucks. What the hell, man? This bites. Buzz goes my watch. “Recovery Check: Good.” Thank you, happy helper. Could you maybe buzz my ass and make me move faster, too? Okay, whatever, you know? And then the justification talk creeps in. I’m almost 50. I look and feel great for my age. Compared to most of my peers I’m healthy and happy. This really isn’t even necessary. My husband loves me just the way I am. I’ve got a lot to do. I bet my phone’s exploding with texts. I’m probably done for today. Hello again, Mr. Grasshopper. Right down the front of my shirt. Seriously? Where is it? In my bra? I flap my shirt wildly and shake my head at the nonsense of it all.

Heart rate check: 132. What the…? How long have I been walking? Crap. Snap out of it. Go!

Head down, find my line, engage my core, land light on the balls of my feet, kick, kick, go! Go! Back up near the road, still no cars drive by. Keep running anyway! Our character is who we are when no one’s watching, right? I head south then east then south again, take a sharp right toward the giant brush pile. Optional checkpoint – don’t skip it, cheater. I keep running, landing lightly, feeling the earth beneath my feet, actually imagining that I can feel the grass bending and the dirt shifting. Eight minutes in. Yes, here comes the Zen place. OMG I love this. I keep running. Wait, is that nausea? Ignore it. This is your favorite part. I zoom through the trees, left, right, back left, back right, hard left, lunging and leaning like I’m racing motocross, quads fired up, careful through the mulchy stuff. Look at that. What a truly beautiful sunflower. I love Kansas. Slowing down now. Heart rate check: 168 and still jogging! Yes! I keep running because in two more lefts I know I have to slow down anyway for this technical segment – a single width trail that cuts diagonally through a tangled field of wild everything.

I’ve got this now. I know this section. I made this section. I know I can rest my heart while making up some time by high stepping the fallen stalks and skirting the sticker bushes. My legs are so much stronger than my heart. This is my expertise. I could do this all day. Sweat dripping into my eyes, in no time I’m out of the field and in a full sprint toward the teeter-totter obstacles. Teeter Totter ObstaclesUp and over, up and over, without missing a beat, letting them catapult me forward down the path. I’m so good at those. Thank God I’m good at something. Isn’t the human body amazing? Downhill now, cross the road, and here comes the side pain. No. No way. No time for that now. I can see the end. Time check: 10 minutes, 45 seconds. I’m about to vomit. Voices on.

My husband’s voice in my head, “You can do anything for one minute.”

Chris Medlen’s voice, “Finish strong.”

My voice, “You’re so close! Don’t quit now, dumbass!”

Up to the top of the dam I go. Careful with the ankles, it’s really uneven here. Go! Go! I know I must give it everything I’ve got now, leaving nothing in the tank. Wow, how lucky am I that all the parts of my body work? I’m almost 50 and look what my body can do. Thank you, God, for the gift of health. Forgive me, Lord, when I take my health for granted. Around the pond I go, panting now, face on fire, fighting back tears of joy, pain, and gratitude. Blink, ten more steps. Blink, five more steps. Three, two, one, done! I click stop on my watch. 11 minutes, 31 seconds. Oh. Hmm. Not my best time yet not my worst but nowhere near my goal. Most importantly, though, I didn’t quit. After a two or three minute walking rest, I run it again, then a third time, until I meet my personal 5K minimum for that day. Each lap repeats a nearly identical personal experience.

That’s my typical trail run. That’s a mile in my shoes.

Now you’ll never meet anyone other than a trail runner who can actually be happy with an eleven minute mile. But running on the trail has never and will never be about the time in and of itself; it’s about the experience. It’s about engaging the earth and listening to the music of nature. It’s about celebrating the spider webs as confirmation you were the first one on the trail that day and marveling at the thought of what happened there with all the wildlife overnight. It’s about sacrificing your time in order to inspect a praying mantis, study a butterfly, stop and flip a turtle back over, relocate a dangerous locust branch full of thorns, or watch a sunrise. It’s about fresh air, sunshine, dirt, rocks, creeks, rain, mud, and navigating trails without a lead car or crowds or road signs. It’s about building strength, endurance, and having a strong core without ever doing so much as one sit up. And, if you’re competitive, it’s about running the same course over and over, mastering the details, learning how to beat your own time and then, perhaps, competing against others who share your passion for the trails. And most of all, it is anything but mindless. Full mind-body engagement is required.

