Learning to Swim: Week 1

Well, I finally finished the first week of my “Learn to Swim” program from About.com. To recap, my goal in doing this is to build to a 500-yard swim and improve my freestyle/front crawl stroke. My main hindrance in this is not so much lack of strength, it’s that I have poor form and have trouble managing my breathing.

The big obstacle this week was not so much my crappy swimming ability as it was the monsoon. After all my praise of monsoon season last week, I forgot that the monsoon can also do this:

Via KOLD

Via KOLD

Ouch! So, my goal had been to swim on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays to keep my swimming workouts apart from my running workouts, but my plans were foiled when I went to campus on Saturday and it started with thunder and lightning. Then I wanted to go on Sunday, but the massive monsoon storm that caused the damage above kept me inside. Today I finally got to the gym to do workout #3 which was supposed to take place Saturday–and I barely got through my 6×25 laps before it started raining again! Other than that, though, I feel like this first week of workouts have been very manageable. Today was the first day I felt a little taxed, but that may not be surprising coming off a long run and some weights yesterday. I’m not sure my form is improving, but I am spending more time with my face in the water so I guess that’s progress. Today I invested a whole $3.99 (plus tax) in my very first swim cap, so I guess I’ve now made a financial commitment to this program. Ha ha. On to week 2!

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Monsoon Season and 300 Miles

This morning I finally hit 300 miles for the year, a total of 14.2 miles for the week. I know a lot of my hardcore running friends hit 300 miles a long time ago, but for me it’s quite an achievement. I’m still a bit behind on my goal of averaging 50 miles/month for the year, though, so I’m hoping that for the second half of the year I can pick it up a little and spend less time dealing with injury.

Gambel’s quail, from All About Birds

This morning’s 5K run was really a delight. Running in monsoon season can be both frustrating and fun… The endless days of 100+ degree weather are a bummer, especially on days like Tuesday when you wake up and it’s already 85 degrees. But on a day like today, it’s an unexpected surprise to get to sleep in (until 5:30AM, ha ha) and wake up to reasonable temps, cloudy skies, and a light cooling rain. The animal kingdom was out enjoying the morning, too, and nothing quite makes my day like seeing the happy little quails out running along the dirt road. Hope everyone has a great weekend!

Am I the World’s Worst Swimmer?

Well, the answer to that is probably no, because if I were the world’s worst swimmer I would likely not have survived Saturday’s misadventure in the pool. But I’m certainly not destined for a distance swimming career.

To back up, swimming has been a lifelong obstacle for me. My parents had the well-intentioned idea to sign me up for swimming lessons when I was a small child. Rather than making me a more confident little swimmer, I was forced off a diving board and acquired a lifelong fear of jumping into a pool and being underwater. Further complicating this issue, my high school had the (again) well-intentioned idea of requiring all students to pass a swim test before graduation. Year after year, I was forced into the pool in an attempt to pass that damn test. Ultimately I did of course, but it did nothing to assuage my negative feelings about being in the water. While all my high school friends were on the swim team, the idea of even jumping off the blocks made me quiver in fear.

Fast forward to present day. Here in Tucson I have access to a great, outdoor swimming facility at the U of A… and I have politely ignored it for years. Last summer I decided to face my fears and signed up for some private swim lessons I bought with a Groupon. The results were a surprise to me. It turns out I’m actually not a bad swimmer… when I’m doing it right. My backstroke was so strong that my coach asked me if I had ever been on a swim team before. But the backstroke is easy. On my back, there’s about zero chance of sinking and drowning. Any stroke where I need to put my face in the water is a different story. Yep, I have issues.

