Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The (Almost) Unbearable Littleness of Being

There is a girl in my son's fifth grade class who is, in his words, "going to doing something really amazing in the world someday."  She, let's call her G, is an independent organizer of charity drives and, for her birthday, asks that guests to her party make a donation to her most cherished cause.  This girl runs races and climbs trees and doesn't back down from anything. G is pretty. And she is diminutive, which makes her passion even more endearing.  Yet her size does not detract from what she gets done. 

I've always been little.  My mother said that when she brought me home, it was like carrying a solid little bag of sugar.  I had a fall birthday and, in the absence of preschools in rural Ontario in the early 1970s, went off to proper school at the age of four, where I was not only small for my age but also nearly a year younger than many of my classmates.  Like G, I had gumption, but not nearly so much as she, and often not enough. It certainly was better that I was a girl and cute enough to get by, but for a long time I felt like I was playing a game of catch up.  And no matter how hard I worked, it seemed I saw that aw, shucks, isn't that cute look every time I tried to prove myself.   It made me furious, and when I stomped my little foot things only got worse.

For someone my size, I did make a few inroads into athletics, mostly solo sports since I hated the idea that my littleness would (and usually did) slow down the rest of a team.  Distance running seemed to be about obstinate dedication, and until I ran a joint or two into the ground through over-training, I did rather well.  I managed to get through the time-trials needed to qualify as a lifeguard through the Canadian Red Cross, but it was close, and I'm still not sure the instructor didn't fudge it because, gosh darn it, I was just so cute and plucky.  My limitations were clear quite early: I would never really be an athlete. 

Nevertheless, I have stayed active through my adult life into middle age, save for a couple of years sacrificed to marital dissolution.  I can walk a fast six or seven miles with a 70-pound dog, but running is out of the question if I want to get out of bed in the morning and walk without pain.  But I've never given up on the idea of being seriously fit. A month ago I got a real bike and have been riding it regularly and am building my miles.  This weekend I went out, excited at the prospect of my first summer ride. 

The wind in North Texas, never tame, seems to get stronger the hotter it gets.  The trail ride at 90 degrees for seven miles to the southwest with 20 MPH gusts was a slog, though I kept reminding myself that I, too, get stronger each time I fight it.  Still, when I turned around and started the other way, it was like I was in labor and the epidural had finally kicked in.  The grimaces on the faces of riders meeting me now seemed rather comical, since the bastard was now pushing me along rather than taunting me relentlessly.  Buoyed, I decided to ride home via the prettiest street in Fort Worth, a winding road past a PGA course and perfectly manicured lawns. It's gorgeous and wasn't terribly busy at that time of day. It was giddy fun as I turned onto it, though I was thinking about that hill, easy to drive but now that I thought about it not the best idea on tired legs. 

I made it up the hill.  But at times the wind actually pushed the bike backwards as I ascended.  For all I know, this happens to every rider. But for me, it was as though Mother Nature was giving me a spanking for doing something regular guys do on lots of Saturday mornings. You're small, she said. I'm tough as hell and you won't beat me, said I.  As it was, she made me sit down for two or three minutes beside a professionally-tended flowerbed at the top of the hill, gulping water and air and wondering if it would be okay to lie down under the big live oak inside the gate.  Then I got up and rode home.

This is not really about health, of course.  I could keep up my walking regimen and my hour of core work a week and still be fitter than 90 percent of the US population.  I'm not on The Biggest Loser and trying to transform my life; it's already pretty healthy. 

Nope.  Like everyone in the grips of a midlife crisis (mine at least involves a Trek hybrid instead of a Harley) this is about reinvention.  Finally I want to be that girl who can keep up with the boys, the one who is in the Athleta catalog and knows how to snowboard and surf.  Not the one who woke up after her first day of skiing and thought she'd dislocated her hip.  Not the girl who spent hours, for weeks on end, in her driveway shooting baskets only to learn that to make the team she'd have to play against people who were normal-sized and even tall. 

It's trite to say trying new things keeps one young, yet also true, though more on the flip side. Ads that showcase such pursuits emphasize the fun part of feeling like a kid again, but the truth is that in trying again we remember all of our shortcomings as children and teenagers. That's why most people, other than the ones who grew up skiing and surfing and playing tennis with confidence, don't try novel stuff.  Taking on a new athletic pursuit has brought these feelings up again, and yet all I am really doing is the true work of growing up: acknowledging my limitations and having a fun and fulfilling life in spite of that knowledge.

We all want something, and I want to be taken seriously, perhaps more than anything else. And that's because, due to my size, I feel it's been denied me many times. And yet I don't worry about it much anymore, as experience and age mean that most of the time people look at me quite capable indeed. Also, I can be an overbearing know-it-all at times, so a lot of people who know me know would find this pretty funny. What I do know is that my self-consciousness and overcompensating behavior mostly go away when I am truly engaged. This is what I see in G, and I hope she keeps it.  At some point when doubters look at her and think she's not up to it, cute little thing, she'll go find lots and lots of other people to write checks and fund her cause. And then she'll change the world.

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