Wednesday, August 3, 2011

30-Before-30 Update: #16 Join a Rowing Team

After two years of talking about it and hmm-ing and haw-ing about how it wouldn’t quite fit my “schedule”, I finally joined a rowing club. My good friend Anna and I often talked about how fun it would be to try, but it required two weeks’ commitment Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 2 hours at either 6am or 6pm to learn the technique. May and June are especially busy months at work for me, but this year I decided that, since I am happiest when I am doing something for me, the added stress of fitting the Learn To Row classes into my busy schedule could possibly be mitigated by the added joy of learning something new.

Can I just say I love it when I am right?!

Rowing is a team sport, and before we begin I have to admit to you that I have never engaged in a team sport—at least not after the age of 8. I played t-ball and coach’s pitch (I should really post those photos... 7-year-old Bobbi knew how to rock a jersey with a side clip and a pony tail!) and I was involved in ice skating and dance until 7th grade or so. But I don’t really have a competitive bone in my body (except when it comes to Scrabble) and I tend to buckle under pressure so once I hit junior high, I quit anything that involved competition or people watching me. In high school, I was the yearbook editor (which, let's be honest, better suited my bossy nature) and I always pulled out the big guns in a friendly game of I’ve Never with my friends, who all played basketball or football: “I’ve never… played a high school sport.” Bam, drink up, suckers.

Anyway, once I got into it, I really fell in love with rowing. It’s an awesome full-body work out (did you know that about 2/3 of the row stroke is actually done with your legs? You only follow through with your arms), but what struck me is how mentally engaged you need to be. I swear, when I am on the boat, I am too busy thinking about where my hands should be, whether I’m keeping up with the pace, or where my oar is to think about anything else. Two hours where I’m not thinking about work, relationships, money, responsibilities, world peace, or the apocalypse? Sign me up, Sally. (I think I just coined a new phrase!)

Many of the things I learned over the two-week course can be applied to life in general. Here’s what rowing taught me:

1. Take Care of Your EquipmentRowing boats cost $20,000 or more. Each oar is over $300. So, I make no exaggerations when I tell you that rowers respect their equipment. One of the first rules they make is you never step over your equipment, you always walk around it. There is an extraordinarily regimented way in which the boats are picked up, hauled and placed in the water.

They do this because it’s expensive, but also because when treated correctly, the equipment does a lot of the work. Without boring you with mechanics, the rowing boat is an awesome piece of machinery. The boat is extremely light-weight and so delicate that there is a small X marked in front of each seat—it’s the only place in the boat you’re allowed to put any weight on when you get in and out, and you’re only supposed to use one foot to do that. Even the oars are impressive: if you let an oar bob in the water, it will go to the perfect depth it needs to in order to be most efficient.

Same goes for the rowing form. Once you learn how to get your body to complete a stroke with good form, you're set. The proper rowing form is efficient, so it's meant to allow to you exert the least amount of energy and apply the most amount of power via the oars. The only trick is actually learning the form and being consistent.

2. Be Flexible (Or Step the Heck Up and Lead)In a rowing boat, there is only one person that sets the pace: the stroke seat. That’s the first seat in the boat from the bow (front), sitting directly in front of the cox, who faces the back of the boat and helps guide the rowers by physically steering them and giving them verbal commands. Everyone else in the boat follows the pace of the person sitting in the stroke seat, and let me tell you, you better keep up. (Or, you better slow down, depending on their preferred pace.) Everyone’s bodies are different and therefore what feels natural to you, timing-wise, is different. For instance, a taller person with longer legs has to take a longer time “recovering” from a stroke in order to stay in sync with someone who has shorter legs.

This is especially frustrating when you’re learning. Like I said, there are so many other things to be concentrating on, so trying to hone each piece of your stroke while you’re trying to fit yourself in someone else’s perfect pace is frustrating. You have to learn to be flexible. You can only work on improving one thing at a time, and you have to realize that it all will come together, but tonight you can only make so much progress.

This is a part of my personality I’m working on in my everyday life as well. Young adulthood is hard for me, because I don’t like to be new at something. I especially don’t like to bad at something. I don’t like when my front yard looks like a complete mess because I’ve spent all my time and money making other improvements to my house. I don’t like feeling like a bad friend because I forgot to ask about a special event or let too much time go by in between lunches. I don’t like that there are still 5 pages on my organization’s website that still, after months and months, say “Under construction…” because it's grant season and deadlines abound. I constantly remind myself (pretty much every time I pull into my ghetto driveway, open my work calendar, or look at my checking account balance) that all things come together in time. You can only make so much progress at a time.

The other part of this, when it comes to rowing, is realizing that if you want to set the pace, you have to step up and lead. You have to volunteer to sit stroke, which means that when you make mistakes, everyone knows and it affects the whole boat. And it also means that at any given point, one of your seven fellow rowers is going to be cursing your pace.