After lessons last year, I was still too timid to actually try swimming as a workout. This year, though, I’d like to try again. I know my weaknesses, and I know now that becoming a good swimmer for me mostly means getting out of my own head. On Saturday I did a practice swim as a fitness test and I was able to do 500 meters, alternating between front crawl/freestyle and backstroke, but there was a lot of gasping between breaths and the final laps were definitely not speedy or quality. So, I’m going to try this learn to swim program from About.com with the goal of swimming 3x/week for 6 weeks and building to where I can (hopefully) do a quality 500 meter swim workout. Face in the water and all. Workout #1 today was quite manageable, and I even did a couple of strong laps before my body hit panic mode and I wanted to breathe on every single stroke again. What can I say, it’s a work in progress. If this goes well, expect to hear more about my summer swim challenge!

Movie Review: Turn Me On, Dammit

From IMDB

This is a movie you should put to the top of your to-see list. Immediately.

Turn Me On, Dammit is a Norwegian film that deals with a very universal theme: coming-of-age and, specifically, sexual awakening. What makes the film brilliant, though, is that it handles these subjects in a delightfully refreshing way. If a Hollywood studio made a movie like this (and I know, because they have), it would probably be very male-driven, marketed to horny teen boys, and have lots of raunchy scenes and no substance. This film is none of that, and it delivers lots of humor and heart.

Alma, our main character, is a 15 year-old girl growing up in small-town Norway. She has a somewhat distant mother, a cliquey peer group, but her biggest problem is one we can all relate to: She’s horny. Alma has a crush on Artur, a handsome and popular boy. At the same time, her hormones are running wild. She masturbates, fantasizes, even calls a sex line, and then feels intensely guilty for giving in to her urges. Alma lives in an environment where, it seems, it’s frowned upon for a girl to have such desires and to indulge them in obvious ways. As a result, she thinks she must be an aberration for feeling what she’s feeling. She manages to keep it together socially until she has a mildly sexual encounter with Artur at a party. She tells friends, he find out she told, and he promptly denies it. His denial makes her an outcast, especially to her jealous friend Ingrid. Turns out, Ingrid also has a crush on Artur and she’s ready to go full-on Mean Girls to “punish” Alma for allegedly lying. Teen drama starts to spiral out of control, and when Alma’s mother and other adults in the village get involved, Alma decides to take her rebellion to a new level.

The performances in the movie are spot-on, and the characters are very well-drawn. Even if you’re not into subtitles and foreign films, I think you’ll find this movie relatable. The quirky, small-town feel is a bit reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite but in a way that’s less over-the-top. Ingrid’s sister, Saralou, is entertainingly charming as the one friend who stands by Alma and helps to redeem her. Ingrid herself is a bit of a caricature of the popular-girl bully, and the adult cast also scores laughs. The real magic of the story, though, is that we’re able to laugh at its absurdity even as we cringe for Alma and what’s going to come next. There are a couple of points where the movie could take a dark turn—especially given all we’ve heard in recent years about teen bullying—but it always remains firmly upbeat. The last scene of the movie is so brilliant, hilarious, and touching that I broke out into applause.

Helene Bergsholm as Alma

Turn Me On, Dammit is subtitled, and it contains cursing, drug use, and mild to moderate sexual content including nudity. For some, that will be a problem… but it would be a shame to let that keep you from such a brilliant film. Another refreshing aspect of the movie is that it is sexual without being raunchy, something that American teen comedies (again) cannot manage to do. I really think the touch of a female film-maker makes the difference here. Nothing seems gratuitous, and it’s clear that the aim for Alma is really more than sex. Like many teenage girls, she also wants love, acceptance, and someone to help her through a difficult phase in her life. Too few movies honestly explore the sexuality and development of adolescent girls without sexualizing them in a way that makes it all about the men in the audience. I bet many adult women out there have experienced something similar to Alma’s confusion, and would relate to this story just as I did. A lot of adolescent girls would probably see this movie and feel relieved to know that they’re not “freaks” for feeling the way they do about sex. It’s a shame that we so rarely get a film like this that can start those conversations. Look for this film in a theater near you, or look for it on video. Just look for it somewhere, as it’s one you really should see.

