SOLA PEDALING by Carter Helliwell

Sola Pedaling

During the summer after I graduated from high school, I made a new friend in the neighborhood. We did heaps of outdoorsy things together and soon began planning a bike-riding trip through the Mediterranean. He preferred the idea of a boys’ beer adventure trip with his brother, so I decided that biking around Europe alone would suit me fine. I had been an exchange student in Venezuela and had done a fair amount of traveling with my family. I was craving independence and anonymity.

I decided to visit Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, and the Greek Islands. I agreed to call home once a week. (Internet and cellphones were things of the future.) I was only 17 and didn’t have a credit card, so I planned diligent use of my traveler’s checks. I would pack lightly and stay in youth hostels along my route. I would rely on my high school French and some perfunctory Greek that lay dormant from having lived there as a small child. I had no experience speaking Italian, but seeing the beautiful Italian countryside was a top priority. I would muddle through any language deficiencies.

I landed in Pisa and after a bit of greasy bike finagling I was soon happily pedaling. All went well during those early days in the countryside. I enjoyed meandering and carefully composing photos I wouldn’t see until later when I had the film developed. Youth hostel life was mostly straightforward. I slept in my own ‘sheet sleeping bag’ that I had sewn, which helped give me a familiar feeling every night, and I ate well from the fruit stalls, delis, and bakeries in every town. Lots of pointing on my part and eyebrow raising by those behind the counters was the norm as I attempted Italian phrasing about all things delicious.

I was strategic in planning my daily rides, because a miscalculation could find me cycling in the dark. With the same logic that had me omit a bike repair kit, I had reasoned that I didn’t need lights, since I didn’t plan to use them. Now, looking back at that trip from the perspective of a middle-aged mother of three who doesn’t leave the house without an armament of provisions and clothing, I find the mindset of my teenaged-self baffling.

I blissfully soaked up every detail of the bucolic scenery on the quiet back roads, enjoying the rhythmic pace of contemplative pedaling. The friendly people I passed were curious and spoke to me. I saw them watering their yards, playing with their children and grandchildren, walking their dogs, and pegging laundry. Seeing me alone, bolstered their courage to engage me and their eyes widened with incredulity when I answered their questions:

“Si, Canadese.”

“Si, sono sola”

“Corsica, Sardinia e Grecia il prossimi.”

Their surprised reactions turned into amusement when I offered a confident smile. Many gave me a variation of the ‘Go for it!’ sign.

I explored Italy and Corsica before I took a ship to Sardinia. I was keen to see the island’s lush pastoral areas, quaint country towns, and ‘Emerald Coast’ beaches. As I straddled my bright yellow bike and surveyed the landscape from a vantage spot on the ship’s upper deck, I realized that I had neglected one crucial element of geographical research: topography. Sardinia is a small island, but flat, it is not.  As I quickly recalculated the distances on my map, I feared I wouldn’t make it to the hostel before it got dark. Increasing my pace was my only option, so I pedaled with fervor up hills and down valleys, through craggy green terrain crisscrossed with rock walls that only vaguely restrained intrepid sheep. When I finally arrived at the hostel location, I found only an empty lot.

Exhausted and confused, I coasted down the main street of the quiet coastal town just as the sun was setting. I asked a shop-owner who was closing up, for directions. I pointed at the little red house icon on the map that denoted the hostel. He removed his glasses to take a closer look and came up bleak-faced. He said something to his young son who was standing at his side, and then his son said in English “Hotel, no. Next year to build.” I thanked them and had little choice but to check into a tiny pensione at the end of the street where I enjoyed a night of luxury. I had a bath in a private ensuite and then climbed under the freshly laundered sheets of a comfortable bed.

The sleep was transformative and I spent the next day exploring the town, swimming at the beach, and admiring all the yachts in the marina. I got into a pleasant conversation (in English, hurrah!) with a couple of sailors who invited me to join them on their sailing adventures to Greece. Both men were probably only in their 30s, but looked older, their heavily tanned faces already deeply lined. Fear of being alone with men I didn’t know caused me to decline, but looking back, I think I missed that they were likely a romantically involved couple just wanting to offer safe passage to a pint-sized female teen traveling alone.

I continued south where the turquoise beaches were long and shimmered like countless dancing fairies. I spent a couple nights glamping and passed unhurried days lounging on the beach trying to read the local paper. When it was time to retrace my path, I decided instead to avoid the Sardinian Rockies and take the train. In order to make the train to catch the boat I had to leave at 3:00 AM. The moon lit my path like a giant bulb in an otherwise inky sky. The gravel road before me was busy with critters, furry and otherwise, crossing to and fro. I heard crickets and the sounds of birds stirring in the cool morning air as I searched for courage in the pre-dawn light. I settled into a rhythm but faltered when a pair of headlights appeared over a rise. Panicking that I could be abducted by some ne’er-do-well Sardinian, (who else but a deranged person would be driving a lonely road at this ungodly hour?), I quickly ran my bike off the road and hid in the ditch, holding my breath until I saw it was just a pickup truck filled with crates of produce. It rumbled past sedately.

As the sun crept up the horizon, I found breakfast at an already bustling bakery and ate on a bench outside the train station. When I loaded my bike into the passenger compartment of the train, I was surprised to see the car was made almost entirely of wood and was open to the sky and had heavy fabric above like a ragtop convertible. A handsome gentleman entered the car at the first stop and eyed me curiously. He was middle aged and elegantly dressed in a linen suit. He checked his pocket watch when the train abruptly stopped and sat idle on the track for a few minutes. I leaned out the side of the rickety trolley, but all I could see were rows of densely leafed trees. The gentleman offered a quick burst of Italian by way of explanation, but I was no closer to understanding the level of our predicament. How bad could it be? Likely it was sheep on the track or maybe it was a stalled delivery van full of pastries, or gelato at risk of melting?!  My musings over delays of possible yumminess were interrupted when the train conductor suddenly appeared in our compartment, looking pink-faced and warm in his thick sweater and cap, carrying a basket full of cherries.

“A stop to pick cherries?” I thought. “Italy!!  You do not disappoint!”

He gestured for us to share the bounty and moments later we were on our way. The be-suited gentleman and I each took a large handful and passed the basket back. The cherries were small but incredibly sweet and we munched in tasty silence, throwing pits out the side of the train car until the gentleman worked up the courage to ask me the usual questions.

“Canada?! Eppa!” he said with an expansive arm gesture and gold-toothed smile. The fact I was alone AND traveling by bike seemed beyond his comprehension. He pulled out his wallet and I had a moment of confusion until he carefully eased out a couple of photos and began pointing animatedly. I managed to understand that he was on his way to his son’s 20th birthday party. His wife and whole family were already there, cooking. There would be music and dancing and the most delicious ‘torta al limone’ at the party and would I please attend? The photo of his son revealed him to be very handsome and his father gave me a knowing nod. He complimented my physique (miming, ‘strong’ and ‘pretty’) and said something about ‘bambini Canadesi’ and pointed to my blue eyes and winked mischievously.

Even though we had shared food and pleasant, albeit mostly-mimed conversation I didn’t feel inclined to abandon my plans as his stop approached. I lamented my poor language skills hadn’t allowed me to fully explain that I had to have already planned where I would stay the night upcoming. But I suspected it was better that way because I felt sure he would have offered me a bed for the night, and I was almost as sure his son might have been in it!  So I missed singing “Buon Compleanno” and carried on to meet my boat bound for Greece.

