Friday, September 21, 2012

Winging it

Don’t fight the trail. Take what it gives you … Think easy, light, smooth and fast. You start with easy because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad............
- Caballo Blanco in Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run

I have been fascinated by runners for quite some time now. I have always envied the self-discipline of the people who run to keep fit. How do they endure such strenuous physical effort inspite of all the injuries that seem to come with the territory? What makes them motivated to keep at it? I imagined that there must be something about the act of running itself that is immensely enjoyable that makes them come back for more. It piqued my interest even more when my husband took up running a few years ago. When he was training for a marathon, I noticed that he didn’t follow any strict schedules and neither did he like running on the treadmill. He trained outdoors
in the wee hours of the morning, even through subzero temperatures. That was the only time he liked to run - early in the morning. I know he has loads of self-discipline but still, I was intrigued. So I asked him. What energizes him to get out of a warm cosy bed when it is still dark outside? What exactly are his thoughts when he wakes up that early to run? He said, “Nothing. I just get up and get out the door to run.” Hmm..yes, right, but I was on a quest for a more elaborate answer.

So I poked around online for some running advice and found out that the authors of most of the blogs I followed were avid runners. And then I came across a review of the book Born to Run. I read the book hoping that it would answer my questions and with a fainter hope that it would inspire me to take up running. It did both - answer and inspire. The philosophy struck a chord and the reasoning as to why we run seemed logical. It also introduced me to minimalist shoes - one of the keys to running strong and injury-free. It all seemed simple and doable. When the book described ultramarathon races and extreme runners, I couldn’t relate to them, but they were nevertheless inspiring. It supported my belief that physical strength and endurance comes from one’s mental makeup and attitude.

I started slowly. I was never able to run for more than a minute even on treadmills, but as I progressed, I found out that I too hated running on treadmills. I felt constricted and that affected my tread and pace. And worst of all, it was boring and no amount of my favorite music or audiobooks would motivate me to continue. But my husband kept nudging me, so I started over. I constantly reminded myself of everything I read in Born to Run. I started running outdoors. I changed my shoes - my new shoes were not exactly huaraches, but they were not moon-shoes either. I stopped carrying my music with me during the run. My intention was for it to be a mindful practice. As I am with all things that require mindfulness, I just let my mind wander and so did not bother distracting myself with music. I also got over my self-consciousness about puffing and panting in the neighbourhood for everyone to see - yes, as you may have guessed, I wasn’t running during unearthly hours ( I was not that inspired). It also helped when I read somewhere that it might actually inspire someone to see me run. As I am the one always seeking inspiration and never the one to inspire, I thought it a novel idea.

To bolster my efforts further, at the beginning of this summer, I decided to sign up for a 5K race. I reasoned that it was for a good cause and that a commitment like that might actually keep me motivated. I started out by running in the mornings during my 3-week vacation. Once my vacation was over, I ran out of steam, came up with excuses and my running came to a screeching halt. Almost two months passed and I realized that the date for the run was only a few weeks away. I resumed my running. And then unfortunately I sprained my foot (it wasn’t from running). By the time my foot felt better, I was in a time crunch. Only two weeks to go before the race and I still wasn’t prepared.

A friend who had signed up to run along with me had to drop out due to family reasons. I was tempted to throw in the towel but my determination to set a good example for my kids egged me on. I ran about three times every week. I timed myself and found out that it took me about 45 minutes to run the 5K. Not good. One can walk that distance in 45 minutes, myself included. So I ran a bit harder with a goal of slicing off one single minute every time I ran. The best I could do was 37 minutes. That was two days before the race. No more running until race day.

I fervently hoped that during the race, some of the energy of the runners would rub off on me and I would run faster and make it under 40 minutes. But then the night before the race, which was last friday, I decided that I will just aim to finish without keeling over at the finish line. On Saturday morning, I stretched at home before the run, instead of after, like I usually do. I had my all-time favorite breakfast of toasted sprouted-grain bread with heaps of almond butter, strawberry jam and flax meal and downed some black coffee. The weather was chilly that morning but the sun came up shining nice and bright. My family was with me to cheer me up for my first run ever.

By the time we got there, the place was swarming with people - over 10,000 had signed up. It was inspiring to see so many runners. When I walked up to the start line, I was glad to see my family waving to me from the sidelines. Some of my new favorite songs were pounding through the speakers and a short jazzercise session commenced to the music to warm up before our run. I just shuffled my feet a bit, as I was worried that I would tire myself out even before the run starts. I saw TV cameras and TV station personalities do their bit. The anticipation was building and I couldn’t wait for it to start. Then the countdown began and off we went. The first few minutes were the hardest because I was moving with the crowd and couldn’t find my pace. I made a conscious effort to slow down and didn’t allow myself to be fazed by the people zooming past me.

