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Rowing my millionth meter might not seem like such a milestone to some people. The meter count is a ‘lifetime,’ or however long you’ve been using your Hydrow, total. I’ve never actually rowed on the water or with other people. I’ve never competed. So, I wanted to try to explain how significant this mile stone is for me. As I mentioned, I’ve never been successful at gym memberships, or running, or anything really that involves exercise where I can be seen. As I’ve rowed this last two years and tried to pick out just exactly what it is about it that I have loved, I had an intense realization. I love it, because I can do it alone in my basement, but the athletes and their location make me feel like I am not alone. I can do my workout, feel like a part of a team, and yet, no one can see me.
So much of my recovery from my marriage, and healing from life in general, has been about how feeling invisible wounded me, and how important it has been to let myself be seen and to learn to really see myself. It might seem contradictory for me to be so in love with an activity precisely because it allows me to remain unseen. The dichotomy of my life has always been a sense of invisibility among those who I most long to really see me, and a deeply uncomfortable hypervisibility in public. The sexualization of young girls and fatphobia compounded in my life and created a deep need to control as much as possible how my body shows up in public.
I didn’t have the language to understand it or describe it, but I was about 10-11 years old when I realized my body was no longer my own. Here is a picture of me in that time frame, 1983-4. My family had just moved across the country, leaving all our extended family in Minnesota. All of our belongings packed into a Chevy Malibu station wagon and the trailer my dad built to pull behind it, we left International Falls and headed west. My dad drove the whole way, I don’t remember much about the trip, except that every afternoon we’d stop at some diner for my parents to get coffee and I’d get a piece of pie. I’d always order cherry, because it was my favorite. When I look at this picture, I see what a child I still was. My legs still seem long and like I might get some good height, but I stopped growing taller not long after this. I hit about 5’4″ in 6th grade and just stayed there. It was the year I got those glasses, so it likely felt like some kind of miracle to be able to sit so far way from the TV and still see. The other thing happening in my body, though and you can see that as well in this picture, is that I’d started developing breasts. By they end of this year, I’d be wearing a bra at least one cup size bigger than my mothers.
It was this point that the adults around me started talking about my body. Well intentioned, or at least neutral observations about how early I’d started developing, but also ribald jokes about what such an early start might mean. Just how big would my breasts get? It was also at this point that older kids started commenting on my body in ways I didn’t understand. I remember, being at the school playground one afternoon. I’d either walked back down there to play by myself, or stayed afterschool for a while. I was mostly alone on the playground when two ‘older’ (maybe sixth grade, boys) came to the playground. We were all on some sort of climbing contraption, jungle gym style thing talking, when the tone shifted and they started asking me if I liked cherry pie and if I had some. Remember, that detail about afternoon stops on our trip out west? That was my only understanding of what cherry pie could be. So, I was confused and more than a little frightened by their tone and questioning. It felt like taunting. I knew some how it was about me, about my body, but didn’t understand. I don’t remember how I got out of that situation. I think I just walked away and went home. Given our ages, I am not entirely sure they even fully knew what they were talking about.
By the spring of 1987, I am pretty sure I’d outgrown all the estimates about how far my breasts would develop. Yes, that’s me in the red shirt, with the most terrible hair, but isn’t terrible hair a requirement in 8th grade? By this point, I’d started to understand what made me uncomfortable about the comments and jokes that had progressed to observations about how I must get black eyes when I ran. The boys at school would snap my bra strap, or find some other way to tease me about my breast. I don’t even recall what they would say. My most vivid memory is standing in a biology classroom with some popular boy in front of me, in my space, and asking something I knew to be rude and crude. Again, I don’t remember my reaction, other than my silence and my face burning. This is also the point in time where I know I began to think of myself as big or fat. I began trying to hide my body in the loosest clothes possible.