In Greece I transited quickly out to the islands and settled on Santorini. There, I stayed in their derelict but oh-so-much fun hostel for a week. I met a crazy Canadian girl who got me into no end of adventures including topless sun tanning, late night dancing, and ouzo. (My bike didn’t move.)

At the end of my trip, as I waited for the plane to take off from Athens, I breathed a satisfied sigh. It had been a risky undertaking, to say the least, navigating alone with neither credit card nor phone but I managed it. I had enjoyed myself and learned enormously. I’ve read that growth occurs in the space outside one’s comfort zone. I’m not sure why I had to go to the other side of the world to leave my small comfort zone, but that’s when I learned to listen to my own voice. (Maybe that’s partly because it was one of the few I heard in English?)

Today, most of my adventures are less about far-flung locales and more about far-flung soccer socks. As a full-time parent I have graduated from the tasks of potty training and supervising play dates, to the realm of helping to guide appropriate screen use and class selections. I encourage our children to listen to their own voices and I wonder which paths they will choose to take. Our eldest is nearing the age I was when I first ventured out. I know the worry I will feel when she tells me she wants to do something alone, but I also know that my ‘sola’ pedaling gave me much of the confidence and resourcefulness that is the foundation of my life today.

Carter HelliwellCarter Helliwell is a wife, mother, and artist who lives on an idyllic island on Western Canada’s most southern tip. When she isn’t making lunches or doing laundry she spends time in her studio, painting, writing, and creating things full of weirdness and wonder.

 

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE, THERE’S FIRE by Caroline Paul

Caroline Paul

The first dog I ever rescued bit me. I held on, so he dropped two poops onto the sleeve of my fire coat. I couldn’t blame him: I was just the latest bummer in what had been a very bad doggy day. There had been flames, there had been smoke, there had been the shouts of strange people. With an axe at my side, and an air mask on my face, I was as scary as the rest. But I held him tightly and, whispering promises of dog bones and hugs, I carried him to fresh air. The owner rushed at us, arms outstretched, crying.

This was a fairly typical workday for me. I was a San Francisco firefighter, part of a crew called Rescue 2. Our job was to search for victims in fires, and sometimes those victims were dogs who pooped on our fire coats.

When my career began back in 1989 there were barely any female firefighters, in the whole wide world. In the San Francisco Fire Department, for instance, I was the fifteenth woman hired. That may sound like a lot, until you realize that there were one thousand five hundred men.

This meant that I was the only female firefighter on my shift. Sometimes I was the only female firefighter the other men had ever seen! I loved the job and I respected many of my coworkers but, let’s face it, it’s tough to be different. As the only woman, I was left out of the jokes. I was excluded from the easy camaraderie. I often didn’t understand the social rules. For the most part, the ostracization wasn’t purposeful. I was like that new kid in school with weird hair and crazy clothes who couldn’t find someone to eat with at lunch.

Firefighting was full of adventure and excitement, but it was also difficult, those first years. People had a lot of questions. Were women strong enough? Were women brave enough? I was watched very carefully. Any mistake would not just reflect on me, it would reflect on all women, and each female firefighter knew it. Some of the men were mean in ways that were so dumb and embarrassing for them it isn’t worth mentioning here. But many were decent and respectful, even if they, too, had doubts. Soon three of us women had joined the biggest station in the city, on the rig that responded to the most fires, called Rescue 2.

Art 80 - What it looks likeJoin me now at a fairly typical fire. That’s me, crawling down a hallway. I’m hauling hose, but you can’t see me because the smoke is so thick. I can’t see me, either – not my hand in front of my face, not the beam of the flashlight on my shoulder, not the floor beneath me. My partner, Victor, is behind me, and he keeps bumping into me, but that’s okay, because I keep bumping into Frank, who in turn must be bumping into Andy, who is at the front of the line and is most certainly bumping into walls. The is how it goes in what we call “a really good fire,” which to most people actually means “a really bad fire” – terrible visibility, a lot of clambering around, and air that seems made of molten lava stinging your ears.

One day, there was a small fire, confined to one room; an engine crew had already extinguished it. We jumped from the rig anyway, and walked toward the chief for instructions. I could still see smoke wafting from the window several stories up, but clearly the flames were out. Then something caught my eye. A small black object, on the ledge outside the smoking window. I squinted. Was it alive? Yes, it was.

I took the stairs two at a time. I rushed past the crew in the apartment. I asked someone to grab my coat, then I leaned as far as I could out the window. There she was, just within arm’s reach: a tiny, mewling black kitten. “Hello,” I said in my most soothing voice.

Below a crowd of gawkers milled like ants, but I didn’t allow myself to look down. I extended my arm slowly. I tried to communicate pure thoughts of animal love. I murmured nonsensical assurances. I hoped for a miracle. And the miracle happened. The kitten didn’t run, as kittens are wont to do when strangers approach. I grabbed, latching on to her tiny scruff and pulled her back into the apartment. She was shivering, so I dropped her into my coat. I held her next to my heart. “You’re okay,” I told her, “you’re okay,” and together we headed for the stairs.

Caroline PaulOnce a young scaredy-cat, Caroline Paul grew up to fly planes, raft rivers, climb mountains, and fight fires. In her book, The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure (illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton) Caroline shares her greatest escapades and encourages a new generation to conquer fears, face challenges, and pursue the lives they want — lives of confidence, self-reliance, friendship, and fun. 

ON THE EDGE by Alison Levine

Alison Levine

On May 24, 2010, I made it to the summit of Mount Everest. After turning back at the South Summit—just a few hundred feet from the top in 2002—I swore I would never try again. And trust me, there were many moments of self-doubt.

I am often asked what it was like—to go back to that mountain eight years later, after everything I had been through, and finally stand on top of the highest mountain in the world. I can honestly tell you (wait for it…deep breath…) it just wasn’t that big a deal. Heavy sigh. Think about it for a moment. It’s just a mountain. It’s nothing more than a big ol’ pile of rock and ice. And you are only on the summit for a very short time. You spend two months climbing that mountain, and only a few minutes at the very top. I was up there for thirty minutes. Standing on top of a mountain is not important, and the people who stand on top of Mount Everest are no better than the people who turn around short of the summit. Because climbing mountains isn’t about standing on the top of a pile of rock and ice for a few minutes—it’s about the lessons you learn along the way and how you are going to use that knowledge and experience to better yourself going forward.

I promise you that plenty of better, stronger, more skilled, much more deserving climbers than Alison Levine didn’t make it that day—for whatever reason. Most of them turned back because of the weather. But because I had that failed experience from 2002 under my belt, I knew what it felt like to get beat up and knocked around on that mountain. I knew what it was like to get the snot kicked out of me high up on the summit ridge in a storm. And I wasn’t afraid of that this time around. I knew what my risk tolerance was, and I knew what my pain threshold was. Had I not had that failed experience eight years prior, I very well might have turned around when most others did.

Shortly after my return, the New York Times published a photo of me at the summit, which resulted in phone calls from dozens of friends congratulating me on the accomplishment. But there was a lot more to that photo than what they could see. Let me tell you what they didn’t see: the sponsors who helped to fund my trip, the logistics providers who got all the permits in order, the amazing team of Sherpas who helped ferry loads up and down the mountain, the incredible guides who gave me direction along the way, the friends who helped me train before I left for Nepal, the loved ones who gave me their moral support leading up to the trip…I could go on. Always remember: nobody gets to the top of Mount Everest by themselves. Nobody.

Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer. She has climbed the highest peak on each continent, served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition and skied to both the North and South Poles. This excerpt was provided exclusively for Dare To Be Fabulous.

Excerpted from the book ON THE EDGE: Leadership Lessons Learned from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments by Alison Levine.  © 2014 by Alison Levine.  Reprinted by permission of Business Plus.  All rights reserved. 

ROLLER DERBY: THE NEW SELF-HELP SPORT by Laura Madson, aka Pippy Longstalker

Pippy Longstalker Photo by Mark Nockleby

Let me introduce myself. My name is Pippy Longstalker. My number is 36 and I skate for the Dominion Derby Girls. Roller derby has evolved and has become very organized with rules and regulations. But, it is a full contact sport that requires agility, skill, teamwork, and most of all, confidence in yourself. I have been skating since February 2009 and have loved every minute of it.

The Dominion Derby Girls is an all-female flat track roller derby league formed with the purpose of promoting the sport of roller derby and giving back to the community. We follow all rules and regulations of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and are very proud members of the WFTDA. Above all, we are an amateur athletic organization, priding itself on the strength and diversity of its all-female skaters. As such, we have a rigorous training and practice schedule that enables to participate in national competition.

My interest in roller derby began in Portland, Oregon, with the Rose City Rollers. My sister was looking for an athletic-, social-, and community-oriented organization and started learning how to skate in 2005. That fall,  I relocated to Arlington, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C.. Once I was settled into the fast-pace lifestyle of Northern Virginia, I started looking for a similar outlet. Family was 3,000 miles away and running on a treadmill and going to a gym was starting to become monotonous. I had heard that D.C. had a roller derby league and a co-worker and I started looking into joining. But, after seeing that the practice facility was an hour outside of town (in good D.C. traffic) and after figuring in my work schedule, I wasn’t able to commit.

Fast forward to the fall of 2007 and a relocation three and a half hours south to Norfolk, Virginia. Again, that feeling of being lost and alone overwhelmed me. I dove into my career and spent as much time running and working out as I could. But, I still felt dissatisfied with my life. Something was missing. The team atmosphere that I had grown up with wasn’t there. I was a Division 1 softball player in college and have been involved in athletics my entire life. Team sports are part of who I am. However, upon graduating, I realized that outside of a few community leagues there aren’t many competitive opportunities available for a former female athlete. I was looking for a team that would push my physical and mental abilities and fill that void that was quite prominent in my life.

So, after a year of soul-searching I did a little Internet searching and voila! The Dominion Derby Girls were recruiting!!! I shot a quick introductory email to the Fresh Meat Committee and found out when practices were. I went and watched a practice and immediately fell in love. Women of every variation—size, age, career, race, and sexual orientation—were out on the rink skating their hearts out! They were smiling! They were sweating! Most of all, they were a team. I immediately ran to the local sports store and bought my protective gear and skates. I couldn’t wait for the next morning and my first practice as a derby girl!

Let me just say that my first practice was not pretty. My skating skills were probably about as good as Bambi on ice. But, the coaches were great! They taught me the necessary skills and I started to become more and more confident on 8 wheels!

Roller Derby Laura MadsonMy very first bout was incredible. The feeling of nervousness mixed with excitement was overwhelming! After donning my uniform and my pigtail braids, I grabbed my gear and headed off not knowing what was in store for me. Warming up, I felt the nerves begin to grow. The other team wasn’t intimidating–it was the unnerving doubt in my abilities and the fear of letting me teammates down. But, before I knew it, introductions had started and the announcers were calling my name. “Number 36 AA, PIPPPPPYYYY LOOOOOONGSTALKER!” Oh no! What do I do? I quickly raised my arms and blew a kiss to the crowd with the biggest grin on my face. This is it! My first bout! My debut as a Dominion Derby Girl! And then, the whistles blew and the skating started. The first half went by quickly. What happened in that first period is all a blur. Half time came and went and the second period was starting already! A sense of determination came over me. I was not going to let my teammates down. I was not going to use my inexperience as an excuse. This was a new period and a chance of redemption.

My name was called in the lineup and out I went. Lining up on the inside behind my pivot, The Ruffian, I looked around me and realized that the opposing team wasn’t any different from me. They weren’t any better than me. We all had 8 wheels strapped to our feet and I wasn’t going to let a little bit of nerves get in my way. And then, the whistles blew. Off we went. All I could think was “Stay together. Hold the line. Hit them HARD!” Then, it happened. Their jammer was coming through the pack! I pushed off and skated straight into the path I knew she would take and WHACK! My shoulder went straight into her chest. Take that! That’s right! A newbie just knocked you down!

A wave of confidence and pride came over me. I did it! It doesn’t matter how good another skater is as long as I remember what my coaches have been teaching me and I put it to use. I can succeed at this sport! I can help my team! The rest of the period played out and it was over too soon, but I will never forget that first hit. Every bout I skate in, I remember that rush of adrenaline and emotion that flooded over me.

Now, less than a year after stepping out onto the rink with unsteady feet, I have filled that empty void in my life. My teammates are my new family. My skates have propelled me into a world that I could never have imagined existing. When I step up to the jammer line at a bout, I am transformed into a fearless woman with confidence and agility that I never thought I’d possess. I am a stronger woman because of roller derby, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally.

Laura MadsonLaura Madson was born in Bremerton, Washington, and has lived in Venice, Italy, upstate New York, Portland, Oregon, and many more places—she wants to see as many places as possible! She currently resides in Portsmouth, Virginia. Laura earned her Bachelor’s degree in music but is now a veterinary nurse. She has two dogs, Roxy and Abigail, and one cat, Gracie Growleypants. Things that tickle her fancy are good-hearted people who try to make the world a better place, ice cream any time of the day, and trying new things.

VIEW FROM THE TOP by Nalini Nadkarni

Photo by Michael and Patricia Fogden for National Geographic

I have a great job; I climb trees to study the rainforest canopy. My journey to understand trees started early in my life, when I climbed the eight sturdy sugar maples in the front yard of my home in suburban Maryland. Most afternoons, I would drop my school books inside the front door, grab a snack and a book, and scramble up one of those trees, each with its own vertical pathway to a comfortable nest aloft. Those perches were refuges from the world of homework, parental directives, and the ground-bound humdrum of the everyday. I could look out across my home territory, check on the progress of squirrel nest constructions, and feel the strong limbs of those trees holding me up for as long as I wished. It was in those afternoons of arboreal repose that my sense of kinship to trees germinated.

Trees were not my only focus in those formative years. My parents provided me with modern dance lessons from Erika Thimey, a German-born dance teacher who offered the gift of creativity to her students. I learned the expressive ways the body can move and acquire the discipline that is needed to hone my muscles. From Miss Erika, as we called her, I learned that with mindfulness, the simple act of walking across a wooden floor or noting the graceful fall of a leaf can be an aesthetic action. It opened up a whole different way of seeing that has kept me aware of the multiple ways that one must look at nature to understand it fully, an approach I now bring to my scientific work.

In college, I first discovered the world of forest ecology through the lectures of an ecologist, Dr. Jon Waage. When he wasn’t teaching undergraduates, he carried out research on damselfly behavior. I was amazed to learn that he could make a living by sitting at stream edges to record the movements of these aquatic insects. From him, I learned about the world of academic science. He posed seemingly narrow questions that later turned out to relate to much broader issues about life and death, competition and mutualism, and the evolution of life on Earth. Wrestling through the labyrinth of the scientific literature, I learned to trace citations to their sources and recognize the key players in a scientific discussion. Science seemed the right approach to really understand the world.

