Get busy

Let’s all face it: six hours in a car on a highway with a meowing (pleading) cat is not a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Sadly, this was my first Saturday of Thanksgiving break. In an attempt to quell the boredom I listened to a good chunk of the audiobook, “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day” by Mark Batterson. It’s a Christian book, focusing on one tiny verse about chasing lions and how this can be applied in our lives to be better people and better followers of Christ. It was adamantly recommended to me by a few of my friends and I can certainly see why.

I hit a particularly juicy part of the book when Mark gave this little yummy:

The greatest experiences are often the scariest and the scariest experiences are often the greatest.

Pause button. Without moving outside of your comfort zone and facing risks, how do you know what you’re capable of?

Anyone who enters the threshold of my apartment will see the mound of workout DVDs I have. I’m far too lazy to bike alllllll the way over to McComas for some futile ellipticalling while watching “Good Morning America” and “Kelly and Michael”. I’m shameless. Instead I choose things like Insanity where I’m doing burpees until I just want to lay down and die. One thing that is constantly yelled at me through my television speakers is “you have to push past your comfort zone to see results”. But.. but.. I like being comfy! Bring on the sweatpants. It’s a mental battle every time.

I relish running races, not for the 3-6 miles of pavement pounding and dodging in and out of fellow masochists, but for the last 0.1-2 miles. I keep a steady pace through the course, nothing special and making sure I’m not going too fast too early. But when I see that 3 mile (5K) or the 6 mile (10K) sign, it’s time. Book it. It hurts, it is uncomfortable, but this is where I make a difference in my race. I pass people that came too fast out the gate that have nothing left and have that intense rushing sense of accomplishment when I pass the finish line, PR-ing just barely below my goal. It’s a rush. To see results, you have to get off the couch. Push past what you’re comfortable with. Move outside of your norms.

Riding focuses heavily on this concept. Heck, if I never went outside of my comfort zone I would have NEVER gotten on a horse in the first place! That’s 1,000+ lbs of muscle.. and an independent brain operating it. Over the break my sister offered to pay for a lesson with Ashley, the trainer back in Georgia. I spent all morning long in anxious anticipation for my lesson. I knew Ashley was good: she saw idiosyncrasies in my riding habits that were weak. She challenges me to face things that I don’t want to do. To add to this, Spirit gets excessively hot in the ring which means I need to think about fine-tuning myself, mentally keep my nervousness undetectable, and keep Spirit under control. Anxious and tense rider immediately translates into an anxious horse. Pushing outside of my comfort zone paid off. The lesson went extremely well and Ashley made me do some jumping with Spirit that I wasn’t comfortable with. Spirit requires her rider to drive all the way to the base of the jump- she doesn’t decide to jump a few strides out….. Dakota does. Spirit forced me to stay back and wait for the motion. To add to this, Ashley asked me keep my hands open, leaving myself unable to balance using my hands on her neck over the fence. It was uncomfortable but ultimately it was what I needed to shape me into a better rider.

Riding is a lot of “lion chasing”. I see weaknesses that Dakota and I have…. and try to work on them. The moment she shys at something, likely a barrel with an insatiable appetite for equine flesh, I will hustle her little tushy over to it and we spend the bulk of our ride there, desensitizing her. Can it be scary approaching it? Absolutely. Is it comfortable having the beast keeping you from embracing the ground tense up with every muscle underneath your body? Absolutely not. If I didn’t force both of us outside our comfort zone she would never improve.

I’ll never forget the day that Hope galloped for the first time. It was a beautiful spring day, the sun licking the grass as Dakota and I walked out to the coined “galloping field”. My friend Lexi had recently given young Hope a lesson on her mare, Magic, and Hope learned to canter. Lexi had to work, so I was left with Hope and Magic in the field. I had determined my plans to work Dakota on the hills, running up and walking down over and over. Think hill work for runners. Hope nervously asked to try to gallop, something I wasn’t too keen on given the fact that she just learned to canter. I watched her ride around to see how comfortable I would feel endorsing her running full-tilt through a field with Dakota who notoriously tends to lose control at a full gallop. Her attitude tends to catch onto other horses. Hope had a good seat and she was so eager I couldn’t let her down.

