Monday, October 27, 2014

A Scar Etched by Sand




A Scar Etched by Sand

It happened so quickly.

One second I was face down in the sand, crawling back through the water towards the other candidates telling Cadre Bert “NO WAY, I WILL NOT QUIT!” The next second I was walking towards the dunes, tears mingled with salt water and hiccups of defeat.

GoRuck Selection 015 came to an end for me around 14 hours when I voluntarily withdrew. To most, it may have looked like I quit because I couldn’t drag dead weight through the sand. But to me, there was more to it: years of preparation, life experiences, and reflection were tied up in that moment. 

Before explaining the end though, I’ll have to explain the beginning.

It was seventh grade and I had just injured my elbow arm wrestling. The doctor made a joke that I’d be fine, but I could kiss my career as a Navy SEAL goodbye. Not liking limitations, I asked my swim coach what a Navy SEAL was, and if I could be one. Always encouraging, my coach told me that SEALS were elite warrior swimmers, but that no women had yet become one. I told him I’d have to be the first; he smiled and agreed.

Life unfolded for me in other amazing and challenging ways and I followed the path of competitive swimming and teaching. I travelled all over the United States in my youth racing other water babies and ended up swimming in college. In adulthood, I chose a civilian life over a military one and travelled the world learning and teaching. All the while, I never forgot my athletic ambitions; though I was done with college sports, I believed that my best days were ahead of me.

After college, I taught in China, Micronesia, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and finally Afghanistan. During my sojourns as an expatriate, I lived in simple villages and huge cities. I lived under monarchies, communist regimes, socialist and coalition governments, and chiefdoms; I lived in police states, places at war, and areas that hadn’t seen fighting since World War II.

No matter where I was, I searched for competitions so I could continue to test myself and push my body. However, the places I lived had better ideas. Many times I tried to compete, women were completely barred or when I showed up, an excuse was given as to why I could not be there.

I opened my eyes and learned hard truths, that women were by no means equal to men in most places in the world. During those times, I took everything as a grain of salt, adjusted, and knew that I came from a place where women could be and do anything they pleased. I was thankful that I was born an American and vowed to never take for granted the freedoms I enjoy everyday of my life, because life could be so much worse.

Back in the states, when a friend told me about GoRuck Selection, I immediately wanted to do it. “My standards would be the same as the men?” I asked. “Yes, definitely,” he said. “I get to run and hike and do stuff in the water all night?” I asked. “Yep,” He said. My friend tried to warn me that I should probably do a “Light” first to see what GoRuck was all about. I told him that anything with the word “light” in it was not for me. 

After reading all of the Selection after action reviews and basically anything that was ever written about Selection, I knew it was for me. I admired the cadre for their service to my country and the finishers for their determination. I wanted to be a part of that group of people whom I respected. 

Before I actually entered, I thought about this endeavor deeply. Why was I doing it? If not to make amazing friends and hear their stories, it was to test myself and feel alive. I wasn’t afraid of the physical tasks at hand. I was afraid that by not doing Selection I would never know all of the people tied up in it; I would never know if I could have finished. How would I ever know what could break me if I never was in a situation where I might be broken? I figured the cadre were professionals so they would do their best to teach me this lesson.

In the end they did.

But it was not the end yet.

During our 12-mile ruck march, a blood moon rose over the Atlantic as I quick-stepped to the song in my head. My steady breath mingled with the waves knocking on the shore; run, walk, run, walk, runwalkrun, runrunrunrunwalk. Though I had practiced this many times before, still I doubted my speed and forced myself to run, crunching shells, dodging waves, and passing others, knowing that this was just the end of the beginning. I was in the zone and barely noticed when I ran upon green lights and the cadre lining the beach.

We had finished the PT test.

After that, our “welcome” was warm.

This is what it looked like:
Water.
Sand.
Water.
Sand.

During the “party,” this is what I was thinking:

Keep going. You are strong enough. You trained for this. Whose legs are those? Keep going. Nothing they say can stop me. I’m the girl who chose the baritone saxophone in sixth grade because it had the biggest case. I’m not afraid. Holy shit, I’m afraid. They have weaknesses too. Whoever has his foot on my pack has no weaknesses. Keep going. I can do any of this all night, forever. Put me back in the water. Keep going. There are shells in my ears. Keep going. Get me out of the water. Keep going. Life could be so much worse. I like this sand. He has nice feet. Keep going. Am I ripping his armpit hair out? Run! Keep going.

Then something unexpected happened…
I couldn’t keep going.