But what of dance? With my deepening passion for science, I soon fund myself in something of a love triangle, having to choose between very different professions. Parallel with my enthusiastic forays in science, I delighted in the sparks of creativity that flew from each composition in the dance studio, the sense of feeling my body move with others, the messages about life and emotions conveyable on stage, which no scientific paper could communicate. Right after graduation from college, I decided to test out which would be the better profession for me – field biology, manifested in the scholarly persona of Dr. Waage, or modern dance, exemplified by the graceful spirit of Miss Erika.

I first tried on the life of a field biologist. By writing letters to 70 field stations all over the world, and offering my services as a volunteer field assistant, I found a temporary position to help a septuagenarian entomologist (insect biologist). He studied the taxonomy of tropical leaf-feeding beetles and directed a tiny field station in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, in the South Pacific. I accepted with joy. In January of 1978, I arrived at the entrance of the Wau Ecology Institute, in the foothills of the Morobe Province. The field station consisted of a few shabby wooden buildings, a small herbarium and insect collection, and a central table occupied by a chipped coffee pot around which staff gathered each morning to discuss progress on their research projects. I spent the next twelve months on expeditions around the country, thrilled by the stunning diversity of the rainforest. In that rainforest cloister, I felt at home with the people and work I encountered.

After the year in Papua New Guinea was over, it was time to investigate dance. I traveled to Paris, and made contact with a modern dance company, Danse Paris. I first took classes, and was then invited to practice with their troupe. The opportunity to dance for hours at a time and hang out with professional dancers was perfect to test out my potential future profession. After a year in the rainforest, it was a delight to gulp in the cultural offerings that only Paris provides. The art museums, city parks, urban architecture, and evening concerts filled my non-dancing times.

After six months, I had to make a choice. I knew that I could not do both professional science and professional dance. The former demanded years of academic preparation and wildland settings; the latter required years of physical and aesthetic training and an urban homespot. On a sunny morning in April, I sat down with my journals from both locales at a neighborhood café. Over numerous cups of tea, I read through them all and then sat back to decide which was to be my choice. The forest or the stage? As much as I loved the world of dance, the time I spent in the tropical rainforests seemed truer to my own spirit. I felt closer to my biologist colleagues, and more at peace in the forest environment.

I returned to the USA and entered graduate school in forest ecology at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources. I spent a summer in Costa Rica on a field biology program, surrounded by fledgling graduate students and experienced faculty who opened the world of tropical ecology with enthusiasm and expertise. Each had his or her own specialty: hummingbird physiology; beetle distribution; songbird migration. Early on during that course, my eyes looked up to the complex world of the forest canopy – the plants and animals that lived their lives high above the forest floor and were among the most poorly known in the world.

I had the good fortune to encounter another graduate student who was studying canopy interactions. Don Perry had developed modified mountain climbing techniques, and he agreed to ‘show me the ropes’ in exchange for help with his field study. After a month, I was ready to climb on my own and to pursue my own set of canopy questions – activities that would enliven my life for the next three decades.

My canopy research colleagues, students and I have enumerated the rare and often unknown species that dwell on branches and twigs that never appear in ground surveys. I discovered that some trees put out “canopy roots” from their own branches and trunks, which gain access to the arboreal soil that accumulates beneath mats of canopy-dwelling (“epiphytes”). We learned that treetop versions of traditionally terrestrial insects and even earthworms – are found in this canopy-level soil, living out their entire life cycle high above the forest floor. We have measured the amounts of nutrients that the epiphytes intercept and retain from rain, mist, and dust, which can be considerable.

Over the last 30 years, new techniques of canopy access have evolved to include hot-air balloons, treetop walkways, hanging platforms, and 30-story construction cranes. The answers that canopy researchers report in scientific meetings confirm that trees are a critical part of ecosystems, landscapes, and the biosphere. Canopy researchers now quantify the amount of oxygen tree canopies produce, the amount of carbon dioxide they store, the volumes of soil they protect, the amount of water they retain, and the scores of wildlife species they support. Urban foresters have documented the “ecosystem services” provided by trees in urban settings: reduction in noise, temperature, and pollutants. Thus, the growing body of treetop research documents that loss of canopy diversity and function is a loss to the forest as a whole and to the landscapes beyond them.

Over the years, aware of the importance of the forest canopy and forest ecosystems in general to the health of the Earth, I have made deep forays into doing outreach and communication of what I have learned. I am especially interested in reaching “non-traditional” audiences, those who don’t automatically pick up a Natural History magazine, or watch a nature documentary film. Each of these projects involves connecting with other partners. One of my programs involves gathering scientist, urban youth, and scientists to spend time in the field and create rap songs about trees and insects. Another program brings science research projects involving endangered plants and animals into prisons so that incarcerated men and women can contribute to solving environmental problems, even though they are behind bars.

Another set of my partners to help communicate scientific messages are artists. One of my favorites is a wonderful collaboration with a modern dancer and choreographer. On an afternoon last year, I got a telephone call from Jodi Lomask, the Director of the San Francisco-based modern dance troupe. She wanted to make a modern dance about tropical rainforests, but wanted it to be based in science – could she come to my rainforest study sites with me to learn about them? Indeed she could, and did, and this year, we are performing the dance she choreographed while climbing my rainforest study trees to public audiences in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. I feel happy that the two seemingly divergent forces in my life – studying trees and making modern dances – has come together for the sake of protecting rainforests.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a Professor of Biology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and a leader in the scientific field of rainforest canopy research. Nalini created a unique method for rappelling to the top of the canopy using mountaineering equipment and has become known as “The Queen of the Forest Canopy.” She is featured in the Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary “Heroes of the High Frontier.” She is also the author of three books and numerous scientific research articles. 

A BODY OF WORK by Kelly Dobbins

Kelly Dobbins photo by Juan Carlos Lopez

I was raised in a small farm town in Oregon in a very athletic family. My brother was a professional fighter and a Gold Medal Champion, traveling around the world to places like Romania and Russia. He started boxing when he was six years old, and he would quite literally train all day long, so I pretty much grew up around a gym. Despite this exposure, I didn’t feel personally drawn to it.

I went to college and majored in business, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in terms of a career. After graduation, I got a job at a construction company doing their accounting. I also started working out at a local gym. One day, the gym owner approached me and said, “You should get into bodybuilding.” I didn’t know anything about it, so he explained what it entailed. He added that he would be willing to train me for free, reasoning that it would be good publicity for his gym. He also told me that there was a show coming up in Portland, which was 60 miles from my hometown. I was naive at that time, not knowing what I was really getting into, so I said, “Cool, let’s do it!”

In the middle of my training, and before the Portland show, I found myself having to make a sudden move to California, which was a bummer. I was getting into bodybuilding and I didn’t want to stop. As soon as I got there, I immediately joined the local Gold’s Gym and became consumed with training — the bug had bitten me. I loved it so much that I even took a job there working at the front desk. I was 21 years old and I knew what I wanted to do.

Bodybuilding in California was big stuff compared to where I came from in Oregon. There were lots of competitors and bodybuilders around me. The support was strong and my body got even stronger. When I finally did my first amateur show, I won! And from there it went. I just kept going and learning more about the sport. I just loved it. My major goal was to “do the Sacramento,” because it was a big National qualifying show. To qualify for the Nationals, you have to place in the top three, so it’s not easy. I trained and competed and guess what? I won. I qualified for the Nationals!