Ready, set, GO! Dakota immediately snagged the bit from my hands, hardening her mouth. There was zero chance of me stopping this mare until we reached the top, her “finish line”. I knew she was a good girl and would stop… eventually…  so I relaxed, looking over at Hope on Magic for damage control. I can still see, ingrained in my mind, her smile from ear to ear as she zoomed up the grassy slope without a care in the world. Her fear was overcome with adrenaline and glee. Magic’s tail was straight up in the air and her ears forward as she launched her copper colored body up and up. Reaching the top, both mares snorted loudly as if to let all the other horses know how proud they were of their accomplishment. Hope looked over at me, breathless. “It was like a movie! I.. I was running.. and you.. you were running. And we.. we were GALLOPING!” At the beginning of the day this little girl was scared to canter, and by the end she was galloping. All because she pushed outside of her comfort zone. A small price for a great reward of accomplishment.

Woah. The end to a great gallop.
Nothing is better than a good gallop- scary at first, but the loss of control is so freeing.

Without pushing past these comfort zones we wouldn’t experience the rush of adrenaline as we’re doing something stupid, crossing that finish line, or even seeing our name in print for the first time. Grad school itself is uncomfortable. “Where is my funding coming from? Am I supposed to be researching this much.. or should I do more? Is this pointless? Will my advisor approve? What if I don’t pass prelims? Why did I choose to do this? Is it worth it? What if I FAIL my defense? WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?” These are daily thoughts. Without pushing past the comfort zone, that little paper from the University won’t show up on the wall.

 Get busy living or get busy dying. Andy says these words to his inmate, Red, just before planning his big escape in Shawshank Redemption. Fantastic movie, by the way- highly recommended. Hollywood worlds it so simply, laced with the gorgeous soundtrack to add finesse, but the core message is the same.

If you aren’t living you are dying… living doesn’t happen inside the comfort bubble.

Money or Health?

After watching And the Band Played On I left Torgerson with a weighted mind. The movie was, to be frank, depressing. Dr. Gallo’s behavior of scientific misconduct was detestable, disgusting and what’s worse is that he is still practicing. He is still doing research and getting his name emblazoned on whatever he does or doesn’t do and takes credit for regardless. He does this at the cost of lives to be saved and opportunities for scientific breakthroughs. I left with one, big, blaring question:

When is it okay to put financial gains over the health of people?

The answer is never. It is never okay. Yet we’re doing it now.

It made me think back to my case study for class of Superintendent LaVonne Sheffield. She, unlike supers before her, decided to ban soft drinks in schools of District 205 in 2010 before it became popular. Sheffield, a woman of admitted controversy, notes that she “didn’t do what was popular” she “just did it because it was the right thing to do” based on her interview with me. She was openly criticized for taking valuable funding from vending machine revenues which claimed to pay for school advances like SMART boards (we all remember when those were cool), field trips and supplies. Is this a better option? Is it better to allow, even promote in some instances, children to guzzle sugar in exchange for learning supplies?

I recently watched Weight of the Nation: Children in Crisis (at the Blacksburg library) and I literally sat on my living room floor watching in horror. It’s disturbing. I read the relevant literature all day, every day. Heck, I knew the people talking on the documentary from their articles, but it was completely different hearing the case studies. Seeing those happy go-lucky children distraught by their weight status… something that could be avoided.

Obesity is a widespread epidemic. Until recently we didn’t recognize it as such… only when health advocates realized that it was reaching an epidemic proportion that it became known as a disease. Genetics can be blamed, environment can be blamed… we can point fingers all day OR we can get off our sorry bums and do something about it. We can make policies, we can make lifestyle changes, we can encourage those who need help. Sure, it’s going to cost money. It’s worth it. It will improve the lives those who are affected by the disease and more importantly the lives of children. America’s future. At this rate these children have a lower life expectancy than that of their parents. Money doesn’t trump health. It can’t.

