Friday, September 18, 2015

The Double Standards of Taking Risks

Yesterday morning, I opened my social media to the below video plastered across friends' timelines. 

Back in 2012, icy calm free soloist, Alex Honnold, was featured on 60 Minutes for his ropeless ascents of daunting climbs throughout the world. Despite the mellow and seemingly-sensible climber's repeated descriptions of his solos as high consequence, not high risk, he's been embraced largely for his steely nerves in the face of daring. And the general assumption for most of us, despite Honnold's claims otherwise, is that it's ultimately about adrenaline. Either way, he's lauded as though he's conquering fears for all of us. 

In May, world renowned risk-taker, Dean Potter, made national headlines when his final wing suit flight went wrong. He and fellow flyer, Graham Hunt, crashed into Yosemite's towering stone walls and two lives ceased. Potter was long respected in the climbing and extreme sports communities for his high-risk antics and rule-breaking lifestyle. Though both men inspired many (and doubtless troubled many others), it's Potter's deep and open conversations about death that we tend to remember. "I don't want to die, but I'm ok with putting it all out there, for the most beautiful expression of my life," he's once said. I guess that's one way to practice mindfulness. 

Clearly, extreme risk sports are capturing the imaginations of an increasingly mainstream audience. And this, by itself, seems fine. Culturally, I could expound on the varied reasons sociologists think people engage in adrenaline-inducing activities. It's called edgework and the theories are based in ideas of a sort of psychological disenfranchisement that results from the capitalist economic and work systems. So maybe we need this extreme inspiration. Maybe we're stirred by the perceived bravery or a need, like Potter's, to find that edge that makes life sparkle. I love asking these questions--after all, while I'd never solo, I'm a scared-of-heights climber who keeps trudging back to the cliffs.

But that's not what interests me right now. It's the parallels I keep seeing between participating in high-risk sport and drug use, and the contradictions in how these practices are treated by our laws and our society.

In June, three BASE jumpers were convicted of misdemeanor reckless endangerment for for leaping off the World Trade Center in 2013. The charges could have meant up to a year in jail, but the jumpers were ultimately sentenced to community service. I don't have a problem so much with the charges or sentences doled out to these men. Perhaps, I would even agree with critics that they're harsh, given the fact that they were skilled and worked actively to minimize risks to themselves and others. But as a former drug researcher and social justice advocate, I question why these BASE jumpers received less punishment for their act than they would have for injecting themselves with heroin. And there's no telling what the retribution would have been had they done so exuberantly, had they threatened to inject others, at the base of the WTC. Would drug users have been convicted of the top charge of burglary (dismissed in the BASE jumping case) if they had simply entered the building to use in private? I'm concerned by the double standard that this particular brand of risk-taking highlights. 

So, to start, how are extreme sports and drug use similar?
  • Physical risk to self. That physical risk, however, is variable. It depends on specifics, on each individuals' efforts to recognize and minimize it. There are worthwhile distinctions between drug use and abuse and addiction, between injecting and snorting, between using one's own clean syringe and works each time and sharing with others. Sometimes these choices are true choices, other times shaped by social circumstances. Most often, though, the relative risks are acknowledged by the users. Similarly, extreme sports enthusiasts distinguish between free-climbing (using a rope) and soloing, or free-soloing (no rope), trail riding and jockeying racehorses. Some of these things, though related, just aren't so dangerous. Other are. There are degrees. 
  • Potential to harm others, especially emotionally.
  • While motivations for both drug use and extreme sports participation vary a great deal, pleasure-seeking and adrenaline-seeking apply to many in both groups. Potter's view, mentioned above, offers an inspiring way to view the world indeed. And that's the thing with the folks sociologists refer to as edgeworkers: The ways they play with risk, taunt death, inspires a lot of us. Their risk-taking tends to be laced with a desire to be as close to life in the present moment as possible. It's almost mindful. Whether or not similar motivations drive drug users is debatable, but after years of studying meth use and spending time around both recreational users and addicts throughout my life, I'd say yea, for many this is absolutely what's going on.
  • The laws that make both illegal cause more harm than the practices themselves. This is well-documented when it comes to drug use, but was recently, and solidly, put forth regarding high-risk sports.
But the next piece of this puzzle is recognizing how the two are different, especially socially...
  • The WTC jumpers were convicted of misdemeanor reckless endangerment. Under NY law, self-injection of a narcotic is a felony. Felonies, even the smaller ones, have a way of ruining lives that misdemeanors just don't.
  • Extreme sports participants tend, disproportionately, to be white men. Actually, so do illegal drug users, but those who face the legal repercussions of their use tend not to be. In particular, in the US, it's far and away black men who are punished for using drugs.
  • The knee-jerk responses differ considerably. The overdose is always, always deemed tragic, emphasis is on the family, the loss. The edgework death, however, is permitted more complexity. Potter's death saddened many and was scoffed at by some. But time and again, folks brushed the sadness, the accountability to loved ones, aside, to celebrate a man who lived his life "well," doing what he loved. Individuals who die because of drugs aren't afforded that degree of humanity. Their lives are viewed as tragic, their deaths as well. Regardless of how they would have interpreted it.
There's no clean way to wrap this up at this point. It's a thought, a process, with many limbs. But how, I wonder, could recognizing these similarities and disparities move us toward a more human, more humane, way of interacting with one another?  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Subjectivity of suffering?

