Sunday, June 24, 2012

In Which I Get Scared But Am Not Fearful

Apparently, I am supposed to be scared, unless you ask the women I met on the trail in Oregon.

Thursday, I spent all day driving around to wineries, tasting wine and taking pictures and talking to new people.  Friday, I took off for a couple of local hiking trails and saw some beautiful sights while getting exercise and fresh air.  I spent Friday evening curled up in a fancypance hotel-provided monogrammed fluffy robe in a comfy four-poster bed, listening to the waterfall outside my open window and eating toffee almonds.  Saturday I had room-service breakfast in bed and a massage.  None of this seems particularly perilous to me.

But no small few of the people I know have expressed surprise that I would ever consider doing what I was doing: vacationing alone.

"Aren't you a little worried about being out there by yourself?"
"What will you do if something happens?"

To most of them, I sort of play dumb.  "Worried?  No, I'm pretty self-sufficient.  Why?  Have you heard something about the area?  If something happens, I'll have my cell phone and I can call 911."  But the real kicker, the important question, the question that is the answer explaining why I am asked all these questions:

"Isn't it dangerous for a woman to do that in this day and age?"

I've gotten several variations on it, from friends or co-workers or people I meet.  On this trip, I talked to several of my fellow travelers about how nice it is not to be beholden to someone else's schedule, and a lot of the women said things like, "Oh, I could never do that.  I would be afraid to be on my own."  The men don't even appear to have considered the dangers of solo travel.  No suggestion that they ever consider it dangerous or worrisome to be out 'on their own' without a partner or a buddy.

While hiking Friday, I ran into two lovely women on the trail.  They passed me while I was trying to get a picture lined up properly, and later when I came around a curve, they greeted me with, "Oh, there's the photographer again!  Hello photographer!"  They introduced themselves as Kathy and Sue, we chatted briefly, and they asked if I was hiking by myself.  I explained that I was vacationing, and therefore hiking, solo and loving it.  The two of them smiled and said, "Good for you!"  They walked on a bit, and then I met them on their return.  They advised me to add a half-mile to my hike, to see a really excellent waterfall, and I said, "Hey, I wanted to thank you.  People have told me that it's crazy to travel alone, that I should be scared, and I really appreciate that you were enthusiastic and supportive."  They said they understood, that they hear a lot of "Women can't travel alone!" themselves.  Kathy said that she does almost all her traveling alone, and it's wonderful because you can be completely self-indulgent with scheduling and planning and everything else (like how I could take up the whole hotel bed and all four fluffy pillows).

I saw it as yet another example of how women are trained to be afraid.  How we're told that we should not do things we want to do because of the unspoken threat that we will end up raped and left for dead in the woods.  How often the response to a woman doing something self-sufficient or autonomous is an almost knee-jerk "But aren't you SCARED something might happen to you?"

I was scared on this trip.  Thursday, I couldn't find a winery and realised I'd driven up a posted private drive about 500 feet; my Texas-developed fear of trespassing kicked in and I backed out before anyone could decide to set dogs on me or something.  Friday I was scared on the trail a few times.  In one case I was even afraid specifically because I was alone.  I was looking for a trail split.  The map said that the right-hand path was the easier path, and the left-hand path involved a fair amount of fairly intense rock scrambling.  It was the end of a long day, and I didn't think I could manage advanced rock scrambling, so I tried to find the right-hand path.

I ended up following a switchback trail up the side of a sharp hill, and found myself about five steps into a rockfall across the trail before the curve opened up and I realised that this wasn't just a matter of a few tumbled rocks in my path.  I was standing on loose and shifting scree above a forty-foot drop, completely alone, on a little-used trail at the end of the day.  The sheer folly of my position struck me hard.  If I lost my decidedly unsure footing, I would be definitely in for a fall, and perhaps for a night in the elements with no shelter, a hooded sweatshirt for warmth, and only three quarters of a liter of water (I had already finished my trail snacks for the day).  I began to cautiously backtrack, feeling every shift and twitch of the rocks beneath me.  When I got my feet back on solid (slick and slanted, but solid) ground, I sat on a nearby rock and took a few deep breaths and said, "OK, that was less than brilliant, but it turned out OK."  I went back and found the left-hand path, which turned out to be the easier way.  The rock scrambling was less intense than advertised, and the Forestry Service had put down some sort of material over the slickest parts, for traction.  It was steep, but not harrowing, and I never faced a drop of more than a few feet.