Back on the Run… With a New Goal

The 4th of July is always bittersweet for me, because it’s come to mean the end of my summer visit to Rochester and a return to normally sweltering Tucson. Of course, imagine my surprise when I exited the TIA airport last night to find it a comfortable 73 degrees! Monsoon air is expected to keep us somewhere just below OMG-Hot levels for the next week or so, and I’m hopeful that means cool mornings and maybe sneaking in an outside run. After straining a tendon a few weeks ago, I’m happy to report that I’m back up and running 5K+ distances with no pain and no reduction in speed over pre-injury times. I’m bummed that my June mileage really tanked because of the issue, but it’s good to have a reminder to dial back on the mileage once in a while. This one could have been much, much worse.

So, I think it’s time for a new goal, don’t you? I’ve been thinking about doing a third half marathon for a long time now. I wanted to find something flat, inexpensive, and close to home… but after lots of research I decided to go big. You see, I’ve also been working my butt off on my dissertation and am planning to defend in the fall (essentially finishing my Ph.D., for all the laypersons out there). In addition to racing, I also wanted to plan a small trip in the December/January time frame to celebrate. Why not combine a new race with somewhere I’ve always wanted to go?

Yes, I paid my entry fee this morning for the 2013 Tinkerbell 1/2 Marathon at Disneyland and I’m super excited about it. Sure, the race is expensive ($150 is the early entry fee–and it’s already 85% sold out), but it’s hard to argue with the amazing reviews that last year’s event got and the super spiffy medal. Plus I’ve always wanted to really visit a Disney theme park. When you’re a teenager and your parents go to Disney World without you, you never forget. Never. And a girl only gets her Ph.D. once (or so I hope).

Only six months and 13.1 miles to go!

You probably won’t hear much about my training for this race until September or so, when temps here start cooling off for good and I can really get serious about miles. But, having a new training goal is already making me excited, even though I do still have to wait six months to race it. I may have to find some other (cheaper) goals to tide me over until January!

Book Review Duo: The White Queen and The Red Queen

[Spoilers may follow about the first two books in The Cousins’ War series, The White Queen and The Red Queen.]

Philippa Gregory is wildly popular as a writer of historical fiction. Aside from her credentials (she has a doctorate in history), she is the author of numerous best sellers. One of her books, The Other Boleyn Girl, was turned into a movie. With the fourth book of her series The Cousins’ War coming out this summer, it seemed like a good time to discover her works for myself. The first two books of the series, The White Queen and The Red Queen feature two powerful women who are rivals to the throne of England in the 15th century.

To give some historical background, these novels are set during England’s War of the Roses, in which two rival branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty battled for supremacy. The House of Lancaster is the senior branch of the family and therefore has the stronger claim to the throne, but they face some major hindrances. A war with France is not going well, the Lancastrian King Henry VI suffers from bouts of mental illness, his queen Margaret of Anjou is French and therefore wildly unpopular, and it’s rumored that she’s raising her son to be a tyrant who will make England a puppet of France. After Henry and his son Edward, his faithful cousin Margaret Beaufort is the next closest thing in the Lancaster line. She is The Red Queen and the subject of book two in the series.

On the other side of the war is The House of York. Descended from a younger son of Edward III (who, by the way, had roughly a zillion children), their claim to the throne is substantially weaker but bolstered by some important advantages. They are supported by some of the most powerful lords in England including Richard Neville, the legendary kingmaker. They also have a young, confident, and charismatic candidate for the throne in Edward of York. His wife, the controversial Elizabeth Woodville is The White Queen and the subject of book one of the series. Everyone clear on this? OK.