I have nearly finished  week four of my five-week yoga teacher training course in Rishikesh, India...on an ashram. I mention the ashram bit not so much because of my religion-related struggles but because it's highly relevant to the way I'm learning yoga, and consequently, to the way I'm learning philosophy, which is offered up in a very unfamiliar context, in unfamiliar ways. Rather than the structured philosophical debates that may run a tangent or two but circle around a concept with which all are familiar (ie, we all read the assigned book), philosophy classes here consist of a quiet yet captivating monk talking about concepts from the Bhagavad Gita, often in nonlinear, even circular ways. A western trained academic, I've been struggling with this way of learning, finding the concepts we've covered rather obvious and at times basic. 

But the other day, as I was grappling with my frustrations, with my desire to get "more" out if the class, a classmate shared something really important. "You come from a very academic background. You - we, as westerners - are accustomed to learning with the head. But here, this, they teach you so you must learn it with your heart. You learn it here," and she placed her hand at her heart chakra. It helped. And here's the thing: intellectually, the concepts that guide yogic philosophy as we're learning it aren't difficult. But emotionally, experientially, they can feel damn near impossible to reconcile with the way the world works. 

I don't think I'm especially talented at this heart-based learning, and I'm sure there are some folks out there who would say I'm a downright failure at heart-based living, but I'm open to giving it a try now that I have some clue as to what's going on. So this post is sort of my clumsy attempt at sharing my journey of trying to apply what we've discussed in philosophy, using my heart, to some everyday challenges. 

We'll start with the basic idea presented in class - "suffering" is subjective and situated not in a vaccuum of the moment but a context of lifetimes and lives. In essence, the lesson was that while it is fine, good even, to act to help others in need, one must accept the suffering without judgment, one must be open to the idea that, suffering in this present may fit into a larger context that changes the meaning of the conditions we deemed suffering. 

Intellectually, this concept fits neatly with my anthropological background and ongoing research on drug use and homelessness. Human suffering is something I've always been able to step back from, to view through a lens of cultural and individual relativism. Even though at my core I would guess there are some universal conditions out there that all would deem suffering, I also recognize that people's experiences of these conditions are relative. If you add the other layers of belief that shape these philosophies, they may not be more palatable to you on a gut level, but they should make sense. 

For example, here in India, the levels of poverty suggest, to my western brain, suffering. Yet to a yogi, and likely to many if not all Indians, my separation from the spiritual or from my family are significant forms of suffering. In my own work as a researcher I defended the relativity of suffering regularly as I sought to highlight the multidimensionality of drug users' experiences. Thus, intellectually, I had little trouble accepting when Mataji told us that we must try not to judge the conditions of others, or ourselves, as suffering. And, to some extent, though I would argue that as a society we have more responsibility to one another than to just leave it all without critical questions, I get where it's going and agree that, on a personal level, this can be a helpful view of the world. 

It's when I try to apply this concept with my heart that I struggle. And, for me, it's the animals that make it tough. See, while my human research participants can share their emotions and we can, together, consider their experiences in lifetimes of context, with non-human animals, suffering becomes much more poignant and, as such, much more black and white. 