Maybe your goal is to find new trails and see things you’ve never seen before. For lots of runners, it’s all about the distance and, on the trails, long enough never is. Maybe you’re just tired of getting less healthy sitting in artificial light all day. Whatever the reason, for those of us who dislike exercise, loathe running on indoor treadmills and roads, and could never fathom being a runner, trail running is a way to get out there and move – not only for physical health, but mental health, as well, as we connect with nature and realign our souls with the universe. For me, in the course of the first mile, I can shed all the distractions of modern life and excavate my primitive self. I don’t just enjoy the trails, I need them. I’ll never be a super athlete but at least when I’m maneuvering those trails I can discern my innermost voice and rediscover my authentic self. It’s too noisy everywhere else. In fact, the only time I can truly reconnect with the real world – the world that genuinely matters – is when I’m alone, disconnected from everything else, traversing those trails. That’s what trail running is to me.

 

Pet Store Puppies

Modified from my business blog entry at www.PetWorldLawrence.com

Scrappy, our most recent rescue mutt, found abandoned.

Scrappy, our most recent rescue mutt, found abandoned in an old outbuilding.

Since 1988 I’ve owned and operated a huge pet store and education center with my husband, Tim. Almost daily I am asked, “Why doesn’t Pet World sell cats and dogs?” 

The short answer?
There is no short answer.

Truth be told, Tim and I have never entirely agreed on the issue of pet stores selling cats and dogs. All pet stores are different, so a blanket approach makes no sense. One perspective is that the world has too many unwanted dogs and cats so perhaps selling them could inadvertently contribute to that population or, at the very least, give this perception. That doesn’t seem very responsible. The other perspective is how lame it is to be this industry leader, influential among pet hobbyists, and not show the world how to responsibly handle the number one and two pets in the U.S. when it’s not like it can’t be done. It can. Although, selling dogs and cats according to our high standards was not exactly cost efficient, I must admit. Not a money maker at all. In fact, it was so cost prohibitive I’m surprised my frugal partner would do it.

Maybe Tim just did it for me because I like dogs and cats so much. I mean, I was sleeping with the boss after all. 😉

The whole not-selling-dogs-and-cats thing initially seems like the responsible choice but you know what? Self imposed bans are a very slippery slope. Some pet stores sell puppy mill puppies – which is flat wrong. Puppy mill dogs should be illegal across the board in any venue. But some pet stores are inspected, licensed, regulated, and go to great lengths to sell quality, responsibly raised puppies, purchased directly from local, hobby breeders. Nothing wrong with that. So the idea that no pet stores should sell any puppies ever is based on assumption and stereotype, only treating the symptom, and not addressing the real problem.

Principled Transparency
At our shop, we focus all our energy into education. We know that teaching by example with full disclosure regarding responsible pet ownership is the right thing to do. All of our pets are handled and sold without pretense. We tell customers the truth and regularly redirect them from one pet to another, depending on their situations, until we make the best connection for both human and pet. Sometimes the best pet is no pet, using weekly visits, instead, to scratch that itch. Since we’ve applied this principle successfully across the board, for 25 years, with all the pets we sell, why not dogs and cats? Good question.

Brief History
For our first 10-15 years we did sell puppies and kittens on occasion – more so in the first 10 then increasingly less from years 10-15 when we became even more active in adoptions. We never had the big Wall of Shame full of sterile kennels and sad looking puppies. That was never our style. But we did bring in purebreds sometimes. Mostly we offered mixed breeds and entire litters from local, hobby breeders who let their pets have one litter a year. We vehemently opposed puppy mills from day one and never purchased from them or brokers, leaving us with no consistent supply of dogs and cats. Not a great business practice but at least we knew our sources.

In many cases we’d bring in the whole litter at 7-8 weeks, allow customers to hand select their puppy, then have the puppies stay together until they were all sold – usually around 10 weeks. New owners would come in regularly for play time then pick up their new pups all on the same day so the litter mates were never left alone. Also, this extra time with litter mates helped puppies through their biting phases as they learned appropriate mouthing while practicing on each other.

We had our share of drop off puppies and kittens left in boxes on the doorstep but we didn’t mind. We’d take care of them, get them vaccinated and ready for new homes, and sell them for just enough money to offset our expenses. Personally, I loved having dogs and cats and helping people with their commitments to them. I really miss seeing all the kids sitting on our floor, inside the playpens, playing with the puppies. I miss the kittens climbing their cat trees and finding my oldest daughter asleep in the cat pen, covered in exhausted piles of fluff.

*Sigh* I do miss those puppies and kittens. They brought so much joy to Pet World!

Sounds ideal, right?