Children are now showing signs of cardiovascular disease. Young little boys and girls are being prescribed statins, going in for blood pressure checks and tested for type II diabetes. This is preventable.

And what are we concerned about? Cost? Their self-esteem? I guarantee having a doctor tell a child to lose weight will hurt much less than having a peer mock them about being “fatty fatty 2×4 can’t fit through the kitchen door”. Can you even fathom what that feels like to an elementary school child?

Young children watch on average about 3 hours of television per day promoting a sedentary lifestyle and mindless eating. Television laced with advertisements from fast food venues which make up the vast majority of food-related ads targeted at children. It is absolutely sick.

Think about it this way, would we rather spend federal dollars preventing obesity or treating it? Either way, it’s going to cost us.

Honey or Vinegar

“Invite her to move to the right”. Surprisingly this isn’t something I would hear in a social situation, but instead in a riding lesson. The concept of the overused metaphor of getting more flies with honey applies only too well.

Rarely will an equestrian ever hear, read, or talk about demanding or commanding actions from their horses. The proper verbiage is always to ask, request, and invite desired responses. The latter approach nearly always yields some kind of positive reaction, while the former ends in battle.

Horses have very distinct personality types. Spirit, my first mare who currently lives in Georgia, is a good horse and listens very well. However, the way I approach requesting actions of Spirit is different than Dakota. When I get frustrated with Spirit and reprimand her, she fights back. She’ll usually toss a few bucks or give a threatening leg kick like a mini-tantrum but will comply. Dakota, on the other hand, will completely shut down with an overwhelming reprimand. Dakota, of course, has her very own and very different personality. The best horse description I could muster is a right-brained extrovert.(

Before getting Dakota I had never worked with a horse with her personality type. She is extremely willing to please, and gets very frustrated when she doesn’t understand what her handler is asking. I have to be methodical in my rides and excruciatingly clear with my aids (cues) what I am asking of her. I cannot ask too much at once, she gets overwhelmed and will act out from frustration… often shutting down. Whips don’t go over well with her. She doesn’t understand crime and punishment in a simple fashion, she operates far better from crime, try number two, and THEN punishment. She works well on the warning system: just like when mom starts to count “1-2-3-4..” and you know all hell is breaking loose on 5, Kota knows that a nasty noise from me will end in a smacking unless the behavior is preemptively corrected. Iron fist, velvet glove.

2013-11-16 08.31.58
This head position is the product of polite and short requests for Dakota to “give” to the bit, yielding when she obliges. When a rider is too heavy-handed and yanks on the horse’s mouth it can make the horse resist the pressure. This typically ends in head-tossing or leaning on the rider’s hands…. a battle.

However nervous or touchy she may be, I still have to assert myself when I handle her. I’m a mere 10% of her body weight, have nowhere near her muscle power and she can make the most of that. Lucky for me, she’s the horse version of the goodie-two-shoes, brown nosing, boy crazy, high school honors kid. All it takes is a polite request for her to move her body backwards to show her that I’m boss and can make her move on command. She immediately starts to chew, a sign that she is listening. Easy: I can get her attention with honey. I don’t need the vinegar.

Isn’t this the approach we should take to altercations in our lives? We need to be understanding, kind, and very slow to pull out our artillery. People are naturally more attracted for reinforcement, not punishment. Sometimes in a disagreement it’s so easy to lose our cool and overreact, igniting the situation even further. Take a step back, calmly approach the other person and use a positive outlook.

A great example? Customer service. Think about trying to use a little honey next time, it might be the only happy customer they have all day. Would you rather help someone who using kind words or someone yelling obscenities? I’d be a horrible customer service rep- I’d hang up on all the Negative Nancys.



Define me, DEFINE ME!

Those of you avid FRIENDS fans know exactly what the title refers to. Those of you who are not, I’m sorry. You’re really missing out.