When I came to a task that was a bit too difficult, and the cadre said something that really got into my head, I stopped to think. I forgot to tell myself that I was good enough, and that I should just keep going. I forgot that life could be worse, and that this was an opportunity to test myself. At that moment I let my mind wander to the philosophical side of things; I lost focus. By the time I was done thinking, I had uttered the words I never thought I’d say, “I’m done.” The end had come.

Two weeks later, there is a scar on my hand, etched by sand. Though there are other scratches and bruises that linger, they will go away and only these lessons, and most likely the scar, will remain…

I learned that if I give my 100%, it may not be good enough for someone else. This is true in physical events and in life. No matter what we do, it may not be good enough for someone. The choices we make, however, should have reason and behind that reason there must be a drive to follow thorough, carry on, and keep going. 


When I look at the scar on my hand, I remember the lessons I learned at Selection 015 that I could never have taught myself. I thank the cadre, selection finishers, and the candidates for helping me become a better person. Know that I am not done yet; know that I will keep going, and know that the scar on my hand is the shape of Montana.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

That is not Palestine; That is not Israel...THIS is!


This is Ramallah, Palestine; 2010
This is Jerusalem; 2010
This is Jerusalem; 2010
This is Ramallah, Palestine; 2010
This is Tel Aviv, Israel; 2010
This is Ramallah, Palestine; 2010
This is Hebron, Palestine; 2010

Today I walked into the coffee shop to buy my morning cup and glanced at the front page of the New York Times. I saw a picture that at first, looked pretty. With my terrible eyesight, I saw a few kids on a beach. It could have been any beach...the white sand looked rocky and the water was glistening. It was uncrowded and serene.

"That is nice" I thought.

Then I got closer. I noticed that the child laying upon the sand was dead. His legs were splayed about his body in an unnatural way. Behind him, a man was carrying another dead child, looking at someone or something I could not see.

I instantly knew this had to be Gaza. I felt like throwing up; I felt like yelling to the other customers, "Can you believe this!?" I wanted to shout, THAT IS NOT PALESTINE! THAT IS NOT ISRAEL! But it is. It is the abhorrent reality today. The murder of innocent children, the constant fighting; an eye for an eye. That is what is happening now.

Instead of shouting at strangers, I cried a little and headed to school. When I got there, I showed the picture to students. The reaction from the teens whom I teach ranged from sadness to confusion. One 17 year old Chinese girl said, "It sounds like a terrible argument and someone should tell them to stop." Yes child, I agree.

The situation is complex, the history is deep, everyone has a good reason why they believe this or that...but I think we can all agree that children dying over the matter is too much. Can't we all decide to lose a battle, or to concede something so no one else has to die needlessly?

This morning I I wanted to talk to all of my friends in Palestine and Israel and tell them to keep living their meaningful lives, and not to give in to this violence. I want them to know that although this is the reality right now, I know THAT IS NOT PALESTINE and THAT IS NOT ISRAEL...My friends and their families are better than what is being portrayed. They all live meaningful and purposeful lives and do not condone this violence. To all of them, I send my love.