By high school, that girl in the white shirt, front center in the bottom row, knew she was fat. The social pressure to be thin had kicked in and she knew that her shirts had to be a certain length to help hide her fatness. She’d had plenty of crushes, but very few serious boyfriends and hadn’t really done anything more than kiss a boy. Only one of those boy friends had been from our actual school. The rumor mill, though, it constantly vacillated between the competing theories that I was a lesbian or I was pregnant. I neve could figure that out.
By this point the boys had stopped snapping bras, but the random catcalls on the street had started. The jokes among the adults had changed to innuendos about what would happen when I started dating. Everyone around me was always talking about my body, and I was never allowed to be comfortable in it.
In 1989-90, when I absolutely should have rocked this Wynona Ryder, Heathers, look for Halloween, I never would have dared! This year, though, for my friend’s 80s themed fiftieth birthday party, I dared, even though now I am actually fat. I am small-fat for sure, but still fat. (Small-fat is a fat person who can still wear standard sized clothing.) Daring to choose this outfit that accentuates my breasts and doesn’t hide my fat, and wearing it to the party, demonstrate just how much I have learned to love and accept myself. How I am willing to step out into the world that may invite the comments I have been trying dodge and ignore my whole life.
Many factors play into the fact that I dared to rock this outfit to that party, but my rowing journey is absolutely a huge part of that. Yes, my body had changed a bit over the past two years. I wear slightly smaller sizes. My always already good blood pressure has gone down and is even better, but the weight on the scale at the Dr.s office hasn’t changed much at all. Finding an exercise I enjoy, and that I can do without feeling like I am on display. Has given me the perspective and the strength to resist the incessant fatphobia of American culture and to give myself the compassion and love that everyone deserves. Celebrating my 1M meters, publicly and loudly, means so much to me, because it feels like making my body mine again.
I am still not joining a gym or running in public though. 😉
Two years ago, at 47 years old, I took a very expensive gamble on myself. After a lifetime of signing up for YMCA or gym memberships and not using them, or using them only once or twice, and of getting pilates videos, hand me down eliptical machines, and treadmills and then not using them, I bought myself a rowing machine. All through 2020 lock down, I’d seen the Hydrow ads popping up in my social media feeds and thought I would like it. One look at the price, though, immediately put the brakes on any impulse purchases. At that point I didn’t even have a couch yet, I certainly wasn’t going to buy fitness equipment. About a year later, though, couch in place, the world still reeling from Covid, still vascilating between locking down and opening up, I took the plunge and finally order the machine and the whole kit that came with it. (In for a penny, in for a pound.)
I started rowing and within a week of doing those 15 minute sessions nearly every day, I knew this was different. For the first time in my life, I’d found an exercise I loved. From the moment I saw the first ad, I knew the rhythmic nature of the movement was going to appeal to me. Although I do love the rhythmic nature of the rowing, I don’t think any other machine would have captured my heart in the same way. After my intitial Hydrow sticker shock, I looked at sever other machines and seriously debated getting a different model. I am so glad I didn’t though. Look at my face in that picture, after just one week of rowing! I love rowing with Hydrow, because I workout with athletes who are on the water. I see really beautiful places from around the world as I row in my basement. The athletes are genuine and caring. They are motivational as they guide us through workouts and are so clearly working out themselves. When we finish a challenging workout, the athletes are just as sweaty and winded as I am.
Hydrow also motivates users by offering prizes for milestones. After rowing my first 100,000 meters, I got a water bottle, for 250,000, 500,000, and 750,000 meters I got different pairs of socks with the meter totals on the toes. Sure, I paid for those prizes with my monthly subscription fee and sweat, but they were hugely motivating for me. Like I said, I’d never had a workout stick before, I didn’t necessarily know how to set goals, not realistic ones that didn’t involve some kind of weight loss or change in body composition. From the beginning, my only goal was to be stronger and more fit. They are admirable goals, but not exactly measurable. They don’t necessarily allow you to see progress. My hydrow rewards helped me learn how to set smaller goals, ones that I could track and see.