Difficult Decision
So why not continue to sell dogs and cats? That’s tough to answer. We never actually declared a moratorium, per se; we just, sort of, stopped. We would sometimes go months with no dogs or cats so those sales weren’t a big part of our business anyway. And Tim’s acute radar regarding public perception started going off. Our adoption days slowly got less and less attention. Each time we brought food and supplies to our local shelter, we’d see more unwanted dogs and cats and, even though we never saw any who came from our store, the increasing numbers bothered us. We worried that having puppies and kittens available in our store might detract from the adoptions we were promoting, so, little by little, we just stopped selling them.

I was opposed to this decision and the staff was split right down the middle. Half agreed with Tim that the potential risk was too high to remain in line with our mission; half agreed with me that it was our duty to demonstrate self regulating and responsible selling of America’s favorite pets. But the pet store itself was Tim’s childhood dream, not mine, and his business sense has always been keener than mine, so we went with his gut and let go of dog and cat sales.

Sad Truth
As it turns out, we were the first of many. In fact, fewer pet stores sell dogs and cats now than ever before in history – only 3% of all dog and cat sales in the U.S. – yet the unwanted dog and cat populations are at an all time high and increasing every year. And now, with the vast majority of dog and cat sales happening online, we are losing ground with no way to regulate breeding or sales, having removed ourselves from the loop. Inspectors can’t keep up on all the breeders because they now sell direct to individuals through web sites and online ads, bypassing pet stores and subsequently bypassing regulation. What seemed like a good idea at the time actually backfired in many ways. Not long ago I was discussing this over drinks with our local shelter’s director. We both agreed, in retrospect, we should have put all our effort into stopping puppy mills directly as opposed to taking the easier, human pacifier route and just eliminating one step in the process – a step that actually drove the mills even further underground. Live and learn.

The Future
Undoubtedly the issue of selling dogs and cats remains complicated but who knows? Maybe someday we’ll be able to offer carefully selected dogs and cats again. Tim still doesn’t think it’s feasible but I’m always optimistic. Until then, we hope customers understand and will continue to bring in their dogs and cats to visit! We encourage folks to always support your local shelter and spread the word about the importance of spaying and neutering. And if any of you have ideas or thoughts on this issue, we welcome you to share!

 

A_Persons_Spirit

Coincidence or Life Lesson? Time for this white girl to get over it.

My first, real boyfriend experience happened my freshman year of high school. He was a sophomore and about the cutest guy I had ever met. Funny, sweet, adventurous, athletic, and popular. I knew him in middle school but was not confident enough to speak to him beyond the scope of friendship. He had a lot of very pretty, popular girlfriends and I felt inadequate. But then we started spending time together the summer before my freshman year. My friend’s parents owned a small amusement park where we’d all hang out during the summers and guess who started working there? You could say I spent more time at the bumper cars that summer than most. By July, we were officially a couple.

Hes_Not_WhiteWhen it was time to tell my parents, I showed his picture to my mom and distinctly remember her hesitation.

“He’s not white,” she said. “Your dad will not be okay with this.”

I literally remember thinking, seriously? It’s 1980. You’ve got to be kidding. He was half white, half Mexican, with very light skin. But my dad grew up in the South, early 50s, the son of an old school, southern preacher. Probably not wanting to know the truth and trying to find a way to make her daughter happy, my mom said, “He looks about the same color as our neighbors from Greece. He must be Greek.” Then she paused to ponder. “Yes, that’s definitely what he is. Greek. Your dad likes those neighbors. He’ll be fine with that.”

Even my 14 year old self knew that she was telling me to pass my new boyfriend off as Greek instead of Mexican. Wow. I wonder now what might have happened had I revealed the boy I liked before this one was black. I explained the situation to my boyfriend, apologized for my father and the need to lie, and he agreed to play along in order to date me. I dreaded the day it finally came up and hate thinking about it even now. I can still see his face, battling mixed emotions, looking from me to my parents, then nodding his head in agreement when my mom said, “You’re Greek, right?”

Seriously, other than polite, conversational chit chat – which this was not – why did that question even need to be asked?Character

Later, when we were alone, his eyes filled with hurt when we talked about it. He looked at me, pained from denying his heritage, and said, “You have no idea how much I wanted to say, ‘No. I’m Mexican.’” That moment, when I witnessed someone I cared about experience racism – for my sake, no less, in my own home – burned into my memory like few others. My mom’s expression, my boyfriend’s wavy, Michael Landon hair, those distressed brown eyes, that golden skin under his yellow tank top, the velvet wallpaper behind him – I can see and feel it all as if it were yesterday. In that moment I knew neither heritage nor race should ever be a factor in assessing a person’s character.

After my “Greek” relationship ended, our previous friendship resumed and he and I remain friends to this day. Even though the romance peaked and passed, I don’t think two people can experience something as powerful as that moment and not be forever connected in some way, even if only through Facebook. Interestingly enough, it was about a year later that I had my own first experience with racism.