 
 This is Hebron, Palestine; 2008

This is East Jerusalem; 2010

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Becoming T-Rex Hunters


The end was in sight; the last few hours of our GoRuck Challenge was upon us. As we bear crawled towards the water in synchronization, then did push-ups and 8-count burpees in the sand, we knew a few things: 
1. It was morning, so our class had made it at least 10 hours through the night
2. We were back on the beach and our start point was about a mile and a half away
3. The event would probably get harder before it was over
By then we were thinking and moving like a team though; we all understood that we could take whatever would be thrown at us because we were a unit.
But we didn't start like that.
Ten hours before we found ourselves crawling on the beach as one, we were a bunch of individuals, crowded under the hazy streetlights east of the Santa Barbara pier. 
Illuminated by the light of the full moon, our cadre had us line up so he could check our bricks. The first lesson learned was a quick one: pay attention to detail. If you hadn't read the event instructions thoroughly, you wouldn't have known that you should have written your name and phone number on your bricks. Those who had not followed instructions immediately went for a swim.
Since we were not allowed to wear watches, there is no way to know how long our "welcome party," the first physical training (PT) session, lasted. It looked like this: water, sand, rolling, push-ups, sand. We were a strong, but stupid class.  We got "stupid prizes" because we played "stupid games," i.e. we weren't working as a team or using our brains.
A stupid game looks like this: Rolling to the left when we should be rolling to the right. Rolling too many times. Crushing the person next to you when rolling over. It took us a couple of hours to figure out how to roll properly. It took us almost as long to figure out how to low crawl efficiently. Lesson number two was not easy to figure out: work as a team.
Sandy and wet, we set off into the night on multiple missions. Though each mission was difficult on its own, things started getting really interesting when we found ourselves back in the crisp Pacific Ocean for another PT session. Already cold and sandy, it felt nice to rinse off during those exercises. However, the nice feeling was fleeting.
For the next long chunk of time, we had to first bear crawl, then backwards crab walk up the Mesa staircase; a set of about 250 stairs. This would not be our last "stupid prize."
After the stairs, our night slowed down in time, but sped up in effort. We found a giant log (I estimate it was 300-400 pounds) and had to carry it as a team a few miles. We started down Mesa Lane carrying the log on our shoulders. No one was communicating well, and we kept on shuffling into each other. We were 16 people speaking 16 different languages going 16 different ways. It was a mess.
By the time we got out of the neighborhood, our cadre knew we needed a talking to. He told us that we looked like a bunch of kindergarteners and we had better get it together. After our pep talk, we decided to carry the log with straps. This proved to be about 100 times easier than shouldering the log. We also counted cadence and were able to walk together. Devising a system of switching sides also helped us immensely. Though we missed our time hack by about 45 minutes, we ended the log-carrying portion as a team.
There would be many other challenges set before us as the night went on. We'd get lost in a canyon, narrowly avoiding falling off of hills and running into cacti. We would pick up a large PVC pipe, fill it with water and carry it for miles. We'd have "casualties" and have to carry team members for miles. We'd walk with our packs over our heads and without a shoe. We'd get more "stupid prizes."
Back on the beach, we could see the pier in the distance. We had just finished another PT session in the ocean, and we were getting what would be our last mission. We'd have to make it back to the pier with five "casualties" and the empty PVC pipe. With 16 people, four of them women, and two people (at least) carrying the PVC, a bunch of people would have to step up and carry more bags and each other.
As we made our way down the beach, everyone did their part and more. Some of the women ended up carrying bags and men (at the same time), others carried three bags and flags; others carried a couple of bags and the PVC.
After we crossed under the pier (the finish?), we had no rest and went straight back into the water for another PT session. It could have lasted five minutes or five hours, but when it came to an end, we all knew. Facing south towards the Channel Islands, the pier to our left, we were told to turn around.
Standing in the water, the American Flag over his shoulder, waving in the wind, Cadre Mickey shared some words with us. Though I can't remember everything that was said, I do remember the feeling I had: sheer pride and happiness. I was proud of who I knew Cadre Mickey was, a warrior and a leader, proud to be part of a group of hard-working people, proud to be standing on the shore of my home country, among friends.
When it was all said and done, our Cadre said it best: "You started off as a group of individuals…but in the end…in the END, you were a team of napalm-pissing, t-rex-hunting, bad-ass mother f'ers. I'm proud of you all."


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Endeavor Team Challenge: The Decision and Prepartion

I'm the sort of person that sees videos of, and reads books about Olympians, Navy Seals, Base Jumping, Army Ranger challenges, people fishing in 100 foot seas, climbing Mt. Everest, surfing giant waves, Special Forces training, scuba diving caves, riding bikes thousands of kilometers, running hundreds of miles through deserts, lifting insane amounts of weight, and performing any other type of physical or mental challenge and I say, "I want to do that!"

Some people may think that wanting to do risky things is crazy, but all of my life I have been compelled to push my physical limits. I find pleasure in testing my body, in seeing just how far I can go. Setting a challenging goal, working to get there, then rising to the occasion is rewarding; being a sportswoman makes me feel alive and happy.

Usually the barrier to doing things like jumping from planes, reaching the summit of Mt. Everest, or diving in caves is lack of money, or a life choice (I became a teacher, not a member of the military or a professional athlete/water woman). However, when the opportunity arose for me to compete in the Endeavor Team Challenge, none of those barriers existed. I immediately recruited a partner and entered the race. This would be my first ever endurance race; a 30+ hour challenge over 45 miles in the high Sierras.

After deciding to do the Endeavor Team Challenge, my partner, Mike Harding, and I had about four months to prepare for the race.

How do you prepare for a race that consists of so many skills? The simple answer is that my life up to that point had already prepared me for the race. The events in the race would cover running, hiking, swimming, kayaking, mountaineering, obstacle courses, strength events, and mental challenges; all things that both Mike and I had done at some point in our lives.

