When Things Fall Apart: A Review

It may seem a bit hyperbolic to say that I am writing a review of one of the best books ever, but… yeah, this is a review of one of the best books ever.

Book coverI recently finished re-reading Pema Chödrön’s 2000 work, When Things Fall Apart. Chödrön is an American-born Buddhist nun, and this book is meant to be a collection of advice and guidance for Westerners on how to deal with suffering and times of challenge. Notice I don’t say it is a book for Buddhists, because I don’t think it is. Chödrön’s advice and teachings are relevant for individuals of all faiths, though there is some discussion of religion that might ruffle feathers, and some of the book’s chapters rely heavily on Buddhist teachings and principles. The central themes of this work, developed from notes and talks that Chödrön gave in the years leading up to its publication, are about how to use adversity as a catalyst for introspection and growth (“poison as medicine,” she calls it in one chapter), cultivating mindfulness, and developing acceptance and compassion. All of these skills that I, and many of us in today’s society, are in dire need of.

The good news, according to Chödrön, is that we already have all the tools we need to cultivate these desirable qualities: our minds, and the world around us. Buddhists believe that life is suffering, and that suffering is caused by attachment (two of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths). But there are two sides to every coin: We develop attachments to the good things, too. Praise, love, wealth, and the positive things in life are also addictive, and our attachment to the good things causes suffering as well when those good things disappear. All things are impermanent. Bummer. So, we have to eliminate all of our attachments if we are ultimately going to see the world for what it is and transcend suffering. Sounds easy, right?

Chödrön recognizes we are no saints, and this is where mindfulness and compassion come into play. The meditation techniques outlined in the book are aimed at helping us to better understand ourselves (and our emotions), and to accept ourselves as we are in the moment. “In practicing meditation,” she says, “we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is.” (17) Understanding where we are and living in the moment is key: She often tells us to stop running from what scares us, stop trying to escape “feeling,” stop seeking solace in drinking or drugs or whatever makes you feel better. The moment is the perfect teacher, and she tells us that by sitting in the bad places, feeling what we feel, we become more keenly aware of our attachments and the habitual emotional patterns that keep us stuck. At the same time, we can also use these teaching moments to develop empathy. Realize that these negative emotions are part of the human experience. If we feel fear, sadness, loneliness, or anger, imagine the other millions of people in the world that are going through the same emotions. Couldn’t we enrich everyone if we stepped a little outside ourselves? Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’ Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’” (11)

This was my third time reading this book, and it’s been through some difficult times with me. This time, though, it spoke to me on a deeper level than it has before. For me, at least, it seemed like every time I picked up the book I turned to a page with exactly the advice I needed to hear. Want a drink? Here’s why it’s a bad idea. Angry about that guy who broke my heart? Here’s how to deal with it. Thinking about sending him a nasty e-mail? Here’s why I shouldn’t. This book just works for me. It is short, written in plain language, but carries a powerful message. It all sounds lofty, sure, but part of what makes this book special is that Chödrön herself seems to “get” it. She gets the “first world problems” that hook us in. She had a cheating spouse. She went through a divorce. She struggles with colleagues. She sometimes thinks her way is the only right way. She is open about these experiences, and that makes her relatable in a way that some authors aren’t. By sharing her challenges along the path, she gives us a subtle message: You can do this too. And you know what? After a few weeks of daily meditation practice and nearly a month without drinking, I’m starting to believe it.

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The 10-Mile Weekend

Since it’s been a few days since I posted, I thought I’d check in with a(nother) shameless plug for my friend Bean’s blog. If you pop over there, you’ll see what I was up to this weekend. Some friends and I joined the Team Gab Virtual Race to raise money for pediatric cancer research. All credit goes to Bean for putting this together, and bribing everyone to participate with the promise of pancakes. I just walked a 10K since I don’t feel up to running that far quite yet, and because I liked the company. I am happy to have played a part in raising more than $200 as a group to donate to the cause!

As if yesterday’s 6.2 miles wasn’t enough, today I decided to run 4 on my own. While four miles is not a huge distance to me, it did feel like a bit of a milestone run because of how good I felt at the end. This puts me over 40 miles for the month, with one more run in January scheduled for Tuesday. I guess I’m getting a bit obsessed with running again… but I promise this won’t be just a running blog. This has actually been a big month for me in a lot of ways, and I’ll try to put together some thoughts and reflections on that in the next day or two as well. *Tease tease tease*

Thanks, Gabby!