The other day, our yoga hall/ashram mascot dog turned up at my room with a nasty laceration that was on its way to being infected. Earlier, noisier-than-usual monkey scuffles outside our asana class had sounded like a dog was involved and I had wondered if that dog was Ajna/Kevin. I'm still not certain his gash is from monkeys but it seems likely. We tried to find a vet in town but the only hope was closed for the week's holiday. We tried to engage the help of medical students and a doctor to clean out the wound or give an antibiotic, but had no luck. Eventually, we were told where to get some antiseptic ointment and given some gauze to try and clean the wound ourselves. It was less than successful though not a total failure - in line with other philosophical lessons, I'm trying to be ok with the fact that my actions didn't bring about what I hoped would be the most ideal result of getting the dog to a vet, where he could maybe get a rabies shot - as we got some of the nasty gunk out of the wound and some of the good gunk in and should be able to have a vet out after Diwali to give him his shot. 

But here's this thing; it's india. There are countless homeless, starving, injured, mistreated dogs here and very few resources to do anything about it. And it breaks my heart endlessly. And all I can feel is that they are suffering and I want to fix it even though I know that the "one at a time" won't even make a dent in anything. 

And this is where it gets really tough for me to engage emotionally with the concept of suffering in the way I'm "supposed" to. If I follow Mataji's philosophy on the relativity of suffering then these dogs are not necessarily suffering and their lives may, as my classmate pointed out the first week, actually be a preferable alternative to the western notion that if it can't live well it shouldn't have to live at all. Subjectivity. Relativity. All terms I throw around with ease in an academic setting. And while I get it intellectually, I can't quite bring myself to accept it emotionally. 

Meanwhile, the struggle continues to find Ajna/Kevin some treatment and I don't know when I'm supposed to let go. Apparently, living this concept is much harder than thinking about it. 

Tonight, we meditated on our female energy. And when we got back, there was Ajna/Kevin, sleeping on my doorstep. As I stroked his head, my brain wandered through possible outcomes for him and the tears started to flow as I imagined what I saw as the worst. My emotions were certainly flowing and i tried, for once, to be ok with whatever comes his way. I tried to accept that maybe, just maybe, he isn't suffering. 

At the end of the day, I'm (obviously) still grappling with this learning with the heart thing as it's way more exhausting than using my head, but I think I've got one lesson down: I can only control my actions, never the outcomes, so I'll do my best to keep doing what I can, just for the sake of doing it, because taking care of this wise old street dog just feels like the right thing to do. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My evolution of home

Anthropology has a long history of studying the cultural traits of people who have forged their way in a particular setting. Especially in the older texts, it's not uncommon to find work on "hill tribes" or "desert nomads," groups - and perhaps people - who are largely defined, to scholars anyway, by the landscapes they inhabit. These things shape the ways people eat, dress, build, etc. 

I like to say I grew up in a barn. After all, the smells of horses and hay and leather and oil, rather than a particular place, have always been my comfort. Some might argue this is because they were my main constants as a child. 
Fairly mobile during my youth, even when we stayed in the same region, my family switched neighborhoods, houses, and cities often enough that I changed school districts and friend groups and rarely if ever grew attached to a house. After my parents' divorce and my mom's remarriage, we moved out of state and eventually across the country so that I shuffled between households based on the school schedule. My childhood, in this way at least, was a far cry from my husband's - his parents still live in the house in which he grew up. And as such, I've always had a slightly different concept of "home," one that's left me full of wanderlust as an adult. The two sides to this are of course a restless independence and an unsettled searching. 

As I've grown older, settled down in love and life and place a bit, I've come to appreciate the topography of a home in a way I never did before. The deserts of the American West have long held a special place in my heart: I adore the open spaces and the sparse, delicate, often thorny, vegetation. But only recently have I found something that softens me as only home can: the mountains. I'm not really a mountain girl in general. I will ski but I don't crave it, I can't stand winter and don't especially like snow, I prefer flat hikes through wide open valleys over hilly ones aimed at a vista. But being in the midst of mountains, in their proximity, in their foothills, does the trick, letting me exhale that noisy breath of true relief. Much like my friends who feel restless, even anxious, away from the ocean, I've come to feel this way when away from mountains.  