Self confidence. Adolescents want it, adults should have it, and a lot of people need it. It’s not easy to come by as so many people aren’t fully aware of who they actually are. A little quote from Aladdin is genie oh-so-eloquently telling the prince impersonator to “beeeeeeee yourself!” in his best bumble-bee impression. I’ve heard this little phrase told to so many school-age children and it’s true: being yourself is the best thing that you can do. However, looking back on high school, I had no idea who I was. How could I be confident in someone I didn’t know?

I did some learning as I got involved in a sorority in college (not my choice), went on a study abroad (definitely my choice), and met some incredible people. I had some… experiences in college. I’m talking quality tell-your-grandkids-one-day experiences.

Through some incredible blessings I ended up working for the program that introduced me to New Zealand which enabled me, several years later to embark on a haphazard trip to the country I hold so close to my heart. Enter solo tour de New Zealand.

A week alone in a foreign country driving a van around on the wrong side of the road is scary. I won’t lie. There were times when I missed home and was lonely but there were also times when I met fascinating people, had unforgettable experiences and really learned about myself. It sounds like some cheesy line from a preteen movie starring Hillary Duff (I think I just dated myself), but it’s true. I think everyone could seriously benefit from a solo vacation. I had little contact with home as I was limited to internet only at McDonalds (the only free internet in NZ), maintaining a blog so my parents knew I wasn’t maimed in a gutter somewhere. I gained self confidence. In fact, I got so comfortable driving those long stretches through cattle country that a speeding ticket was waiting for me at home. Turns out those “abandoned” bits of highways were littered with cameras. Silly kiwis.

I believe that it was during that trip that I really understood that my faith is everything (there were some sketchy holiday parks I stayed in… sorry mom… truth’s out), I can actually trust myself, and that New Zealand is the most beautiful country on earth. Also, racing standardbreds is pretty stinking awesome.

Racing standardbreds with some friends I had met… 15 minutes beforehand.
Cape Reinga: truly the most beautiful place I've ever been
Cape Reinga: truly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been

I’m not a psychologist. I’m not even close. I enjoy observing people and trying to find meaning behind their actions. I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt in any given situation when an ulterior motive is easy to see. I think a lot of issues that people have can boil down to one thing: lack of self confidence. If you don’t trust the one person you have to spend the rest of your life with, who can you trust?

Self-confidence is something that is so integral to riding. If your horse lacks confidence, as so many green (inexperienced) horses do, you have to compensate and build their confidence.

An article I read earlier this week brought this to the forefront of my mind. William Fox-Pitt (Phelps of the riding world) wrote about how important rider confidence is over fences. Without it, a green horse and rider sans confidence combo would never succeed. Dakota didn’t know how to handle fences at first. She was timid, shy, and didn’t know if she could do it. The first time I showed her a jump in the roundpen she looked at me, questioned the obstacle and asked “seriously?! what do I do with THIS?!” before I ushered her over.

What. Is. THAT.
One ear hearing the cluck, the other fixated on the mini-jump.

She wasn’t trying to be bad by refusing them but she didn’t know she had it in her. It was a tough time for me starting her out: I’m not a confident jumper. I’m the first to immediately think of the “what ifs”, “worst case”, see ambulance lights flashing in my head and think of the metallic taste of blood as I approach a jump. I had to build my self confidence to build hers. Working gymnastics (think: multiple jumps in a row) was hilarious with her. She would approach the line, wiggle her rear, look for ways out as if to say “I can’t. I can’t! I don’t know how! WHERE DO MY LEGS GO?!” Honestly the first few gymnastics combinations were something out of gumby where each leg protruded in a different direction but she survived. She eventually figured out how to handle herself and that she could do it. These little challenges built her confidence and mine.