Since it is local news and political news, I wanted to write and give my thoughts on the resignation of Gabrielle Giffords today. If you haven’t checked it out already, read her resignation letter here. It got me a little choked up. Thinking about the events of Jan. 8, 2011 is strange to me. I’ve lived in Tucson less than four years, and yet I knew people who were victims of the shooting. Folks I knew were present that day at the event. One of those that died was someone I recognized from around the neighborhood, and who I once spoke to in passing. I also know many others who were connected to people who were killed or wounded. I’d like to think that says something about Tucson and the kind of community we have. In the days after the shooting, I have never felt more connected to others as I did attending the memorials and standing outside Giffords’ office with others paying tribute.

Gabby’s survival and recovery so far is really a miracle to me, and an inspiration to this community. Sometimes things happen that are just beyond our ability to explain them. I’m both happy and sad that she has made the decision to resign at this time. I know it will be good for her to have the pressure off (she needed to make a decision soon about running for re-election), but I think she was truly a great representative for us. That she was so popular as a Democrat in this district, even before the attacks, says something about the type of person she was and how well she connected to people. Beyond that, Gabby is also a great role model for young women interested in politics, and it’s sad to see her leaving public life at a time when her example is so needed. Congress is currently about 17% women, and it’s just not enough. Especially with women’s issues so much in the headlines, more female voices should be present (and, yes, I think in both parties) to be a part of these debates.

In her resignation letter, Gabby says that she clings to “[h]ope that our government can represent the best of a nation, not the worst” and “[f]aith that Americans working together–in their communities, in our Congress– can succeed without qualification.” I hope she is right, and I hope that our society can live up to the vision she has for us. Tucson is certainly better for having had her in office, and she will be missed. Best wishes, Gabby, for your recovery and (hopefully) return!

Women’s Races: Some Thoughts

Monday was my most visited day ever, so I assume I must have some folks out there who like running! Thanks for the views and the comments.

If dirty is the new hot, I'm showering waaay too often.

After posting my race report yesterday, I got an invitation via e-mail to participate in the Kiss Me Dirty Race Series. It seems this event is coming to Tucson and I have some friends who are putting together a team. My response was almost instantly negative, and it got me thinking about women and racing. I’ve participated in women’s races before, and there seem to be more of them every year. Why is that? And how should women runners respond to this trend?

As is true of the world of sports in general, the world of running is gendered. Races award prizes in male and female categories, you have to specify a gender when entering a race, shoes and clothes are different. This has been the case for a long time. The good news for the women who run is that things have gotten better over time. Not only are we now allowed to compete in races where we couldn’t back in the day (think Olympic Marathons, Boston), but we’re also getting faster. Statistics have shown that the gap in speed between elite men and women at the marathon distance has been steadily narrowing over time, and is now about 20 minutes. In 2010, this prompted discussion about whether the Boston Marathon qualifying times for women, which were 30 minutes slower than they were for men, should be toughened. Another interesting finding, though, is that what holds true for elite women does not hold true for everyone. While the time gap between elite women and men is about 20 minutes and getting slower, the time gap between men and women overall is closer to 30 minutes, and shows that there is a divide amongst women: Those who run alone and run fast, and those who run in groups but finish more slowly. The suggestion is that women do, to some extent, run differently. While there are some women who race in the traditional sense, there are many women who prefer to run socially, training in groups and racing together. Based on my experience, there’s truth to this. Though I usually go for runs alone, I often register for races because I have friends who are going, and socializing is a part of the training and racing process for me.

Jonathan Mederos: Disney Princess Half Marathon Champ. Don't be that guy.