The path looped through the downtown area and I was surprised to find myself looking around at all the landmarks. Since I had a watch that would beep every mile, I waited to hear the first beep. I was running at my usual pace. When it was about time to hear the beep and it didn’t happen, I wondered if a mile could really feel this long. But I did not dare look at my watch. I very much doubted that the sound of the beep would be drowned out by all the cheering and the music from school bands playing along the way. That’s when I looked up and saw the 2 mile marker and the timer on it showing 20:35! I couldn’t believe it!!! I ran two miles already, that too in my best time ever. I saw my family cheering me on and was encouraged to keep at this pace for the last mile and finish strong.

The sun was beating down by then and I was getting thirsty. I took a sip of water from volunteers handing out water cups (volunteers rock!). I was getting a bit tired but I kept my focus on my next step and the next and the next. Finally, after a turn in the road, there it was! About a 100 yards down the road was the finish line! It was the most welcoming sight ever. When I crossed the clock at the finish line and it read 33:12, I couldn’t stop smiling. I did it! That too without ever slowing down to a walk, not even once. I was thrilled to see my family there shouting their congratulations. I was elated and energetic, as I usually am, after a run. Despite winging it, I did better than I expected. With a sense of 
gratitude to friends, family, books and runners for the inspiration, I basked in a feeling of accomplishment I hadn't felt in a long, long time.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

To buy or not to buy

I am a big fan of minsumerism. I try to follow minimalism in all aspects of my life. And try is the keyword here. But one area that I find particularly challenging is my kitchen pantry. My pantry is a small space, a doored alcove in the kitchen. The shelves are stocked from floor to ceiling with dry goods that can feed an entire village, or so it seems.

Once in a blue moon, I organize the pantry. I get tired of not knowing what I have and don’t have. It gets on my nerves whenever I see overflowing shelves. The last straw is usually when I can’t find that one little thing that I rummage the entire place for and which I know is hiding in one of the baskets piled high with stuff.

In the process of decluttering the pantry, I purge most of what I have. Items that I haven’t used in a long while, items that are still in their original packaging, items that are part of a science experiment (not intentionally), items that I never knew I had...all of them go to the bin or the compost. It grieves me to realize that I am being wasteful, but I am relentless. I am on a mission. I have to pare it down to the bare essentials, at whatever cost. So that I can start with a clean slate and be mindful again of what goes in it. I solemnly vow not buy anything until the shelves are empty again.

While cleaning up, for a brief moment, I am tempted to throw everything in one big cauldron (not that I have one)  and make a concoction and freeze it, so it will nourish us for weeks to come. I say nourish because, everything in the pantry is healthy stuff, so the concoction has to be healthy, right? Anyway, I change my mind as I decide not to get minimalism and laziness mixed up.  

I don’t know what it is about shopping for produce that makes me a hoarder. Everytime I go grocery shopping, which is once a week, I shop like there is going to be an apocalypse..... tomorrow. As if I won’t have access to food in the foreseeable future. (Many times I eat like that too :-)) I go to the same store every week. It is my favorite grocery store. Just walking into it makes me feel like I have made a healthy choice. The sights, smells and sounds at the store are all terribly appealing to me. The whole ambience of the shop is conducive to creative culinary inspiration. It is a relatively small store. Browsing through the aisles is an education in itself. And they have live music performed by local artists that make the whole shopping experience feel like an excursion instead of a chore. Also, I love the free coffee and samples, especially the free coffee.

The shopping list I had judiciously prepared earlier in the day is at hand. I have to mention here that while making the list, my minimalist tendencies were still very much intact. But it all goes flying out the door when I am wandering the aisles all starry-eyed. My imagination runs rampant. My mind is flooded with wonderful creative ideas of recipes that never stand a chance outside the store doors.

The sight of fresh produce, a large part of it locally sourced and good, clean minimally processed food is mesmerising enough to trigger the chef in me. It inspires visions of healthy delectable dishes that I could make with a flourish that would appeal to everyone at home - kids and adults alike. So it is indeed a terrible misfortune and an injustice to the grocery bill that most of these ideas never transpire to the dinner table. Anyway, back at the store... I get ambitious and the shopping cart fills up, fast and so does the pantry.