Our high school was pretty ghetto and our student body was diverse, to say the least. We had more than our share of poverty and hate but there were plenty of amazing people, as well. I remember a few in particular. Gracing our hallways walked a tall, dark skinned, beautiful, black girl, always so impeccably dressed, it became a daily ritual to find her just to see what she was wearing. Kim carried herself with elegant poise, exuding self confidence, yet she was always kind and polite. Everyone knew she was no nonsense, diplomatic beyond her years, and bound for success – different than most of us who would probably live and die in that same city. She was total package and easily could have acted superior but she never did. Secure in her person, she was probably the first student to wear a rabbit fur coat to school – a hot trend in the early 80s that most of us couldn’t afford. When she walked by in that coat everyone stared in awe. I loved the way she looked in that coat. She just had this presence about her (even without the coat).

One of my friends was an only child and pretty spoiled. Imagine my jealousy when I discovered her mom bought her a rabbit fur coat. Weeks went by yet she never wore it to school. She was too shy. Well, of all the things I’ve been called in my life, shy was never one of them. So I asked to borrow it and wore it the next day. I remember my excitement as my mom dropped me off in front of the school. I climbed out of the car and glided up the steps, through the doors, and slowly modeled that coat for all to see. People turned and stared but the reception was not what I expected. Sneers, pointing, giggles, eye rolling, and whispers by the black students who dominated the entrance. Uncomfortable glances by the white students passing through. I was so confused. Finally, this one, particularly unbearable, black kid said, “Bitch, who do you think you are in that fake fur coat?” We’ll call him Eddie since I truly can’t remember his real name. Pretty sure he’s in prison now. With my chin up, I assured him it wasn’t fake and invited him to touch it and see for himself. He waved me off. I reminded him I was not the first girl to wear a fur coat to school. He stopped and said, “Bitch, please. Kim is black. She can wear a fur coat. You can’t.” People started laughing out loud. This guy was as mean as anyone I had ever met.

Holding my ground, I raised my voice and asked, in the most accusatory tone, “So are you saying I’m not allowed to wear what I want simply because I’m white?!”

Color_of_SkinOver the silence he said, “That’s right, bitch. Now you get it. So take that shit off and go on about your white girl business.” My face burned red as I remained motionless, careful not to lock my knees, waiting for people to leave, but I was too proud for tears. I stood as tall as my 64 inches could stand, face stoic, slowly shaking my head. I could not believe the color of my skin dictated what clothes I could wear. Thankfully, the bell rang, clearing the main hall.

Needless to say, I never wore that coat again. And, as it turns out, Kim went on to model for Ebony magazine and grace the runways from L.A. to New York to Milan. Perhaps she was, in fact, better suited to wear fur to school. She did have that commanding presence, after all. Nevertheless, not one to walk away from a challenge, the following year I did manage to be the first white girl to perform in our high school’s Black Student Union talent show. So when my black friends started calling me Teena Marie, I managed to feel some sense of accomplishment and acceptance.

Flash forward to January 2014, my daughter’s freshman year of high school. She starts talking about a cute boy at another high school. I hear words like “athlete” and “popular” so I ask about his activities and his friends. She says he hangs out with lots of different people but names several jock-types I know far too much about. He’s one of those kids? Um, no. I know all about those boys . Not my baby girl. Immediately I tell her to not get her hopes up and she appropriately chastises me about judging him without even meeting him. Hmm. This girl was raised well. In 1988 my husband and I moved to Lawrence, Kansas and have never regretted our decision to raise our kids in a progressive, forward thinking community. In this moment, I am proud of her for correcting me. So I tell her to pull up his Twitter and Instagram and let me take a look at his posts.

First picture she shows me is a close up. He’s not white.Simultaneously_Girl_and_Mother

I hesitate and it all comes rushing back. I’ve lived this moment before. Suddenly, I’m simultaneously 14 years old, thrust back into 1980, as well as a 14 year old girl’s mother in 2014. I can feel both halves of me as if each were whole. Total flashback. I look at her smiling face and realize she has no idea what is happening in my mind at this very moment.

“I know, mom. I know!” she says to me. “He’s really cute, right?” No other thought even crosses her mind, except this one. “And just because he’s an athlete doesn’t mean he’s an arrogant jock. He’s not. He’s smart and really nice.” Well, somebody knows her mother pretty darn well, doesn’t she? I smile back at her and confirm that, yes, indeed, he is very cute, consciously choosing to let her assume his good looks and athleticism caused my hesitation instead of the fact that she had unknowingly recreated an identical defining moment from my past, catapulting me into some crazy, parallel universe.