I began to appreciate this connection just months ago, after leaving my heart in the hills around Chiang Mai, Thailand for the more famous climbing in the beautiful beaches of the Andaman coast. And again, just days ago, as my plane left the bustle of Delhi and grazed the Himalayan foothills before touching down in Northern India's Dehradun, and along the winding roads that led deeper into the foothills, to Rishikesh. There is still chaos, though on a much smaller scale, but it's the air that is different here, and it goes beyond pollution. 

What I find is that I am different amidst it all, tucked into the hills. And while my home will always, first and foremost, be with my little family, wherever we are, it seems that now that may need to stick to the mountains. 

If I turn myself back into an anthropologist, I can't help but wonder: if a topography can shape an entire culture, what must it be able to do to a little person? What, I wonder, has Colorado, and all those high desert valleys and cliff bands, and its wide open skies and expressive clouds, done to me? 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

tracing hairs, muscles, veins: sitting still during visiting hours

Late June, my horse was injured pretty badly. Well, it wasn't supposed to be a big deal, but infection set in and the damaged tendon started to adhere, and long story short, he's been in and out of the equine hospital for the past 6 weeks or so and tolerating pretty aggressive treatments when he's been lucky enough to be home. It's been rough, and I haven't been able to enjoy what for me is the most effective stress reliever out there - riding my horse - while going through this relatively stressful time. But I got something else out of it, something I really appreciated the other day while I was visiting him at the hospital, sitting in silence in his stall, watching his lips as he sifted through straw for his endless supply of fragrant green hay, admiring the sheen of his coat and the delicate, ever present veins beneath his thin thoroughbred skin: my mind was quiet, in tune, present.

In this sometimes overwhelming American culture in which I live, busyness is something that is expected, lauded, admired. "I've been busy" has become a standard response to "How have you been?" It's something I find myself saying, even if I'm not all that busy, because to be anything else could be mistaken for being [insert undesirable characteristic here].

As I've been setting out on this new path of mine over the past several months - stepping away from research and academia, trying my hand at freelance writing, preparing to head to India for Yoga Teacher Training - I've found that a routine, almost daily yoga practice helps me retain the focus to work without any hard deadlines and to manage the stress associated with personal issues, such as my horse's injury. But I've also begun to seek out the quiet this practice offers. It's so un-American, so unfamiliar and unnerving, and it's definitely not easy. During a meditation the other morning, the instructor challenged us to observe how long it took us before we lost focus on the breath moving in and out of our nostrils, to consider the implications of the fact that, for most of us, attention didn't stay fixed but wandered instead to the day's tasks, to yesterday's stresses, to life's goals. And this particular yoga instructor likes to refer to this relentless tendency to drift away from right now as an addiction to the busyness of our minds, of our lives. And while as a drug researcher I have all kinds of issues with the concept of addiction, in this particular brain-limited, metaphorical sense, I think it rings quite true. I like that busyness. There is comfort in it. Plus, it's a habit so ingrained, I almost don't know what to do in its absence.

So, I've been trying, throughout my days, off my mat, to consciously observe moments, to be present. And the other day, in Reed's stall, I did just that. Not perfectly, but glowingly. And I carried the joy of fully being there, in shared silence with an animal for whom the present is the primary place to be, for the rest of the day. So that when I left his side and returned home, I smelled the nutty smell that is the top of my dog's head, I listened to the slight burning in my eyes from too many hours spent reading and writing electronically, I savored the bright fruits that made up so many of that day's meals. I attempted to just be.

Then, last night, I was reading this tongue-in-cheek article about the many things foreigners find frustrating (and endearing?) about Americans, and of course one stood out to me: "You live to work. Too bad your life sucks." This certainly doesn't apply to all of us, and the author doesn't claim that it does, but it's become enough of a cultural norm that many of us risk missing our lives in their entireties as we chase something of much more arbitrary value.

