Undiscovered Biathletes

I didn’t start running until I was 30, and I didn’t start running on purpose — it was sort of an unexpected side effect of quitting smoking and deciding to move my body more.  I ran around the track once at the gym, tasting it, found I didn’t keel over and die, and three years later, ran a very respectable first marathon.

The huge revelation of the long-distance running epoch in my life (which only lasted about 6 years, until I damaged my knee) was that I was kinda good at it.  Completely inexplicably, I — bookish, non-athletic, one-time-roll-your-own-cigarette-smoker I — was a pretty good long-distance runner, with personal bests that I still don’t quite believe.

(That’s me in the middle, at mile 18 of the Boston Marathon, 11 years ago.  Don’t I look perky?  And THIN?)

I realized then that most of us are probably stuffed with undiscovered talents — it’s just never occurred to us to do the thing that we might have a knack for.  I started thinking of this as the Undiscovered Biathlete Theory — until it occurs to you to cross-country ski hard then drop to your knees and fire a rifle, how do you know that you COULDN’T do it?  (I have a secret belief that I’m secretly quite a good biathlete — if only I’d been born in northern quebec).

Something about that realization cracked open the possibility that I should just keep trying new things.  I took that up with a kind of unplanned momentum after my 15 year relationship ended the year I turned 40.  Somehow, I just started learning as a way of being.

Passing my Open Water certification on the second go last month was the latest, and it prompted me to make a list of the things I’ve learned in the past six years.  Not so much the Great Huge Life Lessons (there are a raspberry bush full of those, some of them still trying to make themselves known — what DID I learn from my abortive, expensive one-year move across the country?) but the kinds of things you can list for other people.

Since I turned 40… scuba diving, snorkeling, using an SLR camera, photoshop, kayak rescue certification, how to ride a road bike (pedal clips and all), how to climb up mountains that scare me.  Urban exploration.

How to read a knitting pattern and knit things other than scarves.

Driving a manual car.

How to shoot a rifle.

(See, that biathlete thing isn’t far away).

Birding and the effective use of binoculars.  A little something about the subculture of birding.

Everything that went into my dissertation, and about 80% of my PhD.

Every single thing I do in my job, about 95% of which is different than how I worked six years ago.

Everything I do in my job related to healthcare and the health system, which I’m now kind of an expert in.

How to travel in African countries on my own.

So many things about working in a different culture where you’re the one with the privilege.

The teeniest, tiniest amount of understanding of the politics and culture of sub-saharan Africa.

How to run an orphanage.

How to get the most out of an aeroplan membership.

How to be in an intimate relationship with someone who lives in another country.  (Apparently I had to learn that not just once, but TWICE).

True collaboration with the best colleague-friends there are.

I had an email exchange about some of this with a friend I met on our Svalbard trip this summer, and she listed her own impressive list.  I knew I liked her for a reason.  We share a philosophy – use the time, and hit the end used up.  (She had a much more colourful metaphor for this).

The Undiscovered Biathlete Theory — what we don’t know YET about ourselves. There are worse frames to be governed by.


Focusing in

I posted a couple of weeks ago about my most recent urban exploration experience, with the paintballers and the dust.  One of the things I really love about this is entering a space that is so much the opposite of a “blank canvas” that it’s become one all over again.

I like the discovery of impenetrable artifacts, like this:

This was in what seems to have been some kind of lab in the Bethlehem Steel office on Buffalo. I like how the careful script has such a deliberate period.

Then there are control rooms, where every dial and every gauge once meant something significant.

And now it’s flaking paint and windows to nothing, switches without signal.

There are a lot of reasons people do urban exploration — the possibility of discovering some forgotten gem, the aesthetics of decay, the thrill of being somewhere forbidden and possibly dangerous, the poignant narratives of lives lived and forgotten embedded in dust-covered papers outlining orders for steel pipes.

Part of it for me is the sense of massive power stilled:

And sometimes it’s what I recall from the dim recesses of my lit theory courses is called das unheimliche or something like that — when homely or workaday objects acquire a sense of creepiness, because of how they’re situated or how we suddenly see them.  Like this forgotten typewriter, which still clacked.

And sometimes, for me, it’s just about finding light …

…in unexpected places.

Light that transforms, and nudges me into noticing.