For the months leading up to the event, I continued to train CrossFit four times a week, lift weights three times a week, do a long, weighted hike at least once a week, run intervals twice a week, and mix swimming, rowing, rock climbing, and skills work (like tying knots) into my program here and there.

Preparation became a key component in the success that Mike and I would have when the race came around. Because we did hikes together frequently, Mike and I encountered most of the problems that many people would have to face during the actual race. Some of those problems were fueling and foot care. Though caloric intake and feet don't seem to be at the top of the list for training for an endurance race, eating the wrong food or not taking care of feet could very well take us out of the race.

During our first 20-mile test hike, both Mike and I got blisters on our feet, suffered stomach problems, and became dehydrated; not the scenario that we were hoping for! By the end of the hike, I could barely walk because my feet had become so painful; I had blisters on the balls of both feet and on the tip of one toe. Besides the blisters, my stomach was bloated and tender from all of the power gels, bars, and other sugar-laden food I had consumed.

Mike wasn't fairing so well either. About halfway through our hike I had run out of water (!) so Mike had to give me some of his, which made both of our intakes wane. Being that it was about 90 degrees outside, we had to consume more, so we quickly ran out of water. With about 5 miles to go, we found a swimming hole, cooled off, and drank some of that water. When we had finished and arrived at the car, we both had the feeling that our first long training hike was quite a disaster! We planned to do the same hike in 5 weeks to try and improve on our performance.

In between our 20 miles test hikes,  my training intensified a bit. I added in shorter, sprint-style hikes in which I'd wear a 20# weight vest and hike at about 90-100% uphill for about 30 minutes. These hikes built my capacity to work at a higher output over an extended period of time. In addition to those sprint hikes, I added a couple of double days during which I would do Olympic lifting or other heavy lifting and a short metabolic conditioning session in the morning, then another metabolic conditioning session at night. On some days I'd swim or row in the morning, either as intervals or as a long, slow distance. One day I put in 13.2 miles on the rower at about 80% effort; another day I swam 24 x 25 meters underwater with 20 seconds rest in between each 25 meter swim. The days were varied, but I was always trying to build my work capacity in some way.

When it was time for our second 20-mile tester, Mike and I were better prepared all the way around. Instead of leaving mid-day in 90 degree heat, we left the parking lot at 6 am in 55 degree heat. We brought an extra 3 liters of water, and had refined our nutrition plan. I wore wool socks and had some "hike goo" on my feet so as to prevent blisters.

As far as nutrition went, for the second test hike my strategy had changed to whole foods with no added sugars or preservatives. Because I normally eat whole foods, I figured that I should stay the same for long events too. For fast sugar (a good balance of glucose and fructose) I brought squeezable "Ella's Organic" baby food (both fruit and vegetable mixes). This was both pure and easy to digest; it took the place of energy goos. For a fat source, I brought squeezable nut butter, mostly macadamia nut butter because I did not want to overload on the PUFAs in almond butter. In addition to the nut butter as a fat source, I also brought squeezable coconut butter and oil. A protein source that was easily digestible was a little harder to figure out, but I settled on making myself meatballs and meatloaf. The recipe was simple as to not upset my stomach: salt, pepper, olive oil, and organic green chiles.

Besides those primary sources of fuel listed above, I also brought along baked green beans, or baked zucchini for an added carbohydrate. As far as electrolytes went, many drinks like Gatorade, nuun tablets, and other energy drinks bug my stomach too (surprise!), so instead of drinking my electrolytes, I took "salt stick" salt capsules. The capsules are composed of magnesium, potassium and sodium, so they take the place of sugary electrolyte drinks. I took one pill every hour.

This hike went better! Mike and I took shorter breaks, didn't get blisters, and avoided dehydration. I also recovered faster and did not feel spent and tired for days following our effort.

After this hike, Mike and I had a few more weeks until the race, so we continued to train various modalities and skills and lift heavy. Some Sundays Mike and I practiced the CrossFit portion of the event since that was one of the few "knowns" in the challenge. Practicing the CrossFit portion gave us the opportunity to see how we would lift the log/railroad tie, and how we would break up reps. It proved to be valuable information when we had to do the challenge at 3 am during the race!

All in all, preparation set us up for an easier race. By no means were we great at everything, but we did not have any doubts going in, that we were weak in any one area.

Four days out from the race, we arrived at altitude (7,000+ feet) to try and adjust before the start. Three days out from the race we were doing sprint repeats, swimming easy, and walking in the hills. Two days out from the race I did a long hill run, some bouldering with Chris, and some swimming. The day before the race I ran and swam again. Because we took a few days to get used to the thin air, come race time we felt no ill-effects due to altitude.