A couple of weeks fly by. I am still mindful. I make one or two dishes out of the ordinary. Everyone at home is happily surprised, including me. And then....fantasy rears it ugly head again. It starts when I come across this uber healthy and sumptuous recipe that calls for an ingredient I don’t have. I plan to make it for the weekend. So I stock up. But things don’t quite pan out the way I had planned that weekend. I decide to postpone trying out the new recipe to the next weekend or the weekend after that. And thus the plan remains a plan indeterminately and the recipe slowly slides off into the deep dark recesses of my mind. What remains is the package in the pantry dolefully waiting to be used up.

I am not a good baker and neither am I a good cook. I don’t improvise or come up with new recipes. I don’t follow elaborate recipes. If there are 8 steps to make a dish, I lose interest at step 5. And until a couple of years ago, I followed recipes to the tee - if the ‘preparation method’  asked me to walk around in circles while the oven was heating up, I did it. Ok I am exaggerating a bit, but you get my drift. And then I relaxed my attitude and found out that I didn’t poison anyone if I deviated from the recipe. It gave me a tad bit of confidence in the kitchen when the end result was actually palatable. Even so, nothing in my cooking habits justify being wasteful.

To put it in perspective... I spend more time walking the aisles of the grocery store in a week than I spend shopping for everything else in a year combined. If I had saved half the amount I had spent on groceries these past six years, I would have been able to cross off at least 8 different places in my places-to-visit-before-I-die list that require crossing an ocean. Shopping for groceries is not like shopping for clothes or furniture, where it is easier to ignore the in-your-face advertising and avoid shopping altogether. I and my family have to eat and eat well. And it is one of my priorities that it should also be an enjoyable experience.

It is obvious that there is a big disconnect between my intention and execution. As with all things, it takes conscious effort to not be impulsive. To make my attempt sustainable, I need to start small and pause when I reach for something I don’t need. So... the next time I am at the grocery store, I will stick to my list and maybe get one, just one thing that I don’t know how to pronounce. What do you say?

Friday, September 7, 2012

A rose by any other name...

Why do we label ourselves? All the time. By what we eat, what we do, what we buy, where we were born, where we live, the way we look, whom we vote for, what we read, what we believe, how we think.... the list is endless. I think it satisfies an innate need in us to identify and understand ourselves and our place in the world. Labels define our choices (sadly, for some of us, it isn’t the other way around) and dictate our actions and therefore reflect who we are. We use it to project an image of who we want to be, to form friendships, to earn a livelihood and to belong. To be part of a community with values and ideals that appeal to our sensibilities. We connect to each other based on commonalities and for this, labels help. We are drawn to labels. To labels that define character, occupation and lifestyle. It is not easy to just be. Probably there is a label for that too :-)

Labels to define a profession do have its uses. If I am sick, I would like to know that I am going to a doctor. I trust in the fact that a doctor spends years training for the service he/she provides and from all that time, money and effort invested, gains valuable expertise in a chosen field. That valid argument aside, who is to say that a doctor can only be a doctor, not an artist, say. Any profession, in my opinion, can be interpreted both as a science and an art. What if a doctor decides that it isn’t working any more? What if he ends up feeling chained down because of the labels he has already earned and becomes uninspired doing what he does just because he thinks that it is too late to be anything else?

It takes courage and tenacity to break the shackles and stop conforming to labels. To march to your own drum. To do what really fires you up. I was amazed when someone I know, who has a masters degree in music, switched to computer programming just because that seemed possible and another acquaintance, an engineer, who in his late thirties decided to study to be a doctor after a decade in IT. It is inspiring and promising to come across spirited individuals who actually go exploring beyond labels of their past occupation and credentials.

So, the flip side to labeling is that it can also be very limiting. With respect to us being open to trying something totally different. It curbs our inquisitive nature and limits our potential. It affects and confines our experiences. It restricts our ability to adapt to change or to be open to different ideas. It makes us rigid in our ways and closed up to new possibilities. It makes us judgemental. We end up seeing others through a labeling glass and miss out on knowing the person as their own individual self.

Labeling serves a purpose when discovering a new species of fungi or maybe when you are buying a box of crackers...but transmuting it to label someone who thinks differently is not really necessary. So if you want to label someone, use their name. Isn't that the purpose of it? I know it is a hard habit to beat, it certainly is for me. So, while we are working at it.....what do you call someone who can’t do anything consistently enough to save her life? Fickle? Yes, call me that. Or what do you call someone who is so full of herself? Right, yeah, call me that too :-)