I'm aware that my observations and thoughts on this matter are by no means novel and I have certainly not abandoned my compulsion toward busyness, toward work with "value", toward being defined by my career (or lack of it). What I did do that I hope pushes me toward a bit more balance was stop, sit still, and carefully, lovingly, trace exactly what was in front of me.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Big Love and banning veils: On the (unintended?) consequences of criminalizing "(im)morality"

I recently decided to try Amazon Prime's instant video service and got into watching the HBO show, Big Love, a drama (at times a soap opera) featuring a polygamist Mormon family struggling to make their way in Utah's more mainstream, non-fundamentalist Mormon community. The show itself is interesting, and it has been both widely lauded and widely criticized. As one who is fairly uneducated in the specifics of Mormonism but who doesn't prescribe at all to any particular religious system, I found the portrayals of the religion itself to be fairly neutral. They did not come across to the uninitiated as any stranger or more extreme than any other religious believes, nor did their portrayal seem attributable to any deeper agenda. I was also able to think critically about the underlying or exacerbating contexts that shape the stereotypes as well as the experiences of the shows highly stigmatized focal group, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saimts (FLDS). 

What I found especially interesting were the social implications not of polygamy/plural marriage itself, not of the Mormon exclusion of the group that has re-defined itself as FLDS, but of the ways that the criminalization of polygamy may contribute to and perpetuate the very demonized aspects of these groups that were so prevalent in the show - incest, child sexual abuse, and a mafia-like mentality of control and dominance - and may in turn foster further criminality and place at increased risk those who are most vulnerable to begin with.

As a drugs researcher, I constantly think about the social impact of the criminalization of drugs in particular and morality in general. The perpetuation of stigma, the fear of arrest and incarceration, these things contribute to drug users' isolation from full participation in mainstream society (unless, of course, they are able to pass to a certain extent, which is another issue). In essence, criminalization pushes people into survival strategies that rely heavily upon insular communities in which social norms are not to be questioned and that foster the engagement of these communities and community members in illegal, often violent, activities. Furthermore, this isolation and involvement in an array of criminal activity positions communities and their members in close proximity to established criminal networks.

Fortunately, when it comes to drug use, there seems to be a growing conversation about the consequences of criminalization and the possibilities of legalization (though this latter part is largely limited to marijuana and perhaps my impression of a "movement" may simply be the result of a biased twitter feed). But I wonder if some of the lessons learned from the drug war vs. drug legalization debate may in fact be applied toward other legal prescriptions of individual morality.


Anthropologists have long studied marriage and kinship patterns across cultures. In fact, these findings - that marriage norms (including who may be married to whom and how many people may enter into a marriage) differ considerably the world over and throughout history - have been at the core of anthropological challenges to the conservative claim that marriage is "between one man and one woman." And on this, the anthropologists are absolutely right. It is simply absurd to reify such a moral standard in ways that refuse to acknowledge the realities of the world in which we live - a world in which there is no single set standard for the ways (or reasons) that people commit to one another.

So what I have long thought about, not having a personal moral issue with polygamy itself, and what the show Big Love has really highlighted for me, is whether when we criminalize one behavior socially deemed "immoral" (typically victimless) are we actually putting people at increased risk and in fact cultivating an entire community of individuals whose daily lives are in turn based on and accepting of other, more dangerous or harmful behaviors (such as violence, rape, and child sexual abuse) in large part because of their isolation from (and consequent mistrust of) the mainstream society from which the very core of their lives - their primary relationships - must be kept secret.

For example, with several examples and multiple characters, Big Love highlights the many challenges faced by a career person torn between living openly in his/her marriages and maintaining not only respect of potential clients but also potential investors, employers, and even banking resources. To admit to living in a plural marriage was to limit one's opportunities in the mainstream business world; as such, engagement with other socially and economically marginalized groups (Native American tribes) or in fringe (certainly by mainstream Mormon standards) economies (gambling) was portrayed as one of few viable alternatives. These struggles were positioned beside the lives of those on the compound, where all were "out" but considerable violence and corruption were rampant and embeddedness in criminal networks was the norm. The show doesn't come out and argue that criminalization of polygamy may actually underlie many of the problem(s) we have seen over the years on these compounds, but it certainly sets the attentive audience up to ask the questions.