After four months and a life time of training, Mike and I were ready to go!




Monday, April 29, 2013

Truth's Blessing


Would I have ever found out that American spaghetti is terrible had I not taught a class full of Italian girls who made me the best spaghetti of my life? Probably not.

Truth's Blessing
In life, is knowing the terrible, dirty, truth and being sad about it, better than knowing nothing at all?

This afternoon, as I was walking out of my classroom and into the sunny Santa Barbara afternoon, a student stopped me and asked an interesting question. 


Mei Lun, a student from China, asked me, "Teacher, why is it that American education is focused on telling students what is wrong and evil about society?" 

She continued, "In China, we always learned great things about our country. We learned about our long history, our dominance, our great abilities in art and science. We learned about innovative thinkers and artists. We learned about the value of communism and hard work. We were happy at school." 

She added, "Here (in the U.S.), I am afraid for my son to go to school, because I am worried that he will only hear terrible things. He will be afraid of the world instead of excited to be in it. He will become cynical."

After Mei Lun told me her opinion, and asked me that tough question, "Why does the American education system focus on what is wrong with society?" I had to stop and think.


Here is what I said:


"I think that the American education system reflects our culture. In America, we (the people) want to know what the problem is so we can fix it. In the most perfect Democracy, the people have the power to fix their own problems, so this system is reflected in the best educational settings. In China, I think the education system also mirrors the culture. There, the government deals with the problems, the people are not entrusted with that responsibility. So, I think systematically people are told the highlights and the problems are kept secret."

Though this is a pretty simple analysis of two models of education, I think it conveys what, idealistically happens in both countries. Since I am not an expert in the Chinese system of education, I'll add to my thoughts on the American education system (the unbroken version).


First, I think that the best schools and teachers in the American education system do not focus on what is bad and wrong with society, but they focus on the truth, and what students can do to make our society better. 


In my classes, I tell students about issues that are important and eminent. I want students to know what troubles they will face, what issues are pressing, and what needs fixing in society. But I do not stop at educating students about problems. After I present these problems, I often try to go a step further and let students know what they can do to improve society. I want students to know that problems exist, and that they have the ability to create solutions and foster change.


Second, I think that in an ideal classroom/ educational setting, it is the responsibility of the educator to show students that life is not always perfect, and that they should have the skills needed to deal with a sour situation. 


The reason why social studies and humanities classes teach about terrible things is because people need to know that these things happen so that they can stop them from happening. Educating people about the ills in society makes them part of those ills, for better or worse, and they must choose to do something (or not do something) about those things. The beauty in education is knowing what is going on in the world, and choosing what you want to do about it. 


Third, I'd like to think that by educating students about abhorrent occurrences, they will prevent them from happening in the future. 

Students are entitled to know what is going wrong, and what has gone wrong before in this world so that they can learn from those things and not repeat them.


Though Mei Lun is long gone (I won't see her again until Wednesday), I want to tell her this:  


I hope that students have teachers who explain sad and difficult situations with thoughtfulness and courage. I hope that teachers do not shelter students from reality, but give them tools to deal with it, and then to make it better. I hope that students realize that truth is scary and sad, that the world is difficult, but that knowing this is true and knowing that reality is changeable, is a blessing.