If I'd had a hiking partner, one with a rope or even just a hand to anchor me to a steadier spot, I'd not have thought twice about finishing that section of trail, right-hand or left-hand path.  If I'd had more experience in rock work, or a line to anchor me while I crossed it, I'd have done it without question.  But a solo hiker at my level of experience simply could not pass -- and it had nothing to do with my possession of ovaries.

There are things in this life that are dangerous no matter who you are.  An unsteady trail in an empty forest, eating mushrooms of uncertain provenance, swimming in unknown waters.  But they're not more safe for one gender or another.  They become more safe with experience, with companionship, with guidance, regardless of your sex.  And those are situations where it's wise to be cautious, only sensible to approach with a little apprehension.

But there are many other situations that I've been told I should be afraid of because 'the world is just dangerous for women'.  Walking alone at night, sleeping with a (third-story) window open, staying in a hotel in a strange city alone -- all things most of the men I know would take for granted.  There's an unspoken context there, that if something happens I will have 'gotten myself' raped/mugged/murdered by not exercising the gender-appropriate level of caution.

It gets very hard to resist the voices of fear sometimes, to refuse to buy into those cautions, those suggestions that self-awareness and the paralysis of societally-imposed fear should be indistinguishable from one another.  It can be hard to find the line between the overt defiance of taking unnecessary chances, and the clear refusal to be governed by what other people think should limit your movements. And for some of us, that clear refusal becomes enmeshed with our politics and our identities.

I want to grow up to be Kathy and Sue, women clearly hiking together for companionship as opposed to 'safety in numbers', women who travel alone and don't agree with the rest of the world that they should let themselves be limited by that fear.  If I have a traveling companion, I want a traveling companion -- not a de facto bodyguard.

Hell, I want to grow up to be my grandmother, who at eighty-plus years of age joined a tour by herself and went to Spain and Morocco.  I said, "Grandma, wait, you were in Africa?"  And she said, "Yes.  I saw that Casablanca.  It's noisy there."  She wasn't completely alone; she booked a tour with a bus and a guide, but she pretty much just picked up, got on a plane, and saw Africa in her eighth decade on the planet.  She and my grandfather used to travel fairly often, and when he died I guess she just felt she should keep right on going, to Spain or Australia or Morocco.

I think my odds are good.  This month my mom, less than six months after a hip replacement, is spending a couple of weeks wandering around Nova Scotia with a friend.  It's entirely possible this runs in my family.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Big Damn Hero Takes a Holiday

In the reasonably near future, I'll be taking the first 'real' vacation of my adult life.  It will only be three days long, but it's remarkable in the following things:

  1. I am going somewhere I have never gone before.
  2. I have determined my itinerary and my schedule entirely around what I want to do.
  3. I am traveling alone.
  4. This is not a family visit or a road trip someplace or a weekend off with friends to go to a wedding/gathering/whatever.
  5. I am not, by any definition of the word, working on this trip.

That last is kind of the big thing, for me.  Since 1996, I have been attending pagan festivals almost every year, taking up the vast majority of my available travel and vacation through work.  And since 1997, I haven't attended a festival I didn't work at least ten hours at.  Even when I moved to Texas and planned to attend my first festival at which I'd do only the basic community service needed of me, I found myself drafted into patrolling for the Guardians my first night.  When I drove back up to Kansas and planned a non-working festival, I still found myself doing dishes at 3am, carrying jump bags for the medics, and dealing with the usual slate of festival problems.

To be clear:  I do not at all regret my choice to give up that time and that energy.  It's an incredible experience, and it speaks to something deep inside me when I am able to walk into a difficult situation, calm everyone down, figure out a solution, and help everyone have a better day than they were having.  Knowing that people trust and rely upon my team for their safety and their festival experience is important to me.  But I've come to realise in the last few years that I am at a crossroads.  I can choose to be the person who always puts duty first, no matter what, or I can begin working to balance duty and my own life experience.

Over the last 15 years, I've watched a lot of people I love wrestle with this choice, and with its fallout.  I've seen good men and women burn out trying to live an image they couldn't possibly sustain.

In the pagan community, and especially in the Safety community, there is an almost hero-worship that develops around those who choose to serve.  I understand the impulse, honestly.  In many communities, especially those where Safety is an insular group, you only see a Guardian when things are going badly for you.  Into your crisis comes this person who seems to know what to do, who smooths everything and makes it better.  She is calm, collected, confident.  There is a desire, when that has happened, to view this person as 'better-than'.  Big Damn Heroes, as it were.  And there is sometimes a desire to reward that person with what you can give.  Here, have some of my cookies.  I have brought you coffee.  Hey, come to my shop and let me give you a discount.  Hey, you wanna come back to my tent?