Considering this, it’s not surprising that there are a growing number of races targeted specifically toward women. From the perspective of race directors, it’s good business to target a group that’s likely to bring their friends. From the perspective of women, it makes sense to run a race that’s going to cater to you: helping you find training and pace groups, allowing team sign-ups, and allowing for slower finish times. I’m all in favor of races catering to women, but I think it’s acceptable to give space to men, too. (I’m not going to discuss transgender individuals and running here, but that may be a subject for a future post. It’s a problem in racing, and in every sport.) Many men may also enjoy running socially, especially when they are running with wives, daughters, female friends, and they should be allowed to enter, with the understanding that they will probably run these races in smaller numbers. We shouldn’t exclude people based on gender, as was done to women in the past, but it also seems acceptable to me to either consider men separately for awards in these races, or to not offer awards to men at all. A man coming to a woman’s marathon to win an award in a field where, he admits, he would have been “slaughtered” had other guys participated seems, well, low.

By now you may be wondering, if I’m OK with women’s races, why the repulsion to the Kiss Me Dirty event? Well, for one thing, take a look at the web site. To me, there’s a distinction between an event that caters to women as serious runners and athletes, and an event that appeals to women to dress up and roll around in the mud. Nothing about this event seems to appeal to me as a runner; the attraction seems to be based entirely on sexuality. Look at the text on the site: Becoming a “dirty girl,” getting someone to “kiss you dirty,” even encouraging your man to come watch. (And, of course, it must be a man… are lesbians not allowed at this event?) I mean, to each his/her own, and much respect to the money that’s being given to charity, but there’s something disturbing and degrading to me about this. It’s like a women’s race gone wrong, because it’s not a “race” in the sense that they seem to expect you to run it, and I have to question whether this is even “for women.” When it’s all about getting sexy/dirty and getting someone else to look at you, who is this event really all about?

Temecula Valley Half Marathon and 5K

One of my big-time hobbies is running. I try to run at least 10 miles per week, but I rarely “race.” I generally push myself to meet my own goals: run under 10-minute miles, increase my weekly mileage by X amount, complete a half marathon, etc. I realize that I am not in danger of being a contender for any competitive running awards, so I get out there, have fun, and do my thing.

This weekend, however, I had the opportunity to travel for a race. My lovely friend “Bean,” who blogs at Just Plodding Along, has a goal of completing 30 half marathons before she turns 30. In pursuit of that goal, she signed up for this past weekend’s Temecula Valley Half Marathon and 5K. I love to travel, and Bean and I ran a half marathon together in 2010, so I was invited along as a travel companion and driver. The half marathon seemed a bit ambitious to me at this time, though I have been adding mileage in pursuit of the goal of running a 10K soon, but I settled on the 5K this time around. Sure, 400+ miles is a lot of driving for a 5K, but Southern California Wine Country beckoned.

Temecula Finish

Just to give you an idea of the weather, this was when it had started to clear up.

Considering that this was a first-time race, I give this event high marks. The organizers of this race are also the organizers of the Havasu Half Marathon, so they are experienced in the business. Race day weather conditions were bad, but they responded appropriately. Start times for both races were delayed to give folks time to drive in and find a place to park and to allow the weather to improve (maybe a tiny bit, but it was still cold and rainy), and we were given places to wait indoors before the race started. I still didn’t envy my friend running 13.1 miles in these conditions, but at least everyone had a chance to get to the starting line on time. A couple of complaints: It was irritating that main roads were not completely closed for this event. Running on a road shoulder may be fine in good conditions, but with hundreds of runners and lots of rain, the dirt shoulder turns to mush and it is hard to pass slower runners/walkers. It also doesn’t help to have California Highway Patrol driving up and down next to us, yelling at us to stay in the cones. Jerks. Who is driving to wineries at 8AM on Saturday, anyway? The goodie bags/”expo” were also very minimalist, with only a couple of exhibitors at the race, and about two free samples to pick up. It irked me that even the winery itself didn’t offer a coupon or a free tasting for runners. Not even of the $25/bottle commemorative race wine? Some positive aspects, though: $5 engraving for medals and souvenir wine bottles were nice, and the medals and race tees were quite stylish.

Race medalThere was a finisher’s medal for the 5K, which ordinarily I would not keep, however it turns out that I had my best competitive finish ever. In spite of wind, rain, poor course conditions, and an unimpressive time of just over 32 minutes, I was 10th in my age group. This was quite a surprise to me, but times were slow for this race overall, and I like to believe that years of experience running in upstate New York weather conditions served me well here. I didn’t feel like I stopped or slowed down the entire way, not even when I had to run carrying my glasses because I couldn’t see a damn thing. Bean, who arrived back soaked after 13.1 miles, also met a time goal for the event, though it was not a PR.