After “the Sacramento,” I took a couple of years off from competing to train, because I was really small and the girls competing in the Nationals were relatively big. I just couldn’t compete with them at my size. I started training really hard and was always at the gym. That’s when I met my husband, Rick. He was also at Gold’s Gym, working out. You might say he was dedicated; he totally set his sights on winning me over. I was dating the manager at that time, who obviously didn’t much care for it, but Rick would sit on the steps and wait for me and wouldn’t leave. What can I say? It worked. He stole me away.

Rick became my personal trainer and that’s when I really took off. He’s been my trainer, my nutritionist, and my choreographer, which can make our relationship rough during pre-contest time. I’ve gotta say, it’s not that fun. Sometimes, I’m just exhausted and I want him to focus on being my husband, not my trainer.

To train for a contest, we start 16 weeks prior to the event. The diet is a huge part of it. At 16 weeks prior, I cut out dairy and fruit. The fructose in fruit is the main source of carbohydrates from sugar, and it goes straight to your liver, so if your liver is already full with glycogen, the sugar turns into fat. I also start limiting alcohol. Believe me, I like my daily glass of wine, but I start cutting it down to maybe four days a week, or three. At the 12-week mark, it gets tough; I start weighing and measuring everything down to the ounce. There are limited amounts of things I can eat: small amounts of protein, broccoli, yams, and brown rice. At 10 and 8 weeks out, I carb-deplete a lot. so I can go into ketosis. Fortunately, Rick monitors me on a daily basis.

A typical day during pre-contest means that I get up at 4:00AM. and do an hour of cardio. Then, I do some weight training. Then I head to work and train my own clients. At mid-day, I do another hour of cardio and more training. And finally, I do one more hour in the evening. The last week before the contest, I don’t train at all. That’s because the cuts won’t be there. You want your muscles to relax so your cuts will be visible when you pose.

Every contest is a challenge. I get four to six weeks out and I think to myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?” When you can’t eat and you’re carb-depleted, you’re really weak minded. Everyone around you is eating. You have to stay strong. It’s different when you’re one week out — you’re almost there.

My goal to compete at the National level happened last year. At the 2007 USA Championship in Las Vegas I took third, which is huge, because there are so many women competing at that level. Most women do those shows to turn pro, which is not a goal of mine. Honestly, if I turn pro, I’m toast. They’re huge women.

I have to work harder than most of the women in the amateur contests, because there’s no test for performance-enhancing substances, and many of the bodybuilders take advantage of that. I see what using them will do and I have no interest in doing that to my body. I have a life ahead of me, you know? Fortunately, they want us to compete smaller now,  so that’s to my advantage. I only came in 6th in the last championship, because they thought I was too hard, too shredded. The rumor was that they wanted us to come in 20 percent softer, but it’s really hard, because you can never really know what the judges are looking for.

For national competitions, you weigh in on Thursday night. On Saturday, they do the pre-judging. There’s a pump-up room in the back and there are bodybuilders there that oil you up. Then you go up to the stage and do quarter turns and a 60-second routine without music. They want you to look simple for the pre-judging. Nothing fancy. Your hair is usually up. When you come back and do your one-and-a-half minute routine to the music, you get dolled up. I can hear Rick to the side of the stage, coaching me as I pose. People in the audience are cheering. Friends have come from all over. It’s really exciting.

There is so much discipline involved. Everyone asks me why I love it and I can never give a definite answer. I love taking my body to the limit, but I also love to compete. I love the actual training and I love to see my body progress.

I should see a psychiatrist about this because I work my ass off, but I’m uncomfortable going out in public! I’m kind of a freak in public. I joke about this, but it’s true. I stay covered up. I’m getting a little more comfortable with it now, but even when it’s hot, I’ll probably cover up. If I’m with a guy or with Rick, I’ll go sleeveless, but otherwise, I won’t. I’ve been competing for 20 years, so it’s been a long time. I can’t think of any negative things that happen; I always get positive reactions, but I’m just uncomfortable with the attention. People always stare, even if I’m not in pre-contest shape. I have my own personal training gym now and when I’m out with clients, they will always comment on the way people stare at me. I don’t like it, even though I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. Go figure, right?

My mother and father are super supportive and proud of me. I’m different from my brother because of how I look, so it’s not really comparable that way, but they’ve always been proud. They love it. My mom is actually pissed off now because she hasn’t gotten the latest pictures from my last contest. I laughed and said, “Mom, I haven’t gotten any.”

I have two girls who are now 20 and 22 years old, respectively, and I enjoy being with them on my down time. We’re great friends and we laugh a lot. I’m proud of them, and they’ve always been proud of me. They’ve seen me train and compete since they were very little.

I’m proud of myself for being so disciplined. Doing this isn’t easy. I may or may not compete in the Nationals, coming up in November. I’m not sure yet. I’m already part way there from having trained for the last contest, but I don’t know if I’m up for the intense dieting. We’ll see. I started dieting a little this week . . . just in case.

Kelly DobbinsKelly Dobbins has been competing in amateur bodybuilding championships for over 30 years. She resides in Oakland, California, and owns her own personal training facility appropriately named Kelly’s Gym. She invites you to come for a complementary consultation! Just mention Dare To Be Fabulous when you call. (Tel: 510-601-5432.)  

WALKING ACROSS AMERICA IN MY 90TH YEAR by Doris “Granny D” Haddock

Doris Granny D Haddock

Doris “Granny D” Haddock received a lot of attention when she walked across the United States to raise awareness of campaign finance reform. She did this at the tender young age of  89. This story is an excerpt from her book about that experience, provided exclusively for Dare to be Fabulous.

Jim and I, at long last, got in the vehicle and drove home to Dublin, New Hampshire. My, it was delicious to see the miles fly by and not have to even think about walking them! And then my town ahead, and there it is! And the old house! My old chair! Bathtub! Books! Ahh, my tired bones!

On Tuesday morning I made my way back to my old friends – our Tuesday Morning Academy. They were happy to see me, but it was rather as if I had been ill for a time or off on a cruise. Within a few minutes, I was one of the girls again – except for one difference. One of my friends, after a few minutes of conversation about my walk, said she didn’t see what was so important about campaign finance reform.

It is reported that I took her rather sharply to task with a presentation of memorable ferocity. Well, was that me? Old Doris? It was not the Doris who had sat meekly among them a year and a quarter earlier. Even at my age, I had changed quite a bit.

For the first time in my long life, I was clearly not afraid of what someone might think of me – I cared more about the issue than my vain self. That transition was worth the walk, though I must keep working on it.

Several weeks later I received a call. A group of campaign finance reformers from the Alliance for Democracy were going into the Capitol Rotunda to petition for the redress of our grievance against campaign corruption. Yes, I said – I would go with them this time. I could care less anymore if people thought I was crazy. This was a way to push the issue forward – to demonstrate the depth of our concern and to take the pain of social change upon ourselves.

So I returned to Washington. On the evening of April 20, 2000, I walked from a train at Union Station to a church building near the Supreme Court. There I was to meet thirty-one others who would risk arrest. I was a bit late, as the streets of Washington can be confusing. I entered a room where the thirty-one were seated in chairs gathered in a great circle, and my perilous seat waited empty for me.

In the few steps across the room, I reminded myself that my whole life had been spent worrying too much about what others thought about me. Go ahead, old girl, have a seat.

It was a comfortably well-worn chair, and I looked around with wonder at the smiling people around me, bathed as they were in the golden light of the old room. Many had lost themselves to their causes many years ago. Some, like me, were young beginners.