All good parents want their children to exceed them in every way, right? That’s the goal. In this moment, I know I will exceed my parents. I must. The fact that his color never occurred to her as being a potential issue proved I already had in some ways. Now I just needed to get past my preconceived notions about male athletes. If I couldn’t overcome my own stereotypical prejudice, then I could not exceed my parents in every way. For my daughter, I had to do better.

A few weeks later my son tells me he’s sure this boy is going to ask my daughter to the winter formal. He also tells me he approves of this kid, which never happens. He’s the most protective twin brother I’ve ever seen. I manage to stay out of the whole event. Then one day a car pulls up to our house followed by a knock on the door. My husband answers. “Mr. Emerson? Hello,” followed by a handshake and an introduction, and in walks a tall, well dressed, very attractive black teenager. He confidently walks up to me and introduces himself with a radiant smile that fills the room. I am now completely disarmed. He has quite the presence. Finally, he approaches my daughter and offers her all her favorite candy and a little box with a necklace inside and Formal? written on top. She happily agrees and he politely makes his exit, all smiles, practically floating out the door, leaving a void in his wake.

Charming. Truly charming.

The night of formal, his older brother brings him to our house and comes inside with him. He is tall, dark skinned, obviously very athletic, and every bit as polite as his younger brother. His presence is immense yet his demeanor is humble. My husband immediately recognizes him and they strike up a conversation about sports. I have no idea who he is but I am amazed at the possibility of not just one, but two respectful young men in my living room, both athletes, both filling the room with presence.

I grew up thinking that all the white, male athletes were products of overbearing, former jock dads, trying to live vicariously through their sons and all the black, male athletes were angry young men with something to prove, making their way with overworked single mothers and absent fathers. I believed all male athletes, regardless of color, were womanizing jerks. Unfortunately, after 30 years, my preconceived notions have proven true time and time again so, even though I married an exception to the rule, I still struggle with this stereotypical prejudice against male athletes that has been reinforced by so much reality. Yet here was the proof, right in my living room, that I was wrong to judge based on nothing more than gender and association.

After corsages and pictures the boys settle in for brief conversation. I want to know more about this atypical family. Who are these people? Turns out their parents are married, to each other, and have been together over 20 years. Their father is a medical professional and their mother is an attorney. There is yet another brother between these two and a younger sister. All three boys are athletes. This is one impressive family. Then the real shocker – we discover their mother went to high school with us in the same city. What?! We are stunned, dying to find out who she is. Upon hearing her maiden name my jaw drops, my head nearly spins off my neck, and I wonder how I didn’t already know.

Face palm. No such thing as a coincidence.

Tall. Black. Charmingly polite. Commanding presence. I’ll give you two guesses as to who she is and the first one doesn’t count.

Look_Beyond_StereotypeYou see, sometimes God taps you on the shoulder, politely reminding you that only He should judge. And other times, He clobbers you right smack in the forehead. Looking beyond heritage and race is only the first step. Looking beyond stereotype is the next. All that framed scripture on my walls doesn’t mean diddly-squat if I don’t apply the principles myself, on every level. As soon as I knew Kim was their mom, I knew any assumptions I made about them were wrong.

Eddie thought Kim could wear fur to high school because she was black. But it was because of who she was inside – her spirit, her confidence, her presence. Kim being Kim is why she could pull off that rabbit fur coat. It had nothing to do with her being black. I thought arrogant jocks were jerks because they were athletes, but it turns out those guys are just jerks who also happen to be athletes. Being a male athlete doesn’t automatically make a guy a jerk. Making assumptions based on stereotype is no better than basing assumptions on race. A person’s spirit, as demonstrated by his actions, is the only part of that person we should allow ourselves to see.A_Persons_Spirit

Last night, a month after formal, and a week after our kids have officially declared they are dating, Kim and her family came over for dinner and we got to meet her wonderful husband and other two children. At one point in this delightful evening my husband and I enjoyed watching their middle son clear his place and resist our instruction to just leave his dirty plate on the counter. Like, he seriously was so well mannered he looked a little lost not scraping his plate into the trash and rinsing his dish. He is also a male athlete. Of course he is, right? Of course. This non-athlete, white girl was learning one beautiful life lesson, I tell ya. Kim’s husband told us about how when he met her it was love at first sight for him. He knew exactly what I meant when I described her presence. Now I know where her boys got it. She shared the simplified version but there wasn’t enough time to hear the detailed story of why Kim ended up in Lawrence, Kansas. Although, I’m pretty sure I already know one obvious reason. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll have time to hear all the rest.