In essence, the cases of illegal drugs and of plural marriage/polygamy/the FLDS in the United States suggest that when we decide, as a society, to use the legal system to restrict behaviors deemed immoral - not just behaviors that cause harm to others - we may create a system that a) isolates those who engage in these practices (many of whom may be vulnerable on multiple levels) from mainstream society and resources, placing them in increased danger and b) perpetuates underground and illegal economies that facilitate crimes against others, crimes of violence. In addition to drug use, similar arguments have been made with regard to the consequences of criminalizing sex work.

But the other day another policy was upheld, one that is perhaps about a different kind of morality but one that has the potential, it seems, to place those it ostensibly (and perhaps a bit condescendingly) claims to protect (through the preservation of France's moral values and cultural norms) at greater risk. In 2010, France banned the wearing of face-covering Muslim veils, such as the niqab or the burka, in public. French authorities have claimed the ban was put in place in large part to preserve French culture, which seems to be quite concerned with the notion that Muslim men are forcing their wives to wear such veils. Another concern relates more to issues of security and identifiability, though this is less discussed. The ban was recently upheld by a European court, which defended France's right to prioritize its own cultural values over "freedom of religion." (As an anthropologist living in the US during a time when corporations have been given religious imperative over the rights and health of women, I find all of this especially interesting, but that's all beyond the scope of the current post!)

Here's the some extent, I can actually understand both sides of the argument - the French have decided to prioritize an aspect of their culture that authorities and decision-makers and many citizens believe fosters gender equality in the face of a religion that many believe squelches it. Muslim women who believe wearing such veils are part of their religious expression, their relationship to God, and who are neither pressured nor coerced into wearing it, find such a ban to be a huge infringement upon their rights. It is an emotionally and politically loaded debate and one that is perhaps endlessly fascinating and lacking a straightforward, all-pleasing solution.

But ultimately, I must admit that this isn't my primary concern. My concern is for the few women who are coerced or manipulated or downright forced to wear a full veil, something that would suggest a relationship power differential that places them at increased risk for abuse among other things. Banning the veil places these women, who were likely isolated living in France anyway, at even greater risk than they would have been at previously. They will be further isolated if leaving their home is conditional upon wearing an article of clothing that is banned, leaving them three choices: a) go out in the banned garment and hazard getting caught, b) face the consequences of going out without the banned garment, against their husband's wishes, or c) don't go out. This may not only further limit their opportunities to establish their own relationships with women who have different experiences and perspectives, but perhaps more realistically and problematically could hinder their abilities to fulfill their roles in the family. Will these women's movements, as well as their networks, be further restricted? My concern is that the French have said, in essence: We believe that the niqab and the burka are signs of gender inequality and domestic violence (or risk for it). Therefore, we will pass a policy that will perpetuate the isolation of the women who wear it, whether or not they choose to do so. 

While I certainly argue that these examples point to a need to continually and critically evaluate the potential consequences of new and existing policies, this is by no means an attempt to turn a blind eye to the actual issues associated with many of these examples or to filter everything through rose colored lenses. Rather, is is a contemplation of the complexity of our actions, and of the need to consider how what we do as a society, how we build a legal system, what it looks like, what we choose to put in it and where, all of these things in turn impact not only the real yet often intangible or unimaginable social structure but also the daily experiences of real live human beings...often in ways we didn't anticipate and certainly don't desire. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Fostering an ethos of self-care amidst a culture of ego

As those of you who know me in person or regularly follow this blog are aware, my relatively recent return to a consistent yoga practice has brought up a number of challenges - physical, emotional, and psychological. First among these has been the notion of self-care that is such an important tenet of yoga practice. If you have ever been in a yoga class, or followed one online, or read a yoga book, or even used one of those asana apps on your phone, you know it: the instructor repeatedly reminds you to "listen to your body," "don't jam yourself," "take rests if you need to," "find your edge, but don't force yourself past it."