I was arrested the next morning for reading the Declaration of Independence in a calm voice in the Rotunda. I did so to make the point that we must declare our independence from campaign corruption. My wrists were pulled behind me and cuffed. I was taken away to jail along with the others. When you jump fully into the river of your values, every moment glows with a blissful joy, even when your arms hurt behind you.

But, oh, dear husband, Jim! Are you up there looking down, laughing at me in the pokey? Get used to it, dear.

The fear of not being liked – of not belonging – has been central in my life. “She’s not like the others. She’s different. Sometimes I wonder if she’s mine at all, like I found her in a basket on my front doorstep,” I overheard my mother say when I was seven.

Not knowing how else to proceed, I embraced the idea that I was different. I was a princess in disguise. The pink granite Laconia Public Library, complete with turret, became my castle, and I read every adventure book in it. At home, my nose was always in a book until Mama scolded me to do my chores.

That overheard conversation, and that uncertainty helped me to become well read and adventurous, which has made me a connoisseur of life and of people. It has sent me on a lifetime of adventures – I can’t imagine how boring I might have otherwise become to others and to myself.

It does help to know that I was, in fact, loved. At Sybil’s wake, when a priest asked Mama who would be taking care of her now that Sybil was gone, Mama’s eyes brightened with joy when I said, “Why, she will be coming to live with me, won’t you, Mama?” It may have been only the sparkle of an extinguished worry, but I have clung to it.

Do we see who we are, finally? Do we see, behind the curtain, the scars and the insecurities that have controlled us? And when we see them and look them squarely in the eye, do they lose their power over us, backing down from their bullying bluster? Indeed they do. We become free to take our lie in whatever shape it has become, and find a good and enjoyable use for it, serving others and ourselves.

Interesting! After all this chattering, I have not told you five minute’s worth about my long career in the shoe industry. For so many years, that was all I could think about, and now it hardly seems worth bringing up. I think the lesson there is that a career, in the end, is a much smaller part of our lives than we can possibly imagine at the time. Our career distracts us from our real work, so we must learn to see past the limits of that blinkered world. All those years condense now in my mind to a chuckle.

The aftermath of my arrest was that I was later brought before the judge in Washington for my crime of being a troublesome person. While I hoped he would not put an old woman in jail for six months for reading the Declaration of Independence in the Capitol, as well he could, I yet worried that perhaps all of this, all of me, had been silly and he would now send me away to contemplate my silliness for a few months. As he sat expressionless in his great robe, I wondered what this wise-looking old man thought.

Judge Hamilton finally spoke, and most mercifully. He sentenced me, and the others, to the time we had already served, and he added these words of heavenly grace:

“As you know, the strength of our great country lies in its Constitution and her laws and in her courts. But more fundamentally, the strength of our great country lies in the resolve of her citizens to stand up for what is right when the masses are silent. And, unfortunately, sometimes it becomes the lot of the few, sometimes like yourselves, to stand up for what’s right when the masses are silent.”

His honor gave me a fine hug in his chambers afterward. His staff members were tearful and I was tearful, and America felt like my own country again.

So I am happy for how my walk has turned out, and for how my life has turned out. I am thankful for the troubles that have shaped me. If you and I were having a cup of tea and you were telling me your stories, as I have told you mine, I would see that it was your hard times that made you so interesting, so wise and able to laugh at life. Aren’t we lucky, friend, to be the creatures of such a genius Creator that even our darkest troubles graciously serve to deepen and wide our hearts? And all our memories, like days cast in amber, glow more beautifully through the years as the happy endings finally reveal themselves and flow slowly into the bright and mysterious river of the Divine.

Well, I am not finished … with my life or with my passion for campaign finance reform. There is almost always time to find another victory, another happy ending. I hope that is your feeling about life, too.

Granny D

Doris “Granny D” Haddock  continued to speak publicly and travel the country for campaign finance reform until she passed away in 2010, six weeks after her 100th birthday. 

 

Excerpt from GRANNY D: WALKING ACROSS AMERICA IN MY NINETIETH YEAR by Doris Haddock and Dennis Burke, copyright © 2001 by Doris Haddock and Dennis Burke. Used by permission of Villard Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. 

GO WITH THE FLOW by Karen Wolf

Go with the Flow

My life’s headlines might read like a National Enquirer front page: KILLER BEES ATTACK SAILORS IN VENEZUELAN JUNGLE; HURRICANE FLOYD SWAMPS COUPLE IN NEW JERSEY MARSHES; SOUTH PACIFIC STORM TESTS SAILOR’S SKILLS. Such splashy journalism might reflect a landlubbers view of some of the experiences I’ve weathered in ten years of open ocean cruising. I might even use such headlines to describe some of the events through which I’ve tested my abilities to be fabulously daring while sailing around the world in a 36-foot sailboat. Sure I’ve had some fearful events and lonely hours when I’ve had to find the inner strength to pull through. But the key to all of these adventures was a willingness to change, to leave my safe and comfortable lifestyle, to dare to do something completely different. And all because of a butterfly.

This story starts back in 1993 when I was a 34-year old divorcee, homeowner and landscape architect, contentedly living and working in northern California. Alone, but in a home that I loved and with a job that gave me creative independence. I had a good circle of friends and felt content in my life. I was quick to say “yes”, however, when my folks invited me to join them for a week of time-share vacation on the island of St Marten, an alluring destination in the eastern Caribbean. I was sure to find white, sandy beaches, and a friendship with my parents whom I had seen seldom since their move down south. I hoped the following week to find the crystal blue waters for which the Caribbean is famous on a solo dive adventure to the Virgin Islands.

The time share was a dream hotel with lovely, breezy rooms and a large balcony looking down on the beach of Great Bay. The curving crescent of sand was backed by a multitude of sailboats anchored in the turquoise water, There were daily activities organized Helen, a woman about my age, and she and I established a friendship that went beyond the companionship of the daily events. One night after a catamaran “sunset cruise” she and I joined another friend for dinner and drinks at Chesterfield’s, the restaurant and bar at the marina. After dinner, a rock’n roll dance beat drew our attention to the dockside bar which was crowded with a motley assortment of boatees and water-oriented locals. We sat at the bar, talking, and joining in the revelry of the funky band whose music had everyone in the mood to party. When it came time for an audience-participation number, folks were hooting and hollering, and knocking their beer mugs on the table in beat to the rhythm whenever their group was called out: “all the women clap your hands”, “all you fellows stomp your feet”, “everybody with orange hair swing it to the beat”. Or something like that ( I would have tried to memorize it had I known that it was a song that was bound to change the course of my life.)

The distinguished looking “fellow” to my left kept knocking his glass on the table, no matter which group was being singled-out. Jovially, I turned to him and asked if perhaps I should tell him when to knock.
“‘Schuldigung” he said to me. Obviously, this guy doesn’t speak English.
“Oh, sorry”, I said. “Thought you might need some help interpreting the song, my name is Karen. Where are you from?”
“My name is Horst,” he replied. “I am from Austria and I am here on my boat, waiting for the right weather to cross the Atlantic and return to my home sea, the Mediterranean.”

Our chance encounter at Chesterfields led to an invitation to sail. Of course, since this was a family vacation, my parents had to be included, too. Later, we all had dinner at the timeshare, lunch at a little Chinese Restaurant, a drive around the island in our rental car. It was almost as if Horst was already a member of the family. Sadly, our week together was coming to an end, and I was flying on to the Virgin Islands.