Once I hit 100,000, I knew I was going for the Million Meter club. I didn’t really talk about it until after I made 750,00, but then it became real to me. It wasn’t an ephemeral goal. It was reality, because I already knew I could row the 250,000 meters to get from one goal to the next. “When I hit 1M meters, I’m going to … ” was my new language. It took almost exactly two years from my first row, but yesterday I DID IT! I rowed my one millionth meter. I may have a new definition of what constitutes sweaty, but rowing still makes me smile.
When I realized, after my work out on Wednesday, that I would meet this milestone yesterday, I went back and found my first row summary in order to make this comparison. Of course, once I finished yesterday’s workout, I immediately pulled together this lay out of pictures and blasted it all over my social media, and texted all my friends who wouldn’t see it through public channels! There will also be a party later, in about a month I think. Maybe sooner, now that I have made the mile stone; we’ll see how I feel and how it comes together.
As you can see in the comparison, my million meter row was also the final row of a Spring Training Camp designed to help improve speed. In the fall/winter of 2021, I did the Endurance Training camp which it January of 2022 culminated in a 60 minute row. This spring, as I struggled to get back into the routine and habit of rowing regularly, I decided to give the Sprint Camp a try. It was a real challenge for me, another much smaller gamble on myself, because I really didn’t like rowing at high speeds like 30 strokes per minute (s/m). Five or six sessions in, I almost gave up on it. But, I stuck with it. So, yesterday, in one workout, I accomplished not one, but two rowing goals.
Serendipitously, it was also the perfect row in which to do this. You see, it isn’t just the rhythmic nature of the row that appeals to me, it is also the synchronicity. The way that matching up with the athlete allows you to forget about the big elements of the stroke: legs, core, arms, arms core, legs, and lets you focus on the details: relaxing your shoulders, hands, and face, keeping your posture, breathing. I enjoy working out with all the Hydrow athletes, but matching with some is easier for me than matching with others. For this workout Laine and I gelled. I don’t think my eyes ever really left her hands as she guided me through three 8 minute intervals. I’d turned off the leader board and purposefully ignored all my other metrics, because I knew that if I looked I’d constantly be worried about meeting the distance to make it to 1M. Laine is always super encouraging and breaks down segments so well, but this time the only thing I really remember her saying is, “Repetition breeds confidence.”
I’m fairly certain that anyone who knows me has seen the truth of that statement over the last two years. Repetition bred confidence in my stroke. Legs, core, arms, arms, core, legs sounds simple and straight forward enough, but takes longer than you might expect to really get the hang of. Repetition bred confidence in my persistence. At one point I had a 70 week streak going (meaning I’d worked out at least once a week for 70 weeks). Repetition bred confidence in my recovery. Throughout the hard workouts of both of training camps, I maintained a steady “every-other-day” routine and trusted my body would be ready for the next one. Repetition bred confidence in myself. Sitting down to row, even when I did not want to row, making time to row, even when I did not want to row, taught me how to prioritize myself. Meeting those milestones, using sweat and time to earn my socks, taught me how to manage stress and my mental health.
I am stronger, in every way possible, at 49 than I have ever been in my life. And, in the next post, I will try to explain why and how it took me so long to get to this point. This post is just about the celebration, about the smile on my face after nearly every row, and about how I am so much closer to my RAD friend, who has been my accountability buddy on every step of this journey. Her encouragement has been fundamental to my persistence and success. It’s about looking at the change in my average split from 3:54 to 2:32 and viscerally feeling that progress.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit discusses the captivity narratives of the early American colonizers Cabeza de Vaca, Mary Jemison, and others. She is concerned with the captives who adapted, who created and stayed in the homes and lives they made inside these new cultures. She talks about the psychological and cultural metamorphoses that these transitions required. And, she discusses the way we perform these metamorphoses all the time. We grow, we change, without necessarily noticing.
“Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar, if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment.”