We joke about it in training, that people will occasionally offer you gifts or food or sexual favors, and we try to instill in newbie Guardians the notion that we don't do what we do for that.  We tell them, "If someone wants to share what they have with you, then appreciate that and be grateful for your place in a close-knit community, but never fall into the trap of thinking you *deserve* that treatment."

The obvious reason for that part of training is to keep our team from abusing its position of respect.  The less-obvious reason for it is that it's a trapping of the Big Damn Hero status, and we're none of us able to live that full-time, even for the ten days a year we're in that space.  I've seen so many good men and women (on Safety teams, on Boards of Directors, in High Priest/Priestess positions) create larger-than-life identities, characters of constant duty and perfect integrity, absolute pillars of the community -- hollow pillars that fell because people are human.  Because they make mistakes, they get angry, they are heartbroken or hurt, they lose a friend, they get sick, they end up on one side or another of a community conflict.

It's bad enough when a person makes a mistake and people get hurt.  When a Big Damn Hero makes a mistake and people get hurt, the guilt and the regret can tear her to pieces.  "I should have done better, known better, BEEN better," she says, but she did her best, with what she knew, with what she was.  When we forget that devotion to duty cannot make us more than flawed human beings, we become subject to hubris and set ourselves up for failure and self-reproach.  It even feels arrogant to talk about it, but I think more people in pagan community, and especially more people who work Safety within the pagan community, need to explore the question.  We lose good people, every year, because they could not live an ideal.  I can count, without trying, ten people who burned out and left a community entirely because they had kept trying to live their legends even after they'd become too large to sustain.

I don't want to be a Big Damn Hero.  I don't want to be picked first for the team.  I would love some of those cookies, but only if you're going to sit with me and eat them and tell me how your life is going.  And more than anything, I never want to be larger than life or better-than.  I want people to trust me, to know me, but to understand that I will fail sometimes even when I am doing my very best.

To that end, I've instituted two personal policies.  The first is that at every festival, I visit as many of the camps and groups as I can, OUTSIDE of crisis.  I try to make friends and figure out who's who.  I listen to what people think about policies and answer questions they have about the festival and the community.  I walk through Merchant's Row at least once a day, touching base.  I am making it a point to interact with people more on their good days than on their bad days, whenever I can, so that they see my everyday face as the default and my It's OK I've Got This face as something I put on when it's needed.

The second starts with a vacation.  A self-pampering, completely me-driven, entirely my terms vacation.  I have no job to do.  I have no duty to anyone but myself.  I am completely selfish in my choices and in my expectations.  Here at this crossroads, I look down one road and see myself become completely driven by duty and service, motivated only by what I can bring to the community.  Along that road I see many friends, battered and beaten but still trying to hold to the path.  I am choosing a different path.  Maybe it will be easier, maybe it will be harder, but if I succeed at this balance, the balance of serving self and serving deity and serving community, I believe that I will be happier and healthier, and that I will be a better asset to my community besides.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Life is a complicated exercise made up of simple equations.

For example, weight and health are a function of simple equations of diet and lifestyle.  Nothing simpler.  If you want to gain weight, consume more calories than you burn, every day.  If you want to lose weight, burn more calories than you consume, every day.  If you want to maintain weight, equalize the two roughly.

Except that the numbers in the equation are made up of multiple variables, many of which change throughout our lives and can be hard to quantify. Metabolism, thyroid function, family history all play a part.  So do food allergies and reactions, and the type of diet you have.  Diets higher in fat, or carbohydrates, or protein, change your body chemistry and affect how you handle resources and energy.  Whether the 300 calories you burn in your workout are aerobic or anaerobic, whether you're building muscle or burning fat, it all plays into that equation.  If the disparity between calories taken in and calories burned is too great OR too small, then your metabolism compensates and the desired effect doesn't happen.  Behind that simple "(calories in  - calories out)/3500 = weight change in pounds" equation is an entire life's work of understanding your own body and what you want it to do for you.

'Being healthy' is another simple thing.  Eat a variety of foods that provide you the resources you need, get regular moderate exercise and plenty of restful sleep, drink lots of water, see your physician for an annual checkup or if anything about your health needs managing.  Very simple, and if we all did that, we'd all be healthy regardless of our waist sizes.  All the mysterious miracle "eat this and don't eat that and never touch this food and if you only eat sugar while standing on one foot it doesn't count" diet voodoo in the world can't even begin to touch the benefits of giving your body the right amounts of rest, resources, and exertion.