“Don’t fly there, let’s sail there together.”

How could I pass up an opportunity like that? We said good bye to my folks as they flew home, then set sail into the sunset for a nighttime passage to Tortola, BVI. I had sailed the San Francisco Bay a few times with friends, and had done some small-boat sailing on lakes as a kid, but I had never been out at night, out of sight of land, or with anyone who used English as a second language to command our navigation. Some things got lost in translation, but I did learn that “fock” is a German name for sail, and a “sheet” is the rope you use to tighten the fock. Horst and I laughed a lot about the misunderstandings that inevitably occurred in our mixed German-English-Spanish vocabulary, and we spent a delightful week exploring the coastline and diving the rocks and wrecks of the beautiful island waters.

When I woke in my parents house the first night home, the billowing curtains had become sails, the soft spring breeze, a Caribbean caress. But I was back in California. It was time for me to fly north, back to the workaday reality of the real-world.

Horst and I continued our romance by fax, and helped each other rediscover the art of letter writing. It’s interesting what we reveal in the written word. Horst was lonely single-handing his sailboat, but he had decided he really wasn’t ready to return to Europe. Instead, he would spend another year as a charter skipper, sailing with guests from Europe aboard his 36-foot sailboat. I was alone in a big house, working hard to maintain a life in the big city, and wondering what I was doing getting involved with an older man, from a different culture, who lived the life of a gypsy in the eastern Caribbean. Our letters to each other describe such different worlds. Nevertheless, we found ourselves growing closer and more comfortable with each other as we shared funny anecdotes about the events in our lives.

Several months passed and the stack of letters grew taller. I was turning 35, an age at which I had always envisioned myself as being settled, at least married, maybe with a child or two. Instead, I was single with a mortgage and a car that had another year’s worth of payments before it was truly mine. When Horst invited me to spend my birthday sailing the outer islands of Venezuela, I really did have to think twice. It’s not easy acting irresponsibly when you’re almost middle-aged.

I flew into Caracas. Settled high on a plateau where the Andes plunge down to the Caribbean Sea, the city was a striking contrast to the remote, sandy islets of Los Aves, a coral-encrusted natural reserve 80 miles across the sea, which was to be our sailing destination.

We shopped for a few provisions at the local “tienda”, papaya, mango, potatoes, cabbage, onions, garlic and beer. The fish we would catch ourselves. The limited refrigeration meant that anything else would come from a can. We took a long shower at the marina before casting off, because the limited water supply meant that fresh-water showers would be mostly in the rain.

We were heading for virtually uninhabited, barely charted, little specks of land across a deep sea probably infested with pirates, armed with nothing more than a bottle opener and a fishing spear. The weather report mentioned a tropical disturbance east of the area, but that kind of thing is barely noted in Venezuela, where hurricanes are only a little more frequent than snow in the Amazon.

Horst and I spent the days and nights in an intimacy that is rarely found elsewhere; two people alone together on a small, floating platform, surrounded by nothing but water, coral reefs, and an occasional sandy hill. We swam and fished, cooked and talked, made love and talked some more. Days went by without any human contact, only the radio voices that talked about the heavy, windless weather that becalmed us halfway back to the mainland.

When Horst asked if I would like to live with him on the boat, I was both intrigued and uncertain: traveling by boat could be a great way to explore the world, but would I have much opportunity if I were “crew” on a charter boat? Someone has to do all the cleaning, shopping, and cooking. Charter guests are probably interesting to meet, but do I really want to live with strangers for two weeks at a time on a sailboat? And what about when there are no guests, can I live with another person in a place where taking a walk to “cool off” means jumping into the ocean? And what about my house, my car, my job?

I settled on the foredeck of “Flow” in the shade of the sails which were beginning to fill with a freshening breeze, my thoughts filled with the contemplation of the future. What should I do? How could I set aside all that I had worked so hard to achieve for an uncertain adventure? Could I change my lifestyle attitudes to endure moderate deprivation? Our relationship is good now, but what happens when we really get to know each other? As I looked broodingly across my toes at the darkening horizon, a tiny yellow butterfly landed gently on my foot. It shook its wings, silently danced across my toes, and settled down as if for a conversation.

Suddenly, Horst came forward from the cockpit. The voices on the radio were now sounding an alarm. Perhaps, that far-off tropical depression is deepening into a tropical storm. It looks like it is going to hit Caracas. Perhaps it’s headed our way. Perhaps we’d better hurry-up and find a safe place. We started the engine and plotted a course to the nearest port, where I could eventually catch a bus back to Caracas and my flight home. Horst would hurry to the deepest lagoon to secure himself and the boat against the incoming storm.

Six months later, I moved aboard. How long would it last; six days, six weeks, six years? In twelve years we have sailed from Venezuela to Boston, Florida to Panama, San Diego to Tahiti. We’ve lived for a time in Austria, Maryland, and California, and I’ve been blessed to see the world at a truly leisurely pace. We’ve faced many storms together, both physical and personal; the life isn’t always easy, and it’s not for everyone. But I am happy I took a chance to change my life.

I’ll never forget that yellow butterfly. It said, “if butterflies are free, you can be too. Go with the Flow!”

Karen Wolf

 

The cruising life of sailing has taken Karen half way around the world. Currently residing in the “Middle Earth”, Karen has found a community of friends and family in New Zealand that would have remained strangers had she not decided to “go with the flow”.

GOLD MEDAL MERMAID by Kelly Crowley

Gold Medal Mermaid

When you’re the odd kid out at a small Catholic grammar school, you’re destined to get picked last for every kickball game. In my tiny class of 17, the odd kid out was me. I suppose it was not only inevitable, but also a precursor for every success I’ve had. But at the time, it was traumatic, since, as middle-school popularity goes, I had several things going against me.

First, I kind of enjoyed learning, which was completely uncool. I did my homework, I tried to get the right answers, and I refused to let anyone copy off me. Except for the boy I had a crush on. I helped him out once … and then felt incredibly guilty for the rest of the week. I was, undeniably, a goody-two-shoes.

Second strike against me was totally out of my control: my family was not rich. We lived in “that” side of town, or as I like to joke, eight houses and one drug dealer from the freeway. The freeway separated my sleepy, boring town from the crime-ridden city, which would later be called the “homicide capital of the country.” However, there was this handy little footbridge that went up and over the freeway … right at the end of my street. Anyone running from police cars on the other side of the freeway could handily find escape in our neighborhood.

Okay, really, it wasn’t that exciting or dangerous. We neighborhood kids played tag on our front lawns, and careened up and down the block on our bikes. Still, I did not have everyone over for swimming birthday parties in my backyard. The only pool we had was plastic and about 18 inches deep.

Strike three was my arm. My early medical records call my condition “congenital microdactyly.” Yeah, exactly what the Latin says: I was born with a small hand. To be more specific, my right elbow is fused, the bones in my lower arm barely grew at all from when I was a baby, and I have this tiny hand with three little fingers. No one else in my tiny grammar school class had that, and although it made little difference in the early years, by the time we were in junior high, my friends had all abandoned me for the “cool” crowd, which was the rest of the class. And, at the time, I was utterly convinced the reason they all stopped wanting to hang out with me was because of my stupid, ugly, rotten arm. It was, in my young view, the cause of all bad things that happened to me. I would eventually discover that I was totally wrong, but that was my reality at the time.