As an epilogue to the race, we had a great time brunching at the South Coast Winery and touring Old Town Temecula in the evening, when weather conditions cleared up. We also discovered that on Sunday, the Carlsbad Marathon was going on a short ways away along the coast. Since we had planned a detour on our route home to see the ocean anyway, we decided to go watch. (OK, actually we got a little crazy and tried to buy race numbers off Craigslist, but that wasn’t in the cards, so then we decided to watch.) I’m glad we did. The weather on Sunday was beautiful, and I really enjoyed being able to stand at the finish and watch the elite runners come in. We saw the first, second, and third place women finishers, and a number of sub-3:00 marathon men. Folks who have that kind of speed amaze me.

I’m not in a position to review a race I didn’t run, but from time spent at the finish line and walking along the course, and based on our visit to the expo, this looked like another well-run event. I was impressed by the crowd at the finish and along the last two miles of the course, shirts and medals were very nice, and there were a lot of bands along the course for entertainment. I’d definitely consider doing this race in the future, when I’m in half marathon shape.

In all, this was a successful running weekend. A bit more driving than I would like, but that just means I should plan to stay longer next time! In closing, here is a moment of Zen: The Pacific Ocean.

Chavalina’s Vegan Challenge–Day 7 (1/7/2012)

Breakfast: Toast with peanut butter, vegetable juice, green tea.

Lunch: Veggie burger, served with leftover yuca fries, which did not reheat terribly well but were edible.

Snack Time: Some smoked almonds before a 3-mile run, on which I got rather sunburned. Oops.

Dinner: I made pizza! The herbed pizza crust came from Trader Joe’s, and was delicious. Topped it off with vegan-friendly red sauce, onions, and roasted asparagus. The pizza turned out looking a little… irregular, but tasted fine. I also had one of my soy ice cream sandwiches.

How I Felt: I wanted to feel proud of myself for making it through this week, which I should, but this week has also left me with a lot of things to think about. Will I continue with a vegan diet? The answer is probably no. As I am typing this summary on Sunday, I did start out with a vegan-friendly breakfast (toast w/homemade apple cinnamon syrup), but some aspects of this week’s challenge were a pain. I went to four different grocery stores this week, sometimes making multiple trips to get what I needed. I bought several products that I thought were “safe” only to find they were not. My package of English muffins contained honey, my vegetarian chick’n strips had eggs, the first pizza crust I bought contained cheese. The result was that I also spent far more time and money on food this week than I do on a regular week, and there are still things that I’m not 100% sure were vegan. It seems impossible to know if all of the sugar and vinegar in every product I bought were made without any processing with animal products. Like I said, sometimes it’s worth it to pay more for good food, but I just don’t have the moral convictions that would make it worth it for me to spend so much more on bread or soy cheese week in and week out. Plus, this week I had the added benefit of being off from work and not having a roommate around. On an average week, when I’m working and busy and have someone else around the house, can I afford the same amount of time?

12 SecondsThe challenge of veganism is also much more than diet, and I’m aware of that too. There are obvious examples: leather, wool, and silk, which I’d have to give up to live the truly vegan life. But it’s even more than that. From my reading this week, I learned that animal products are also used in items as diverse as: paint, wood glue used in plywoods and wood furniture, gunpowder, adhesive tape, and in medical products and procedures including heart surgery and bone replacement. (The book pictured here, Every Twelve Seconds, is a trove of information and I hope to post a review later this week.) The list goes on and on, making me wonder to myself: Do all vegans know about this? Do they avoid all these products, buying vegan paint and plywood? If so, it seems a truly exhausting way to live.

At the same time, I find I’m in no hurry to go back to my old eating habits. If we truly use animal products and byproducts in so many things, that level of consumption is staggering. I would like to continue to be more conscious of this, as I have been this week. I felt good this week without meat or dairy, so why should I rush to go back to that? My plan right now is to allow some animal products back into my diet gradually, probably starting with honey and egg whites (since I already have uneaten food containing those items). I will also try to make some decisions about how to handle dairy: How much to eat and from what suppliers. As for meat, I still have some meat products in the house, but I am not anxious to return to meat eating any time in the near future. I will continue to not eat meat for a while because I know I can, and because I didn’t miss it.