I grew up with a competitive American spirit. As a child, I competed in two sports at the state and national levels and I have always been exceptionally hard on myself, not necessarily expecting to win or even outperform others, but always expecting to improve and perform my "best," whatever that is. And that's just the thing; my concept of my personal best was based on a rather linear imagined trajectory, not on the very non-linear reality of my life and the multitude of factors that shape our performance in anything. Along with this ego of performance expectation came a drive to "train" at a certain level as well. Though I no longer ride horses competitively, I find it difficult to ride "for fun" outside of a training program, and expect myself to commit six days a week to it. Though I climb recreationally, I find it frustrating that, unless I devote at least 4 days per week to it, I just don't have the naturally powerful physique to make progress or even avoid regression. This struggle to let go of my own ego in sports has actually kept me from enjoying them to the max in the busy and complicated context that is my everyday adult life.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, when I began practicing yoga on a regular basis, I found myself beginning to fall into this same trap. If I missed a day, I felt guilty. I wanted to be a "good yogi" and this meant practicing ___________ . . . it started with every other day and morphed into daily. When I missed a day because I was tired, or because I climbed, or because I just felt like writing all day instead, I was consumed by guilt. Although I was learning the ethic of self-care on the mat (I try to choose my practices according to my needs on a given day, I have learned to laugh when I fall out of a pose rather than becoming frustrated), I was blatantly ignoring it in my daily decisions around whether or not to practice.

Yesterday, while I was playing around on twitter after a long day of teaching a psychological anthropology unit, I came across this fun, tongue-in-cheek article. Not surprisingly, the thing we need to stop saying about yoga that resonated with me the most is "I'm so mad I missed yoga yesterday. I wanted to go every day this week." Kate Stone, the article's author - a yoga instructor and personal trainer - insightfully wondered why we say these things, asking, Why? Did your body want to move that much?

The article, and specifically the author's challenge to the externally and systematically imposed expectations made me think about the lesson I had taught earlier in the day. In particular, anthropologist Eileen Anderson-Fye's exploration of body image among adolescent girls in Belize. The notion of self-care was something that Anderson-Fye argues is a possible protective factor against disordered body image and eating behavior in a country where beauty is highly valued and Western media is visible. Other researchers have posited that Americans' sense of the self as being changeable, something always "in progress," contributes to our relative risk for eating disorders.

But maybe it's also this relative absence of an ethic of self care - despite living in a highly individualistic society - that places us at risk for all kinds of things. That makes it so hard to listen to our bodies, even in a yoga class, because we are more concerned with meeting expectations, with meeting an externally mediated and measured notion of "success" or "progress." I see it all over the place: in my plethora of friends who brag about not taking vacation time; in those I know who pride themselves on working through their off days or wake in the middle of the night and rather than reading themselves to sleep, choose to get up and work; in the bristling judgment I've faced when I explain that time spent with my husband, my horse, and my dog is more important to me to me than following a particular career path. In essence, to some degree, one could argue that our culture of ego has created a culture of braggart martyrs, of people who sacrifice themselves for others (or for work), but rather than doing so in quiet acceptance or even enjoyment, do so for the status associated with the embodiment of a particular notion of the ideal self.

However, the importance of self-care is something that is receiving increased attention, especially for those who work in the caring professions. In essence, people are starting to recognize that to avoid burnout and actually increase efficacy in helping others, we must honor and nurture ourselves and our own needs and even wants. And this growing appreciation is something that I've elected to prioritize for myself. I guess the trick at this point will be keeping the ego out of self-care itself...hard as it may be, when I decide to listen to my body and skip that yoga class, to take off work when I'm sick, to spend time with family instead of working overtime, I also need to avoid judging others who don't follow the same path. Because, at the end of the day, maybe self-care looks a little different for all of us.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How 'bout that weather?

When I first moved to a farm just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia in 2002, I was immediately struck by several things. Coming directly from a year in New York City and four in Los Angeles, I was blown away that the farm's main "hand," a lifelong Virginian who must have been in his 70s, said hello with a nod and a hand wave every single time we passed in a day; the local grocer/sandwich shop took checks; and, the weather was a valid and frequent topic of conversation.

After nearly a decade of living in places where snow didn't really happen and one rarely needed to check the weather to decide what to wear (I lived in the Phoenix area for 4 years prior to moving to Los Angeles for university), weather just wasn't something I thought of as an actual conversation piece. And in New York, the weather just never really seemed relevant - maybe because so much of life centers around the built environment rather than the natural one? - maybe because it just wasn't "cool" to make this sort of small talk? I don't really know either way, but I was utterly startled by the degree to which, in Virginia, I talked about the weather.