It was a struggle, we still have refusals (today we had no fewer than 4- barrels eat horses!), but she now loves to jump… almost too much. Few things in my riding career are more satisfying that pointing her at a fence, seeing her ears lock, feeling her back end hunker down, and her taking control over the fence as if to say “don’t worry- I got this.. watch”. She’s developed her confidence and it has made her an incredible jumper. She surprised me on the cross country course at Green Hill Park this past weekend. I pointed her at a fence I was nowhere near confident about: it was straight uphill and I knew it would take a lot of power to get her over. It was a solid jump, wide, but not tall. She carried us through it. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever approached a fence, been completely unsure, and she compensated for both of us.

I really doubted her- but she took control and mastered it!

Self confidence, if out of control it can be dangerous. It can lead to arrogance, abrasiveness and can easily turn people off. However, with the right amount of self confidence we can take insults with stride, realize that we can’t please everyone and be okay with it. I’m going to be who I am and say what I think (tactfully I hope). I’m not going to be afraid to stand up for what I believe in. I’m not going to be afraid to speak up for what is right. I know who I am, I know what I represent, and I’m not ashamed.


Joy in Suffering

Recall the last time you had a victory. Were there challenges that you faced before relishing in the glory of your success? Were their failures? I’d be very willing to bet that there were. Victories are so much sweeter when we faceplant (for horse people this is very literal), pick ourselves back up, try again and succeed.

It’s joy in the trials and the suffering that make the successes worth it. Without trials we have no real success.

I thought about this concept on my run the other morning. Naturally, I chose the bloody coldest morning I could, and opted to do a 5.5 mile run in the 20 degree chill. The sun barely peered over the mountains, shining on the stadium as I was halfway to my turnaround. I naturally, being from Georgia, hate cold. Adding fuel to my cold-hating fire, I have a circulation disease, raynauds, which makes cold weather (already miserable) excruciatingly painful. Under 50 degrees it’s almost a guarantee that I’ll have an “attack” and in 20 degrees I just waited for the familiar hand-in-car-door-slam sensation as my hands lost all functionality. The only resolution for the issue is applied heat, usually running hot water over my hands until they gain color again. No, gloves don’t help. It’s a challenge. As horrific as it was, it seemed to make my run just that much more rewarding when I finished. Maybe I was just excited about the hot coffee waiting at home, but I felt like I not only pushed myself through 5.5 miles of pavement, but I had other hitches to get through to do so.

My struggles with Kota similarly make the successes more rewarding. Dakota is a mare, and this means lady-times of the month (or when other mares go in heat, when the wind blows, when the weather changes, when I look at her funny… all the time). You ladies reading this can fully understand the life-altering mood swings that come with being female. My half-ton fuzzy beast is no different. This creates a “roulette” every time I go to the barn. Having been isolated from other horses most of her life, she cycles frequently (try every two weeks) and when she does, it’s dramatically changes my mellow mare into a vicious beast hellbent on killing everyone around her. I can sympathize. However, in this challenge, once I manage to get a saddle on without being kicked, bitten or maimed, she is stellar at jumping. On these days, when some devoted gelding owners (castrated males- very consistent, straightforward attitudes) would give up, her jumping aptitude really shines. These are the days I set the bars high and gun it- she has no hesitation. Advantages in the disabilities.

We also participated in our first eventing (dressage, showjumping, cross country- see “Rolex Eventing“… those riders are crazy) a couple weekends ago. She immediately went into heat, distracted by everything (every horse) around her. Our dressage test was bucking.

Our dressage test- gymnastics is not an equine sport... Kota thinks different.
Our dressage test- gymnastics is not an equine sport… Kota thinks different.

I was scared to embark on the cross country course and was fully planning on scratching- until we did showjumping where she excelled. The end result? We, despite the hormonal challenges, completed the course and placed third. Not too shabby.

Jumping- no problem. Bring on the cross country!
Jumping- no problem. Bring on the cross country!
Final result- after all the challenges!
Final result- after all the challenges!

Similarly, we can be more appreciative of blessings in our lives when we have hardships.  My brother, Bill, is a story of this.. brace yourself, it’s a long one.

