When my friend and colleague Sandy and I used to teach The Hero’s Journey paradigm to our 9th graders, we lingered on the idea of “helpers”—characters in a  work of art that propel the hero along, perhaps giving him advice, or the talisman. But, we often pointed out, a helper does not necessarily need to be a positive one. Would Odysseus have evolved away from his hubris without Poseidon honoring the curse of Polyphemus? What about those naysayers who propel us along, giving us fodder to prove wrong?

If life is the ultimate work of art, then we are all on epic journeys of our own. Sandy was always wonderful, and I can still hear her gentle and encouraging voice telling our young students that we always get the journey we’re ready for. If we choose not to take it, then it waits for us. Certain parts of our lives we can embrace, or ignore for only so long.

Some people respond to the praise and pleasing of positive helpers, and to be anything less is to crush them into a thousand pieces. There is no doubt that, at least in school, I wanted to please my teachers; those who got the best from me—or rather, those who showed me what else I was capable of doing—often were those who were the most demanding, even to the point of cultivating a disagreeability. I never had a “mean” teacher, surely. I count myself fortunate, indeed, though to have had teachers who didn’t give praise often, who got surly when an assignment wasn’t quite right, and who gave real grades for real work. Yes, AP US History teacher, I’m thinking of you. As well as a couple of others… The real gift of these helpers: teaching you how to WORK as hard as you ever have to help yourself. Setting the bar so incredibly high that there was room enough to amaze yourself in meeting a challenge you did not know you could meet before you began. Keeping it real, rewarding precision, work, and true knowledge (as opposed to just effort).

I love the tough lovers.

We cannot, I don’t believe, reach excellence in a hunky dory world. Okay, maybe some can. Not me. Yes, I need the faraway inspirations: the Deenas, the Shalanes, the Mebs. I find inspiration in the the local friends and rockstars who keep it real and create a climate of active goal setting: the Jen P.s, the Rachel G.s, and more. There are people who were training and posting on social media that inspired me long before I was ready, without even knowing the positive effect: Lori B., doing her stadium stairs early on a  Saturday morning and Naheed, kicking butt and taking names with her daily workouts and meal prep; Tiffany G., who once gave an interview before a fitness competition about being able to resist even holiday cookies in favor of her goals (at the time, years ago, I couldn’t even understand that and now I look back with total respect and understanding); Katie H. M., who stays fit and toned and who can scale a huge rope even after six kids… I could keep the list going. I need the example of my dad, who ran his first half marathon a few years ago after conquering not only his weight but also himself.

These are all heroes in their own right, to me. My daily helpers. My husband/coach, gives full encouragement even on days when I don’t perform as well as I want to. My husband’s role is to make me feel loved and appreciated, and he never fails. As a coach, he is matter-of-fact and keeps our discussions hopeful but realistic. I have to work for him, too.

But I need, too, the Maria Kangs of the world. The “So, what’s your excuse?” people. The people who state the problem plainly. Those people? You can trust them. They do not enable, not a single bit. Those harder helpers, even the naysayers? They are very realistic: anything of real value, you must earn. No sugar coating. No pats on the back when you sabotage yourself. No praise just for breathing.

They are helpers, the nudgers.

And to them, I sing a song of thanks.

When I was about halfway through my pregnancy with Eric, I saw a P.A. at the practice with whom I have had a long, good history. No problems with her at all. Mad respect, especially now.She said the hard thing, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. My gain with Eric was tremendous, more than the tremendous gain with Katie. Even halfway through. My thinking at the time, already not clear on the matter, allowed pregnancy to become a reason for a free-for-all eating fest.

I remember she asked me about my weight. I stayed smiling and polite but inside was self-righteous and indignant! “Do you eat a lot of fast food?” she asked. NO! Who was she talking to? I explained that I just like to cook, French…and almost all the time. Cooking is my hobby, I explained. I’m a foodie. Homecooking for my family.

“Um, could you maybe try cooking things that are a little healthier? Maybe you could like that kind of challenge. Maybe less butter and cream? Maybe more plants?”

She tried.

I smiled politely and was quiet.

It wasn’t like she was totally slender, either, I argued with myself. (Illogical ad hominem counterargument). And I am pregnant. I need to eat for the baby. How can she even SAY this to a pregnant woman?

Oh, I reasoned that one right away. By evening, her entreaties were SO FAR in the back of my mind that I am sure I was plotting my next dessert with cookbooks spread around the couch.

Those words never left, though. She was 100% accurate. She said the hard thing. I’ve had to let go of my food driven hobbies, for the most part. I don’t watch cooking shows (we get drawn to what we surround ourselves with), I don’t often open my old cookbooks, and I really don’t cook anymore as a hobby. I can’t. It would be like a recovering alcoholic going to a bar. But when I do, I allow myself the enjoyment of the challenge: transforming recipes into healthier versions, learning how to cook as an athlete. She said what I did not want to hear, but now I think of it and live it every day. At the time, I was just mad. No one likes excuses called out, right?

To this day, even now that I know by sight so many more people at the 5:30 AM pool session, I cannot identify the man who spoke to me one day in early September.

Bill had just started back at work, which meant that I had to start waking up at 5:00, run, get to the pool for a couple sets, and then come back home. I was still doing between 40 and 60 lengths at the time, SOMETIMES 70. (During the summer, I had worked up to 80 lengths and even 100 lengths once, but with the new school schedule, I was doing what I thought I could). Time was an issue.

It was a Friday. I had come later to the pool and fit in 40 lengths. Go me, I thought, go me!

And then: “You are already getting out?! That wasn’t very long!”

Just like that. No diplomacy of presentation. (And you know what? Sometimes there doesn’t need to be).

Oooh boy, I thought, TALK TO THE HAND! My neck and shoulders and hand almost swiveled and went up in disbelief.

He said what?

Days of insecurity swallowed me. I can’t swim in lanes next to these triathletes. I’m not good enough. They probably ALL think I am a slacker. Yes, I had tried explaining quickly to him that I had run and had only time for a few laps because my husband needed to go to work and and and and…

And then one day, it was clear. He was right: if I wanted more, I had to be willing to WORK for more, to sacrifice for more. 40 lengths isn’t very long, not in the scheme of what most people down there do. It’s just a fact. It represented growth, for me, a new swimmer since July… but if that’s all I gave time for, I would never improve or build endurance.

But I could fit in more laps if I arrived right at 5:30 AM, when it opened. Far more laps.

So I set my alarm for 4:00 AM. Fit the runs in. Arrive at 5:30 AM, or within five minutes of it.

Whoever that man is—and he probably still swims there, but with swim caps and goggles people are somewhat in disguise—he pushed me. I think he meant to. I think I needed it. Hated it at the time, but was he not speaking the truth?

Tough love jolts when we don’t expect it. Tough love, though, can be the best thing that ever happens to us.

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