Overall, The White Queen is a much richer book than The Red Queen. Character development is one of the major reasons for that, but historical reality may also play a role. Queen Elizabeth is a woman from a large family, and her relationships with her beloved brother, her protective mother, and her loving husband are well developed. Her role as queen for much of the book also places her close to the action as intrigue unfolds and kings rise and fall. In short, she has much more of a story to tell. Margaret Beaufort, however, spends much of her life away from the drama of the wars. Valued only for her ability to produce a Lancaster “spare,” Margaret is treated as a commodity. From before the age of nine (when the story opens) she is shuffled from one husband to the next as her fortunes rise and fall. Ironically, Margaret herself is a religious fanatic who would prefer celibacy and who, after the traumatic birth of son Henry Tudor when she is just 13, is left unable to produce further children in her two subsequent marriages.

One gets the feeling that Margaret’s life was truly lonely until she reached middle age. Her mother is a distant, crudely drawn figure, and her husbands are all ill-suited to her personality and ambitions. Edmund Tudor is dead by the time his son is born, Henry Stafford is kind but his unwillingness to fight for her son drives a wedge between them, and Thomas Stanley is a schemer who marries Margaret out of convenience and ambition. Margaret has no friends or confidantes of her own except brother-in-law Jasper Tudor, who spends much of the book away looking after her exiled son in France. Because of this, we spend most of the first half of the book “treated” to long and repetitive internal monologues from Margaret about her special destiny. She knows she has been chosen, she knows God favors her house, she knows her son will be king… but she can do very little about it as she watches three other kings enter and leave the stage. To give you a sense of her distance from the events of the day, when the book’s climax finally comes Gregory is forced to break Margaret’s first-person narrative to actually tell us what’s happening away at battle. For all her scheming, Margaret ultimately has less to do with her son’s fortunes than do the powerful men in her life. In my experience, the first-person to third-person narrative switch never goes smoothly, and this book is no exception.

Aside from the uneven character development, the books also don’t match up in their use of magic realism. In Gregory’s fictionalized England, the women of both houses have a higher power on their side. The Woodville women are allegedly descended from the ancient river god Melusenia and practice witchcraft when threatened. The “witchcraft” legends were most likely started by jealous rivals who couldn’t understand how a common woman like Elizabeth Woodville snared the love of a king, but Gregory runs with it. In The White Queen the gifts of Elizabeth, her mother Jacquetta, and her daughter Elizabeth of York become clear in times of crisis. The supernatural device is often referred to but not overused, employed just enough to convince readers that some power exists.

Margaret, on the other hand, claims the holy power of God. We start with her having mystical visions at the age of nine and she never drops the thread of asserting her special connection to God—no matter how much we are led to question whether she and her son are really favored. Her assertions of signs and visions and special messages become less convincing as the story wears on, and there’s a grain of truth when Thomas Stanley, frustrated with his wife’s ineffective scheming, points out that God only seems to speak to her when he’s saying what she wants to hear. At some point, her fanaticism becomes almost comical: she obsesses about her hatred for Queen Elizabeth, a woman she doesn’t even lay eyes on until halfway through the book, then she enters her service for a decade—even becoming one of her closest confidantes—while all the while harboring various unholy thoughts. When the two enter into a conspiracy together, Margaret is ultimately quick to blame its failure on Elizabeth’s sinful nature. Evidently, no one has made Margaret aware of the sins of pride and envy.

Overall, The White Queen is a richer and more satisfying tale. It’s clear that Gregory’s affections lie more with the women of the House of York, and their tale is better because of it. Gregory herself acknowledges that Margaret Beaufort is a challenging character, and The Red Queen never quite seems to get to her heart. However, I will say that Gregory still succeeds in making this an engaging (though light) story. Something about Margaret draws you in as she repels you, like the evil queen in a classic fairy tale. I tore through The Red Queen in two days. Gregory certainly takes license with history in creating a good story, but I recommend The White Queen for any aficionado of historical fiction. The Red Queen makes a good weekend read, and is a must if you want to continue the series, but expect to be left a little less satisfied by this second story. I hope an upcoming book in the series presents the third act of Margaret’s life in a more engaging fashion. Such a woman deserves a more complete tale than what we have seen so far.