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Sunday, July 08, 2012

Ever Changed

Ever Changed
This morning I awoke to the call to prayer at 3:45 am and a dusty stream of light filling my room. The birds were chirping as the mullah sang, "Allah u AKBAR," into the mosque's loudspeaker. I thought, "how does that mosque always have electricity for that loudspeaker when most buildings around here have no power at all?" As I sat up in bed on my final morning in Kabul, and yearned for the cool California coastal air, I realized that Afghanistan has changed me forever.
Leaving the country this time, I understand that over the past two years, I have grown and experienced life in a way that makes it impossible not to be deeply affected by the things I have experienced, the things I have seen, the people I have met, and the things that I now know.
Splitting time between my country, America, and my second home, Afghanistan, has constantly reminded me of the beauty and luck that life holds. I didn't choose to be American, yet I was born into the privileged life that is mine. I am eternally blessed to be an American, to be a free roaming, freethinking, wild spirit and to be able to choose my own life, my own path, my own love, and my own home. I am blessed to wake up each day to a stable, war-free, clean-aired, organically farmed, absolutely beautiful country where I can drive myself anywhere I choose. I was born into a culture that accepts I am an independent dreamer, a woman who has no limits. I can do and be anything that I want to because I am an American.
After living here, I know that I will never be the same.
I will never take for granted those that love me. During my first year here I was lucky enough to meet Chris, my love. I was not looking for him, but I met him among the dust and concrete of his military base; we were both lifting weights. He is my match; my dream partner and I will never forget how he changed his own life to be with me.
Throughout my time here, my father and Cheril, my mother, brother and Aubrey, sister, Julie, Kat and Matt, Steph and Mike, Donny, Anne, Colin, and countless others continued to stay in contact with me; they never let me forget that my home is in America, that my life in America was waiting for me to return, and that I had a network of amazing family and friends who I could always count on. I will always love each and every one of them for their dedication and support.
Though my body will never be the same, though I come away from my time here having a much weaker immune system due to the constant exposure to unclean water, food, and air, I have never felt spiritually stronger. Though I know that I may get sick more easily, and that it will take time for me to regain the total health that I enjoy in the states, I would never trade my experiences here for that which I have gained. In giving up a tad of physical health, I have gained the mental strength to always be honest and true to what I believe in. I am tougher and more determined to be the best person that I can be, to take advantage of all that I have access to because I know that there are people far less fortunate than I am that will NEVER be able to live the life that I do.
I will also never forget the amazing people that I have met here. My friends here have taught me that even though life may be hard, even though life may look hopeless and desolate, there are people, and places to love in Afghanistan, there is the hope for a better future. Even in the most dire circumstances, Yosuf, Hadi, Nasir and their families, Parwiz, Ehsan, Rabia and her family, all of my friends at Eggers, Steve and Tara, Noor, Aisha, Sohaila, Muzhgan, Mustafa, and Aziza and many others have shown me that making the most of life, and continuing to fight for what you believe in is important.
There are countless realizations I have had, countless lessons I have learned, but now I must catch my flight to Dubai. Today, I leave this place behind and move on knowing that I will never be the same.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Beyond the Barbed Wire

A "Raiders" fan in the heart of Kabul
Students at Kabul Education University working in the new Student Access Center; an English Library.
Palestinian dress, Kabul garden. Jaala enjoying the afternoon beyond the barbed wire.

Kabul: Beyond the Barbed Wire

 Kabul is a place full of contradictions. It is a land framed by barbed wire, filled with security forces, police, guards and guns; littered with trash and poverty, dusty from deforestation. Widows and homeless men beg in the streets, poor children sell tissues and ask for money as they wave incense in front of cars to ward off the "evil eye." Students rush through traffic to make it to run-down schools, most lacking libraries, computer labs, books, even running water. Sheep and their herders weave in and out of cars blocking the motorcade full of hummers rushing to get to their next base. Boys play soccer among the ruins of Darulaman Palace; girls cook at home, behind the protective compound walls.

But beyond the obvious police state, beyond the poverty and dust lies the most important things which cannot be seen upon first glance. Working beyond the barbed wire, the educated, the critical thinkers, the youth, the people who yearn and work for freedom and economic development are laying the ground work for a better reality. Beyond the gray skies and polluted water, there are clean ornamental gardens and thriving farms. Beyond the homelessness and abuse, there are non-profits, schools, and businesses run by Afghans who are all trying their best to educate the youth and give people a chance to become players in their own lives.

Being here for the third time in two years, I can see that although contradictions exist, my Afghan friends and colleagues are working hard to stamp out the negatives that pervade daily life. My former students and colleagues at Kabul Education University are a great example of this.

Two of my senior students from last year have obtained jobs in their own English Department as professors. They are trying their best to use new teaching methods; to be good examples for the pre-service teachers and students from other departments whom they are currently teaching.

Four more of my former students are going in to the final round of the Fulbright Scholarship process; they are all trying to go to the United States for two years to study for master's degrees in Education or Teaching English so that they can bring back the knowledge that they have learned and further educate their students here.

Many of the professors in the English Department at Kabul Education University have become involved in the first ever Master's degree program in TESOL (in Afghanistan), taught in English. Four of the professors are students in the program while many others are professors in the program. They all know that the more knowledge in their field they can obtain, the more effective they will be in making the education system better in Afghanistan. The current department head said it best, "Facilities can be blown up, computers can fail, paint can peel off, but the knowledge our students and teachers are getting can never be taken away."