This past fall of 2012 was a weird time. Just plain weird. On a typical Sunday, my parents called at 11:15, their normal time. I knew something was wrong- there were awkward pauses, stutters, and “um”s. I supposed the worst and I was close. “Bill is in the hospital. Last night he had a diabetic hypoglycemic episode. He was without oxygen… we don’t know how long. He’s alive. He’s still in a coma. We’re on our way to see him.” This wasn’t a shock to me. Not even a little bit. Bill has always lived recklessly, and as a diabetic who enjoys smoking, drinking, eating the wrong things, the list continues- I was waiting for this. I was ready. But what came of this incident, no one could have predicted.

Bill spent the next 2+ months in a coma. He had no signs of life, the respirator and other machines keeping him alive. I was on funeral call. Every time my phone rang I was ready to hear “Come home. It’s time”. I was a shell, a robot, going through the motions and trying not to think about what was going on at home. The distance made this admittedly easy for me to do.

I never realized how much I loved my brother until he was taken from me. Miraculously, as we began to talk about the dreaded “quality of life” (we all know what this means), he started to wake up. My oldest brother, Frank, would send me videos of Bill squeezing his hand. I would watch these over and over until I had them memorized. He would blink, turn his head, say nonsensical words. Even the most prized paintings in the Louvre wouldn’t come close to how amazing I thought Bill eating applesauce was. These 5 second videos made my days. I would enthusiastically share with my small group “HE BLINKED TODAY!!” or “He squeezed my dad’s hand!”. I’m in awe of how events like these can truly make us realize what gifts we have. He remained in the hospital for a time, and had access to a phone. He called one night, his brain clearly having been affected by the incident, and he said “I love you” at the end of the call. I’d never heard those words come from him sincerely. I can’t describe how that felt. I managed to squeak out a “Iloveyoutoobye” before sobs came, I couldn’t hold myself together anymore. It was real.

Eventually Bill went home. Thanksgiving was weird. Bill wasn’t the Bill I remembered. He was grumpy, mean, inappropriate, slow to think, slow to speak, and just angry. Think about a very crotchety old man- furious with the world. The sarcastic, witty, funny brother I once had has turned into a shell of his former self. The incident change him, but saved his life. I can see improvements. He’s still wildly inappropriate in the things he says but I know the whole affair saved his life from himself. Through this incident I have had the biggest blessing, my family has grown so much closer together and my brother is alive. He’s alive. He doesn’t smoke or drink anymore. He’s finally gaining weight back. He’s not perfect, but he’s alive. It’s a victory, a huge victory. A victory we didn’t even know would come until the accident happened.

Bill and his daughter, Kara. Unbelievable.
Bill and his daughter, Kara. Unbelievable.

I didn’t think that he would change. I thought his reckless actions would kill him. I didn’t think he would outlive my grandmother. He has. It’s not perfect and I won’t pretend it is. We still struggle and I’m not so sure that will ever stop. I won’t retract counting him as a blessing… no matter how irritated I get with his behavior.

My purpose in describing this event? You absolutely can’t take anything for granted. I’m fully aware that tomorrow I could die. Heck, I could die in the next five seconds. I don’t have control over this. And it’s okay. Isn’t that where the beauty in all this comes from? It’s the hardships that make everything so much more valuable, beautiful, meaningful.

I treasure my ability to run so much because I’ve had it taken away so many times. It seems like every fall from Kota has been a set-back, one kept me from running for a solid year and then some (hamstrings are actually necessary). I got the “invincible” mindset and God had to bring my head back to earth. According to my mother this happens far too often.

It’s important to relish the challenges we’re given because ultimately we will succeed if we try. It’s imperative to be thankful for the little blessings, hardships and everything in between. There is a time to lament, but there’s also a time to be grateful for the changes that can come from the tough times. Be thankful for what you have, what you’ve been given, and you’ll see that it’s so much easier to have a positive attitude. Hardships lead to something so much better than we could fathom.