This slow and incremental, every day change she calls a psychological metamorphosis. The captives she describes as having to go through a cultural metamorphoses, which she describes as “something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life.” The caterpillar doesn’t just magically reform into a butterfly, its body must first disintegrate, decay to feed the emerging creature. Solnit says “We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.” In this book about getting lost, about losing oneself, I see Solnit’s point about the total transformation necessary to adapt so wholly to a new culture that you can’t return to your old one.
My desks always start out neat, organized, a clear space to work. As that work progresses the piles of things in progress develop, bills to pay, tax documents to be filed, books to be referenced or read, mementos pile up. The pink beanie baby bear a secret admirer gave me before I left my Haggen’s job. The stuffed lamb a dear friend gave me to keep me company during my hospital stay. Pictures I discovered going through my memory shoe boxes. These days three selves stare back at me from those pictures; and I am all of them and none of them.
A card the friend made for me, “The Three Faces of Brandy Brown (Seductress, Seductee, Seduced).” Two of the pictures cannibalized, probably by the ex-DH for one of his last minute birthday projects where sentimentality was supposed to make up for the lack of forethought. The picture of me, the Seductress, the only one remaining. Me hugging a good friend, chin to my shoulder, grinning, looking at the camera as if I’m daring it to try capturing all of me. The moment I thought I had emerged, newly formed, newly named, newly married and ready to unfurl my painted wings.
The photo-booth roll of Ouiser and I on a conference trip to San Francisco: our sunglasses on, laughing, having such a good time. I can’t remember if this would have been before or after our encounter with the Bushman, the street performer, or the one footed pigeon I named Percy. That was a very full day. In the third picture down we are both have our sunglasses up and are captured mid-laugh, and I honestly don’t know that there is a happier picture of me anywhere. This is the moment before, before the decay. Before grad school began the deconstruction and reformation of herself. Before the stroke. Before the unraveling.
Finally, the oldest. The snap shot of me at nine, though even then I looked old for my age, standing up from a picnic table, looking back over my shoulder as my Grandma Nina looks at me. My hair pulled tightly into a pony tail. My bangs the perfect length. I don’t remember the event or where the picture is taken, nothing seems familiar. I remember the shorts set I am wearing being one of my favorites, and that this was probably one of the last times I was able to wear it before outgrowing it. I know I kept the picture partly because of the amazing tan I have. I spend all of my Western Washington high school summers chasing this tan.
Judging from the timing, this picture was probably taken at some kind of going away event before we moved west. Maybe that explains my expression, the sadness in my eyes, though I don’t think that is it exactly. That girl has no idea where she will end up, no idea how far away from that tiny northern Minnesota town she will travel literally and figuratively. All that girl has ever known is growing up in a trailer, then a cabin, finally a house in town, parents who scraped by, aunts, uncles, and cousins babysitting, hotdishes to make meals stretch(tuna noodle, spam, and wild rice), and never really fitting in. Always being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart. She doesn’t know that this is beginning of a period of decay and withdrawal. She doesn’t know this is where her family changes. This is where she will say goodbye to grandparents, where Aunts, uncles, and cousins will become strangers, where her home will become an awkward place, an outgrown garment.
However, it is also where she will learn to move, to grow, to re-build that family wherever she is at. It is where being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart are the things that will sustain her. They are the things that will get her out of that west coast version of the Minnesota town. The things that will make her a reader, teach her how to make friends, and help her survive this move and all the rest. Every way that she didn’t fit will help her survive her marriage and divorce, help her earn her Ph.D., and give her the courage to face every new thing: illness, job, town, house. She may have outgrown that northern Minnesota life, but with every metamorphosis she steps further into the life that does fit. A life in which she is no longer too much and always enough.
Recent events led me to think about how much my life has changed in the last three years. Last week I completed my first ever submission review for a journal. Since graduating in May, I think it was one of the first activities to make me really feel like a professional. Yes, there have been other moments, but in many ways I’d settled back to live as usual, so I’d stop feeling the wonder of actually being finished.