High school couldn’t come fast enough, as junior high dragged to an end. The last big hurdle before high school was The Eighth Grade Play. This was an honor-laden tradition, at my elementary school. The most popular kids always ended up with the lead roles. It was, I thought, my last chance at redemption, my last chance to prove to all those jerks who picked me last for kickball that I was, too, cool, and perfectly capable of doing anything I wanted.

While most of the previous classes got do actual known theatrical works, we got the less-well-known “Magical Musicals,” which consisted of a seemingly random collection of songs chosen by the music teacher, who was drawing heavily on The Little Mermaid. There was a sprinkling of stuff from Little Shop of Horrors and Les Miserables, but most of it was by Disney.

As the solos got assigned, I sat patiently waiting for mine. I was in the church choir and was feeling confident. After all, I could hear when people around me were singing the wrong notes, when they were off pitch. I could pick out harmonies, and taught myself to read music more or less. Singing was something I could do. But at the end of class, when, as expected, the Queen of the Popular Crowd got the best songs, and the rest of the solos were handed out, I was without one. I was disappointed, but there was a ray of hope.

“That’s it for today,” our teacher said, “but we might add another solo or two. Probably Ariel’s solo from The Little Mermaid. We’ll talk about it next week.”

On our way back to homeroom, I planned. I would have a solo part in The Eighth Grade Play, and then they would have to respect me. I made a mental note to look for my Little Mermaid soundtrack. Of course, I didn’t have to look hard. The soundtrack was in my tape player, of course, since it was, secretly, my favorite movie. A little voice in the back of my head wondered if this really was my ticket to respect, since it was no longer cool to like The Little Mermaid. But I decided to ignore that little voice. If anyone asked how I knew all the words to the song, I could just say, “Oh, it USED to be my favorite movie.”

I dug out pen and notebook, and set the tape deck next to me on the bed. Painstakingly, I hit play, stop, rewind, play, stop, rewind, for what seemed like hours until I had transcribed every single lyric into my notebook. I then spent the next week listening to the song incessantly, memorizing every beat. The next week in music class, I knew I’d get the solo. No one else cares enough, I thought, no one else would work this hard to sing a stupid Little Mermaid song. At that point, it wasn’t about what song I would sing. Clearly, any song was good enough for me, so long as it was a solo.

The next week in music class we practiced and practiced the choral numbers. And we watched some of the soloists prefect their performances. We did that over and over for the next several weeks. I went in there every week, hoping that the teacher would ask for tryouts for the part, but she never asked. “She forgot,” I said to myself one week near the end. “Oh well. High school is almost here. It doesn’t matter.”

In fact, that day, I had other, grown-up things on my mind, like the fact that I had, for the first time, gotten my period. Really, I just wanted to go home. Music class, let alone standing up in front of everyone to sing a song, one I would probably get teased for knowing, was the last, last thing I wanted to do. But it was apparently my fate. I ended up sitting in the exact middle of my classmates when the music teacher asked if anyone knew the words to the Little Mermaid solo. I looked around at my silent classmates. Everyone was looking to see who would put their hand up. No one did, and I finally, sort-of, kind-of half-raised my hand.

“Kelly?” was the surprised response from the teacher. “Um, okay, stand up.”

Before I could think about it, she hit play and I was standing in the middle of my class singing along with Ariel. I finished, and the teacher hit stop. Our gymnasium was awfully silent. Either it was really good or really bad, because no one was even moving. And then it happened.

“That was really good, Kelly,” I heard her voice say. No, not the teacher. The Queen of the Popular Crowd. Relief washed over me, and I totally forgot about wanting to go home.

“Yeah, good job,” several of her minions chimed in.

I did it. See, they did think I was good at something—something other than school. I knew I was good at something, and now they did too, because I finally had the courage to just do what I wanted. I had been true to myself, and I had worked hard. The success of that moment was exhilarating.

That moment was over twenty years ago now, but it is still vividly real in my imagination, and its lesson enduring. In fact, I could have picked a hundred other moments in life when I dared to let Fabulous Me out of the box I tend to keep her in. Like many others, I sometimes hide, or disguise, or misplace the lady I discovered that day in eighth grade. It is a conscious decision to be fabulous, a decision I try to make on a daily basis.

Some days I’m more successful than others. On the really good days, the moments of daring, where I listened to my heart and followed my dreams and my desires, divorced from my inner critic and others’ expectations, my life has shot off like a rocket in exciting and new directions. The results of such forays have been stunning: Valedictorian of my college class and two gold medals in swimming at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. Fabulous Kelly hasn’t failed me yet, and honestly, I don’t think she ever will.

Kelly CrowleyKelly Crowley, a sports fanatic who happened to be born with a “funny right arm,” is a two-time, two-sport Paralympian. In 2012, she raced as a professional cyclist with Primal/Map My Ride Women’s Team, and won two bronze medals in cycling at the London Paralympic Games. Previously, she won two gold medals in swimming at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. Kelly was the valedictorian of her class at Santa Clara University, and has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Today, she is a USA Swimming coach and a sought-after speaker.

HEART by Julia Butterfly Hill

Julia Butterfly Hill and Luna

The root word for courage comes from the French and means “heart.” True courage can only come when we are speaking out or taking action from the heart. For me, this seed of understanding took root and began to grow in December of 1997.

While traveling west with friends, I experienced the ancient redwoods in person for the first time. I was deeply and profoundly touched by their beauty, majesty, and ancient wisdom. I felt like I had walked into the most sacred of cathedrals.

A few weeks later, I found out that over 97 percent of these trees—that grow to be 200 to 300 feet tall and 2,000 to 3,000 years old—have already been logged and that they are continuing to be cut down with highly destructive industrial logging practices. I could not believe this was happening. I felt like I should do something to try to help stop this atrocity from continuing, but I didn’t know how or what to do.

Then, I heard that people were living in trees in order to protect them from being cut down and to try to bring attention to the issue. I thought to myself, “I could do that!” I grew up with two brothers and no sisters, so I knew how to climb trees! I wasn’t quite sure how to be an activist. I wasn’t even sure what that meant exactly. But tree climbing was something I knew how to do, so I volunteered.

When I climbed 180 feet up into the branches of a 200-foot-tall, over 1,000-year-old redwood tree, now known as “Luna,” I thought I would be there for three weeks to a month. It turned out to be over two years, 738 days to be exact, before my feet would touch the ground again. In that time, I faced many challenges that left my heart, spirit, and body broken. There were so many moments where I wanted to give up. Yet every time I felt myself in this space, I would pray and ask for strength. The funny thing is I would always get sent more challenges. Finally, I realized that I was receiving what I had asked for because the only way we get stronger is through exercise, including the exercise of heart, mind, and spirit. Every challenge then became an opportunity for learning and growth.

It was in this way that I realized that every moment, every day, every choice is an opportunity for courage. Every time I choose to act consciously out of my love for my world, no matter what the status quo says, no matter how difficult the choice might be, I am living a life that has meaning, joy, and true power. No matter how dark things in our world seem sometimes, I am the only one who can consciously choose to shine a light of caring, commitment, and courage. It really is a moment, by moment, choice. Yes, we need the “big” acts to encourage and inspire us, but it is only through looking at these as examples to empower ourselves, that we find the extraordinary person that lives within the heart of each and every one of us.

Julia Butterfly HillJulia Butterfly Hill climbed the 1,000-year-old Redwood to stop loggers from cutting it down. Little did she know she’d remain in its canopy, defying the scare tactics of the logging company, for two full years. Julia received international attention and went on to become an international speaker, author, and life coach.