Thursday, February 25, 2016

Things I'm Not Good At That I Love

By Annabeth Leong

I've never been good at physical activities in general, but I really enjoy them. They're a big part of my life. This threw me off for a long time.

The narrative of tomboys that I was familiar with when I was growing up was about a girl who was "good enough" to "play with the boys." There wasn't a lot of space for a girl who wanted to spend recess running around, but didn't run particularly fast. I learned to throw a football so it spiraled, but throwing that football far? Or where I wanted it to go? Not so much.

So with our topic being "other skills," I questioned myself for a while. I wanted to write about rock climbing, but I'm not very good at it...

On the other hand, it's the activity besides writing that I'm most devoted to. I go to the climbing gym about three times a week. I'm belay certified. I organized and captained a team for the gym's first climbing league (and, while we did not place well overall, we did win the spirit award!). I've read books about climbing techniques and ways of protecting your body and training antagonist muscles to stave off elbow problems. I have taught several people the basics of climbing (and sometimes watched them surpass me over the following months).

So I think this counts as a skill. I know how to tie the knots. I know all sorts of things about what muscles a person engages while climbing, how to train them, and ways to avoid injury. I know how to read a route—I can often see the moves necessary even when I can't make them myself. I've climbed both inside and outside, and I've practiced bouldering in both settings, as well.

I am always looking for things that will give me relief from the constant flow of words and thoughts in my brain. That's the only real path to relaxation for me. There's nothing like hanging by your fingers from a couple of tiny rocks to get that done... And that's a big part of the motivation to learn this skill. I also enjoy the puzzle elements, the feeling of strength, and the chance to face and overcome fears.

Other than just telling you that this is another skill I've developed and like to spend time practicing, I can also tell you that it's been a source of realizations for me about my character, sometimes in ways that apply to my writing. I think that's common for "other skills."

In my case, I've noticed that I chronically underachieve. I have the strength and knowledge to climb much harder than I do, but I don't have the boldness. Rock climbing moves can be called "static" or "dynamic." For a static move, you get yourself into position and reach for the next hold. If you don't find it, you're still fine and anchored where you were before. For a dynamic move, you go for the next hold in a way that gives up the previous holds. If you miss a dynamic move, you're going to fall off the wall. This isn't really a big deal—because of safety gear, you're unlikely to get hurt—but it still feels scary.

Early on, one of my teachers commented on my incredible strength in the context of a bad habit. I have a way of going for dynamic moves without committing to them, catching and holding myself in awkward midair positions that take, he pointed out, way more muscle and skill than just going all in for the next hold. I've worked hard to break that habit, but it's still a real problem for me. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten to the almost-top of a bouldering route and just... not taken the last move. I've heard people groan in disappointment when I jumped off without even taking a shot.

And I can't help but feel that this says something about my approach to life. As a writer, it's hard for me to try for things that I don't think I'm going to get. I'm incredibly risk-averse.

I hope that, if I can overcome this habit as a rock climber, the boldness I learn will transfer beyond that to other parts of my life.

In the meantime, you can find me clinging to walls around New England, probably not climbing as hard as I should, but still showing up regularly to climb.


  1. Wow. Rock climbing. Cool!

    Coincidentally, one book I wrote about last topic cycle was Mailer's "Harlot's Ghost". Harlot takes the MC rock climbing to assess his character and focus. Harlot held climbing as a trial of character.

  2. Someone told me once that rock climbing is the most physically demanding sport there is.

    Somehow it doesn't surprise me that it attracts you.

    Wonderful post.

    1. Thanks, Lisabet! I'm not sure what their scale for measurement is, but it's certainly demanding. It also uses muscles I'd never used before in any other context. It was funny to have my forearms start growing in a way where it felt different to raise a glass of water to my lips.

  3. Even when I was your age,Annabeth, I doubt I could have managed technical climbing, although I loved to scramble on stony mountaintops and minor ledges. I have, however, faked it (after research) for a couple of stories. The one that begins below was theoretically set on Cathedral Ledge in North Conway, NH, a place I'm very familiar with, but only from the bottom and the top (there's a road up.)

    "Nothing focuses the mind in the body like a vertical rockface. On one side, an infinity of air and light; on the other, the uncompromising rigidity of stone. I clung between these absolutes, toes edged into a slanting crevice, fingers jammed into a narrow crack, weight poised in utter compliance with gravity."

    1. That's an awesome beginning, Sacchi. Though I definitely don't climb like that!

  4. Annabeth, you sound too modest. The fact that you can mountain-climb at all, even in a gym, shows your determination and physical endurance.

    1. Ha, that could be. There is a certain kind of mental fortitude you have to have, though, to do something week after week while seeing people surpass you, or dealing with other people's expectations of how good you must be given how often you do it. I think people tend to over-expect, if that makes sense, so I have to constantly refocus on this being a fun activity for me, the fact that I don't expect to someday participate in competitions, etc.


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