The other day I went to the library to pick up a book for a new project. I pulled out my school ID card and, before putting it back, actually looked at the picture. The picture has always been a little dorky. The day before I started work Ouiser’s cat scratched my eye lid, so I had an extra bag or two under one eye. Also, for some reason I wore my hair in a way that I almost never did.
It’s hard to get a decent picture of a picture of an ID card, but I think you get the point. Looking at that picture I was struck by the thought it was taken only three years ago. In many ways the last three years have felt like ten. I hardly recognize this picture.
For comparison, here’s a picture of me from today. It’s my post-hair cut selfie in the car.
The change is more than just the Ph.D. or the haircut. I probably can’t really explain it, because it is all of that and more. It’s the Ph.D., the hair, the tattoo, and even my willingness to take and post after haircut selfies. All of which are probably just expressions of how I’ve become more comfortable with myself.
This week in The Malarkey Bin I followed a link to this article about Why I Can’t Afford Not to Go to Planned Parenthood. It is a powerful, required reading post that also inspired me to tell my own Planned Parenthood story.
In a way my story is a success story. There was a clinic in my home town. It was accessible, and I didn’t have to negotiate protesters or strict security to get to my appointment. It was the early 90s, and the thought that there had been a time when women weren’t able to take control of their health care amazed me. Yes, I was more than a little naive … give an 18 year old a break.
According to Wikipedia in 2010 my hometown had a population of 16, 896 people. Sounds about right, I’d be willing to bet there were a few more when I was growing up, maybe around 18,000? The population isn’t as important as knowing that our town was poor. Built up around an industry that has been dying since before I was born, the town was small, without a lot of diversions for kids. Once you got your license the first thing you did was drive 50 miles east to the State Capital to start hanging out at the mall there, or 20 miles west to the beaches. We may have grown up in the twin shadows of Ted Bundy, he had allegedly tried to pick up a friend’s mom in a bar, and the Green River Killer, still active north and east of us, but I would argue we were the last of a generation of free range kids. From the moment I moved there when I was 10 I was walking all over town. Either 6 blocks from our apartment to the public library, or the longer mile to my elementary school every morning. Before my friends and I got our driver’s licenses, and even after, we would walk all over town.
So, while it wasn’t all terrible, for the purposes of this tale the best image to leave you with is this: when I first heard of the alleged Pregnancy Pact in Gloucester, Ma., the only thing that surprised me about the story was that it happened somewhere other than my home town. Even when I graduated, I’m pretty sure no one got out of our high school without knowing at least one person who had gotten pregnant before graduation. Before I got out of the town for good, the age at which girls were getting pregnant just seemed to be getting lower. My brother, sister, and I joke that the greatest accomplishment in our family was all three of us getting out of that place without having a kid before we were 18. We don’t make that joke at anyone’s expense, many of the young parents we know are some of the best parents we know, and when you are young in our home town there is not a lot to do outside the backseat of a car. If it weren’t for the Planned Parenthood clinic in our town, I don’t think I could even estimate the number of teen pregnancies we would have seen in my high school.
Right now, you are probably imagining a much different story than the mundane one I am about to tell. Although I’d contemplated it for a couple of years before, it wasn’t until I had graduated from high school that I visited our clinic. The funniest part about high school for me was that by the time I graduated I knew that at least twice rumors had spread that I was pregnant, and at least once there was a conflicting rumor that I was a lesbian. It was all amusing to me because I was pretty sure I was the only person I knew not sexually active.
What lead me to Planned Parenthood? I’d read that when a woman turned 18 she needed to have her first Pap Smear, so I made an appointment. I also wanted birth control pills to regulate my periods and alleviate my cramps. My cramps were so bad that I routinely took 3 – 4 Advil at a time just to get through the days that I had them. I was still working part time at a grocery store without health benefits. Planned Parenthood was the only place I could afford to go for standard health care. My story isn’t dramatic, but illustrates a point often lost in the current war on reproductive rights.
Planned Parenthood is essential to all aspects of women’s health care.
What is your Planned Parenthood story?