Though the first thing that you see when you land in Kabul, Afghanistan is barbed wire wrapped around a dusty military complex, what you don't see beyond the barbed wire is what is most important. Each day, international civilians and military members work to re-build Afghanistan from the ground up. They do this by offering training to Afghans who can then extend their knowledge to others; this is the most valuable action being taken in the country.

Happy teachers ready to spread some knowledge at KEU
Beyond the barbed wire the situation is improving; hopefully one day the walls and wire will come down, so the view of this promising country will not be obscured any longer.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Cheers! Kabul

New subject, same students. Many of my old students are attending my new class; I guess they have missed me!
Graffiti on crumbling buildings with no plans for reconstruction.
Haven't I seen this guy somewhere before?

Being back in Kabul after a 4 month long hiatus is interesting. During this trip back, I have had many bouts of Deja Vu; the guards at my old apartment are the same, my driver is friends with my former driver, so he knows that I like to lift weights, the policeman at the gate at school remembers that I don't eat bread, so he didn't offer any to me when it was lunch time and I walked by (he offered chick pea soup instead), the old beggar lady in burqa outside of the grocery store told me she hasn't seen me in a longtime, the biting cold is still unbearable, the walk to Camp Eggers still haunts me, I can still smell the wood stoves burning across the street from my place, my students ask me how Chris is, and the azan (call to prayer) still shakes me from my slumber before dawn.

Through all of these encounters, I can't help but think that I am Norm and Kabul is my "Cheers."

For those of you who are too young to remember, "Cheers" was a television show in the 80's about a bar in Boston. Norm was a regular at the bar and whenever he walked into the place, everyone would yell his name "Norm!" to greet him.

The theme song to "Cheers" went like this:
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?


Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

and they're always glad you came.


You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name.

As funny as it may seem, I have been singing this song in my head ever since I got here. Though I didn't necessarily want to "get away" from the happy life that I live in the states, I did want to come back here to remember how wonderful my life really is. Just as I have written before, I think it is necessary for us to leave behind what we love in order to realize how amazing the things that we have are. So, I have gone away to Kabul to remember how lovely my life is in America.


It is ironic that the place I have to go where everybody knows my name is Kabul. Afghans are awesome like that. They have the best memories of any people I have ever known. If you tell an Afghan something, they most likely will never forget it. But you have to be careful, Afghans expect the same from you! I remember that one student told me how many siblings she had, and what all of their names were. She felt bad later on when I asked her again about her siblings and what their names were. Testing her, I asked if she remembered all of the things I had told her about my family, and she proceeded to repeat all of the information I had mentioned the week before. So this, it ends up, is the place in the world where everybody (who has met me!) remembers my name. Go figure!

And finally, here, everyone's troubles are the same. It is true, our troubles are all pretty similar in Kabul. From the poorest person on up, we are all cold, we all are hoping for clean air, clean water, and clean food, we are all hoping for peace. Though the foreigners here have all of these things outside of the country, temporarily they have to live alongside their Afghan counterparts and experience a fraction of their suffering. We all worry about suicide blasts, inclement weather, illegal checkpoints, and kidnappings. We all worry about money and time. We all go to sleep hoping to wake up to a better day tomorrow.

So, as I wander through these familiar streets, consistently being greeted by people whom I know, always seeing things I have seen before, I can't help but think: I am Norm and Kabul is my "Cheers."

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Altitude Training

View of the hills from Babur Gardens, Kabul.
Hanging out at Afghan Culture House, Kabul.

With the absence of oxygen, a human will die. But, strangely, with just a little oxygen the human body will become stronger.

Ever since the 1968 Olympics, which were held at about 7,000 feet altitude in Mexico City, Mexico, people have been curious about what competing at or training at altitude does to the body of an elite athlete. Many people were worried that the decrease in oxygen available at such heights would adversely affect the performance of endurance athletes, but that the thin air would cause less air resistance and help out anaerobic (sprint-oriented) athletes. The hypothesis was roughly true; many records fell at the shorter distances during those games.

After the Olympics though, the curiosity about altitude's affect on athletes did not fade. People began to realize that there are definite and measurable benefits to training at altitude and competing at sea level. While training at altitude, an athlete's red blood cells increase, VO2 max is heightened, and EPO also has been proven to increase. All of this means that an athlete's body adapts to working with less oxygen. When people who train and live at high altitudes return to sea level to compete, they are able to use the abundance of oxygen at lower altitudes to their advantage.

Though it happens slowly and for better or worse, an amazing characteristic that all humans possess is the ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.