And now, living in Colorado, a place where the weather is rarely predictable - I mean, we can get 70 degrees and sunny skies in February and a snowstorm in June - I find that, once again, I talk about the weather all the time.

January 2013

May 2013

We have had relentless wind for about a week now, and I noticed that in the last few days especially, the weather - specifically, the wind - has been central to most of my casual interactions with people. I ran into a neighbor while walking the dog this morning and after a quick exchange about his upcoming yard sale, we parted ways, ending our conversation with, "I'm about ready for this wind to quit." "No kidding! I've had about enough." I had a similar conversation with my yoga instructor yesterday and more in depth versions with several friends. The wind is making us all feel a little nuts, so perhaps it's especially relevant. But I think it's fair to say, the weather in Colorado always seems important.

And that's where I've begun to ask myself some questions. Why is that in some parts of the world, in some parts of the country, weather is such an acceptable - and genuine feeling - topic of conversation, while in others it's simply not? In essence, my experiences and observations of others' tell me there are a couple of overlapping factors that may make weather an appropriate conversation topic: first, the actual weather in the place (i.e., is it quickly changing, does it come with extra challenges such as snow, etc.); second, the degree to which people's day-to-day activities involve being outside in the weather.

So, a few examples:

In places like Los Angeles, at least when I lived there, weather is pretty much always nice. It's almost like living in climate control. That the weather will be good is virtually a given, so even if you engage in a lot of outdoor activities, you just don't think about the weather. Arizona was much like this when I lived there, as well. I know people bitch about the heat, but in my experience, that's mostly people who don't live there. We rode horses year round in an uncovered outdoor arena. In the summer we rode early in the morning. When it rained maybe we didn't ride for a couple of days. But when it came to day to day living, the weather just wasn't ever worth talking about.

My dear friend, M, simply despises all talk about the weather, and I've always associated this with the fact that talking about the weather is decidedly uncouth while M is pretty much one of the "cool" folks. Cool people, urban people, just don't talk about the weather. It's a form of small talk left to those of us considered "bumpkins" (I am totally included in this categorization, by the way!). But in the last several years, I've noticed M starting to talk about the weather, and not in a mocking or ironic way. Rather, he genuinely gives a shit about it. He's also been engaging in a lot more outdoor activities - he has a dog now and hikes more than he ever did in the past - and has been moving regularly between the urban center of NYC (where we moved together over a decade ago), upstate New York, the pacific northwest, and southern California. Perhaps what I once attributed to cultural valuing actually has more to do with lifestyle; perhaps weather doesn't seem important when most of our time is spent indoors, when we can move about through subway tunnels, in and out of air-conditioned cabs and restaurants and workplaces, when we're moving about a city with a complete immersion in its built spaces.

As I alluded to above, I found myself really starting to talk and think an awful lot about weather in smaller communities that experience regular and irregular changes in weather (Charlottesville, VA; Streitdorf, Austria; Fort Collins, CO). It just so happens that in these places my life has also heavily centered around the outdoors. In Virginia and Austria I worked on horse farms. In Colorado...well, in Colorado I think all of our lives center around the outdoors to some extent. I ride horses and rock climb and walk my dog. Many of the people I know think nothing of riding their bikes year round, commuting anywhere from 5-15 each way in well-below-freezing temperatures, high winds, and blizzards. Life for these folks is perhaps not disrupted by the weather, but it's sure affected by it. For me, a very vocal hater of winter, life is seriously unsettled. While, in the summer my daily activities get me outside for 6 hours a day or more, in the winter I must transition some of these activities into indoor activities (e.g., I climb at a gym or ride in an indoor arena), usually bitterly. Not a cold weather person, I find winter incredibly disruptive. Just as a heat-hating climber/hiker/mountain biker may find Arizona's summers disruptive as they move them indoors or force them to readjust their ideal schedule. But that's the thing with Colorado; it seems like everybody is outside all the time if they can be, so weather is of considerable importance and relevance to our lives.

So maybe, at the end of the day, these tendencies to talk about the weather or not, the definition of such talk as unintellectual or irrelevant small talk, have less to do with some abstracted notion of a "cultural norm" and more to do with the realities of each of our day-to-day realities.