But then come the variables.  What are the resources you need and how do you prioritize them?  If you need more iron, do you get it from leafy green vegetables that are loaded with fiber and other nutrients but don't supply much protein, or meat that supplies protein with added fat and no fiber?  Vitamin D in your milk, or from sunshine?  What if you're allergic or sensitive to a food that provides a critical nutrient?  Do multivitamins supply the things you need, or just pass through your system undigested?  How do chronic health conditions, from celiac disease to fibromyalgia to insomnia, play into the balance of eating, exercise, and sleep?  Is your thrice-weekly strength training a sustainable lifelong practice?  How can you afford to see a doctor regularly or even in an emergency if you have no health insurance and can't afford an office visit?

Habits also play a huge part in how we live and in our general health.  It is my habit to have a cup of coffee every morning.  This decreases the absorption of my iron supplement, so on days I take iron, I have to delay my cup of coffee until mid-morning and start my day with orange juice.  It is my habit to come home from work and relax with my cats for a while to unwind, but after doing that it's really hard to get motivated to go exercise.  If I want to get in the active time I have to come home, immediately change, work out, and then pet the cats.  Because it's important to me to stay active and healthy, I have had to figure out ways to balance what I need to do with what I want to do.

That is, at the heart of it, what solving the equation comes down to.  Would I be healthier if I didn't eat cookies for breakfast as often as I do, and if I never blew off working out to read a book and drink a glass of wine instead?  Probably, and I'd definitely be thinner, but I wouldn't be as happy.  Meeting specific and often socially-imposed criteria about the shape of my body is less important to me than enjoying the life experience that body is having, so there's a variable in my personal equation that says, "Is that fun, or at least not terribly annoying?"  If the answer is no, there has to be a significant payoff for me to make that choice.  A lot of folks see my insistence on honoring that variable as weak-willed or lazy, and they make assumptions about me based on the importance I place on living joyfully.

The biggest problem with all this is that people confuse 'simple' and 'easy'.  The simple thing is the easy thing if it also happens to be the thing that fits in with your needs, practices, and priorities, but that's rarely the case.  Consequently, some people look at others and see them struggling with what appears, from the outside, to be an easy fix.  Without understanding the variables affecting another person's experience, the inability to separate 'simple' and 'easy' can lead to frustration, and even to judgment, bigotry, and discrimination.

We look at an obese person or someone with a chronic illness, and think, "How unhealthy.  Why can't she just exercise and eat right?" and we make assumptions about her -- usually that her evenings consist of sitting on the sofa eating ice cream right out of the container.  But there are things we don't know, can't know:  what her metabolism is like, whether she lives in a food desert and can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables, whether she has a chronic health condition that makes exercise difficult, whether she's perfectly happy looking the way she does, whether she's quite healthy and as active as she wants to be, or whether decades of being pressured to look and act and eat and live a certain way have left her depressed or suffering from an eating disorder.

At its heart, fat hate and fat prejudice (and most ableist prejudices) come from the assumption that other people can and should solve their equations with your variables.  They should be able to shoehorn their experience and their priorities into a set of life choices that matches what the mythical "everyone" wants.  They should place the same value on what really is a marketing-driven artificial standard of 'healthy living' and strive to operate within it.  The media machine that's worked so well to convince us that somewhere there is one perfect diet or exercise plan that will render everyone identically thin and healthy (and Dr. Oz will tell you all about it after this message from our sponsors) has also convinced us that living outside of an artificially established 'normal' body image is not only a conscious choice, but a lazy, despicable, self-destructive one.

Many of my friends are frequently trying to 'get healthier', with varying degrees of success.  The ones who succeed aren't the most dedicated or the strongest-willed.  They're the ones who work to understand as many of their own variables as possible, from the biology (family history, metabolism) to the limitations (allergies, mobility concerns, medical issues) to the geographical (availability of food resources and activity centers) to the emotional (habits, body image satisfaction, priorities), and come up with a vision of 'health' that is reasonable for them and a set of sustainable lifestyle choices they can make to reach and maintain that goal.

What does all this ultimately mean?  Well, from my point of view it means I'm likely to keep eating cookies for breakfast, and work to resolve any discontent with the life and the body that choice creates.