In two weeks, I will be doing a little altitude training of my own; I will be returning to the beautiful, yet tumultuous city of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Returning to Afghanistan is altitude training at its finest. Not only will I be pushing my athletic limits in the thin air of this 6,000 meter high land, I will be navigating the politically tense and economically depressed reality of daily life in a city that has been at war for three decades now.

Why am I going back to Afghanistan when I have just recently returned from a 10-month long teaching fellowship there? The short answer is, to teach. I have been awarded a grant by the Department of State to return to the University to conduct a teacher training workshop.

Another answer is, How can I not?

How can I not return to a place that is in desperate need of education, when I have the skills to help, and the means to go there?

How can I not return to a country that is at war, partially due to the fact that an uneducated and illiterate majority were strong-armed and conned into believing that the Taliban would rule them with a fair and objective hand, when I know that the education I can offer them will chip away at the ignorance which has landed them in this situation?

How can I not return to a city that welcomed me with open arms, and asked me to be part of their family, part of their history, part of their lives as if I was their sister or daughter?

Being back in Kabul will be challenging. Not only will it be harder to breathe, but it will be harder to ignore the poverty and injustice that is rampant in that land. It will be a strain to feel the dust in my lungs, to see the bombed out buildings, to hear the widows begging for a cent or two, to listen to the sad stories of my friends. It will be a test of both the body and the spirit.

But I welcome this experience with an open heart and mind. Just as the absence of oxygen will make me a stronger athlete, so will the testing of my spirit make me a better person. Being with my friends in Kabul, living their lives, knowing their hardships and their happiness, reminds me why life is so special. Without challenges, how would we ever know how good life is; without adversity, how would we know how strong we are?

This is "altitude training" at its best. This is why I am returning to Afghanistan.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Passage of Time

Wondering where all of the time went; Carpinteria, CA (2011)
Sunset over Wadi Rum, Jordan (2007 with Global Majority)

Time is sneaky. One minute a watch breaks and the next minute you realize two months have gone by. One minute you are a ten year old girl riding a banana seat bike through the streets of a quiet neighborhood at dusk with your friend behind you grasping tightly to your shirt, and the next minute you are peeking through the curtains of an apartment building in downtown Kabul, wishing you were a ten year old boy flying a kite outside. One minute you are desperately hoping for the freedom you once had, the next minute you are remembering the endless hours of free time you loathed.

Time is sneaky like that. You never know when it is going to fly by or drag on.

If I have learned anything in my life, it is that I can't forget to cherish time because each moment is precious in its own way, then it is gone like the sweet smell of rain on newly wet pavement as it disappears in the afternoon sun.

Yes, time is sneaky.

Though I don't remember quite when it happened, both of my watches ceased to work shortly after I returned from my one month jaunt in Italy. Panicked, I quickly figured out how to set my alarm clock on my cell phone. Thinking I would get a new watch battery as soon as possible, I forgot about my watches and went on with my life.

Shortly after both of my watches broke, I competed in my first triathlon since being back in the states. The morning of the triathlon I woke up (to my cell phone alarm, of course) and realized I had no way of keeping track of my pace during the race. A little worried, I took a deep breath and decided that it did not matter; I would do my best to keep my pace above an 85% effort. Listening to my body would be my goal.

My body listened to the time, as it turns out.

Not only did I feel great during the triathlon, I managed to get a personal record in my 10 kilometer run at the end! After swimming 1600 meters in the ocean and biking 40 kilometers on the road, I ran the fastest 10k of my life (42:40). Instead of constantly glancing at my watch and feeling stressed about keeping pace, I just relaxed.

Time is funny like that, when you forget about it, it works in your favor. When you don't mind the passage of time, it seems to slow down.

On the other hand, as soon as I start to worry about time, it speeds up.

I have been back in the states for two months now, and I can't believe how the time has flown by. Each day I am busy with life here, going to one of three jobs, training for the Crossfit Games season, 2012, eating healthy, staying in touch with friends, enjoying the sun, ocean, and mountains of the central coast, spending time with Chris, trying to make time slow down.

Sometimes I worry that I will go to sleep one night, a young healthy 32 year old and wake up the next morning an older, healthy 72 year old. I worry that as the days pass by so quickly here, somehow time will sneak right away from me and I'll miss life.

Yes, time is funny like that. One minute you are sitting in a musty room in downtown Kabul, waiting for the sun to go down so you can justifiably go to sleep without feeling guilty for beating the sun to bed, the next moment you are frantically trying to complete work before the sun rises. One minute you are caged, stir crazy, going insane with so many empty days, the next minute you are glancing at a broken watch, wondering where the time went...