Finally, let’s talk about other commitments in my life. This week was, for me, about willpower, mindfulness, and being cruelty-free. I may have lived up to those commitments in my diet, but that only made me aware of how I was not living up to them in other areas of my life. I did not show the same willpower with drinking that I did with my food. When I was confronted with a situation where someone made me angry, I had the opportunity to take a moral high road, and I absolutely did not. That’s what leaves me feeling bittersweet about this challenge. My eyes are open to things that I didn’t see so clearly in myself before, and I don’t like them. Being mindful is the first step on the path, but now I have to follow that up with some self-work. Expect to hear more about this in the future.

Thanks to everyone who has followed me on this challenge. I got some comments and likes, and relied on many helpful sites and blogs to make this happen. I am grateful to you for helping keep me honest. Best wishes and happy Sunday to all!

Chavalina’s Vegan Challenge–Day 6 (1/6/2012)

Breakfast: Bacon and eggs and cheese… no, just kidding, none of that stuff. I did see a commercial for cheese the other day and my stomach gave off a mighty growl. Sigh. Anyway, just the usual stuff today (see Day 5’s entry) plus another soy mocha while working.

Lunch: I had some vegetable soup left, so I ate that and half a Tofurkey sandwich. The smoked Tofurkey is all right. It doesn’t taste like much on its own other than smoke flavors, but on a sandwich with jalapeno mustard, it was decent. I also had a handful of raspberries.

Snack Time: Tortilla strips with tomato and basil hummus. Yummy.

Dinner: I whipped up a quick bowl of very spicy beans and rice using leftovers before I got ready to head out to my extra super bonus social event!

Extra Super Bonus Social Event: Well, yesterday I alluded to a big challenge and this was it. A couple of weeks ago, before I decided to spend this week as a vegan, I put my name in to a drawing for tickets to a gala fundraiser and art show. I was at first thrilled to find out a few days ago that I’d won, but elation quickly turned to concern. The show was a fundraiser for the Girl Scouts, and another feature of the event was a cooking contest. Some great area chefs would be showing up to bake and serve desserts using Girl Scout Cookies, which are on sale starting this month. It seemed almost guaranteed that these delicious desserts would not be vegan-friendly. Sure, I could go and drink wine and look at art, but could I resist the temptation of a dozen delicious desserts that I can’t eat? I almost turned down the tickets, but then I reminded myself—this is a challenge. Sitting at home all week cooking my own menus is easy. Facing real temptation is hard. So I took the tickets, found myself a date to bring, and prepared for my willpower to be put to the test.

cookieSurprisingly, I did some reading and found out that I might not be in as much trouble as I had first thought. No less of an authority than PETA has researched this matter and found out that there are, in fact, vegan-friendly Girl Scout Cookies. Four of the five egg- and dairy-free varieties from 2011, Thanks-A-Lots, Shout Outs!, Lemonades, and Peanut Butter Patties, have returned for 2012. I checked out the 2012 varieties and nutrition information on my own as well, since this info changes from year to year, and it appears that Thin Mints are now also made without eggs or dairy. This is not to say these cookies are healthy, because they’re not. In fact, I wonder if the real reason that so many cookies exclude eggs and milk is more for preservation than for dietary needs, but I was glad to think that I could at least possibly have a cookie or two.

Of course, reality was a bit less rosy. It turned out that none of the several desserts on offer were dairy-free, but in a true achievement of willpower I resisted. I stuck to snacking on crackers, fruits, and wine, and felt really proud of myself. But it turns out that this vegan challenge is one of only many challenges in life. While I stuck to my resolution about meat and dairy, I was unable to prevent myself from drinking way more than I should have. I’m feeling the after effects of it today, and it’s got me discouraged. Here’s the thing about willpower: How is it that I can completely give up meat, dairy, animal byproducts for a week and stick with it, but I can’t show the same willpower on other commitments I’ve made to myself in the past? Like, saying I won’t call that guy anymore, or that I won’t get drunk tonight. Is there some fundamental difference between this resolution and those more toxic habits I can’t kick, or is it all just a matter of willpower?

One more day of this challenge remains. Then there are decisions to be made, like whether I’m ready to take on a far greater challenge next.