I run into this a lot in my work setting. I hate when people sit around and complain—I can’t tell you how many times I heard “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” while I was growing up and it’s ingrained into my work ethic. I often bring up problems at work (and offer ideas or join groups that come up with solutions) and I’ve learned that being a leader sometimes comes with a risk. Not everyone is happy with change, and not everyone likes your ideas or even the fact that you’re brave enough to offer them. But, while that criticism comes with the territory of being a leader, it also includes the benefit of having a say in the pace. So, you step up and lead or you become flexible and shut up. :)

3. Don’t Grip the Oar Too TightlyDuring the Learn To Row course, the coach is often in a small motorboat (lovingly dubbed ‘Crabcakes’ by club members—can’t wait to learn the story behind that!) and she will circle the boat offering tips and constructive criticism about each rower’s form. She often told me I was gripping my oar too tight (which can cause blisters and just messes up your form in general).

I couldn’t help but see the symbolism: My 30th goal in my 30 Before 30 list might as well be Don’t Grip the Oar Too Tightly. I want to be free of negative thoughts about ‘time running out’ or ‘where I should be vs. where I am’ before I hit the big 3-0. I want to loosen my grip on life, so to speak, which, I’ve learned from rowing, is guaranteed to better your form.

4. Perfection is Impossible; Strive for Excellence
Like I’ve said, so many small things (placement of the oar, timing, body position) affect the way you row. External factors are sometimes at play as well: waves (“rollers”) from a passing speed boat or wind can work against you, no matter how on point you are. Then there’s the inconvenient reality of 7 other bodies with their own techniques, timing, worries and challenges. Perfection in a row boat is hardly attainable for the pros, let alone a group of novices.

(I don’t think you need an illustration of how I, as a 27-year-old type A personality, am smacked in the face by this lesson day after day in my everyday life.)

5. In the Scheme of Things, the Bad Days Don’t MatterRowing is friggin’ frustrating at times. Sometimes, the person in front of you is having a bad day and it throws you off. Sometimes, you’re having a bad day and while you’re flailing and in a seemingly constant state of self-correction you have that overwhelming guilty feeling of throwing someone else off. Sometimes, the people with oars on the opposite side of yours are neglectful and let the boat tilt to one side and instead of being ‘set’, it leans to one side, making it impossible to get your oar out of the water between strokes. Sometimes, you want to tell the stroke seat to ‘slow the *%!# down!’ or tell the cox to shut up so you can hear your own thoughts. Sometimes there are waves that grab your oar and make it do the exact opposite of what you want it to do.

I’m not going to lie to you, friends: There were a few times during the Learn to Row classes that I got out of the boat at the end of the night and thought to myself, holy crap, get me out of here before I hurt someone. It crossed my mind that maybe this wasn’t as awesome as I thought. Or worse, maybe it was not a stress-reliever but instead something that had the potential to wind me up even further.

I will admit to you that there was a time during our final class when the coach was watching us closely so she could offer some final advice and the boat was NOT set. The people who were supposed to be keeping the boat nice and even were… not. I couldn’t get my oar out of the water, so I kept missing a stroke here or there. I literally could not get a rhythm going. It just kept catching and catching, no matter how hard I tried.

“Can we set the freaking boat?!” I blurted out, and immediately hoped that no one would be able to tell which person said such a hasty comment in such a nasty, impatient tone.

Luckily, the coach and the cox burst out laughing and my fellow rowers immediately set the boat. The rest of the night was great. We had all 8 rowing, the pace was great and the water was really smooth. That moment of pure frustration, along with my little outburst, was quickly forgotten.

6. When It All Comes Together, It’s PricelessThere are occasional moments (and I really do mean occasional, as in every 4 or 5 rows) where things come together—for maybe 10 minutes. (Of course, this is just my experience as a first-year rower who’s gone out a dozen or so times after the Learn to Row course, mostly during rows when other newbie rowers sign up. So I’m sure it happens more often with more experienced groups.) But it’s magic when it all comes together: everyone is following the same pace, the boat is level, the water is calm, the sun is shining and oh-holy-crap-look-at-me-mom!, you’re living in the moment and gliding right along. It’s a unique experience—that extra oomph of speed you get when all 8 rowers are plugging along. That’s a lot of power and the boat is flying.

I find that those moments in life are rare too (see number 1). I’ve spent the past two years getting used to the 9-5. Add in a high-maintenance Labrador, a job with lots of responsibility and a huge house to keep clean, and it’s odd to find a point in time when the dishes are done, the dog is tired, there are no deadlines looming, the laundry is clean, my friends are over and, literally and figuratively, my glass is more than half full. But when that happens, it’s well worth all the time spent actually working for the paycheck that paid for the dog, the house, the dishes, the washing machine, and the vodka that allowed to me have that one blissful moment in time. (Luckily, the friends are free and can often be persuaded with booze!).

The challenge for me is to just enjoy those fleeting moments in life without wasting it by a) worrying about what comes next or b) becoming sad about the very fleeting nature of these moments. Case in point: a recent sob session at my cousin’s wedding, where for 10 minutes I sat and watched my family dance while crying to my dad about how fast life was going before he told me, ever-so-gently in the way that only dads with sensitive daughters can, to get off my mopey butt and start dancing and enjoying it.

I’m working on that. I hope some day to be able to feel what I feel on a rowing boat when everything is going smoothly in life: how very lucky I am to be in this moment and only in this moment.