Adventure #5–Pole Dancing

Originally written 9/15/14.

All photos from Flicker used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

Tease Studio: www.teasestudio.com

 

I teach Irish stepdancing. If you’re not familiar with Irish dance, it’s a traditional art form where the feet perform fast, intricate steps while the upper body stays completely still. Dancers hold their arms down by their sides, and there’s no movement of the hips, shoulders, or head. You can check it out on YouTube. When I was six, I took a year of jazz/tap/ballet, but the whole rest of my life I’ve done stepdancing. I love it.

Irish dancerPhoto credit: John Benson, https://www.flickr.com/photos/j_benson/

A couple years ago, my group performed as part of the halftime entertainment at a ballroom dance competition. There were a number of different kinds of dancers at this show, including swing dancers, a Broadway-type chorus line, and someone advertised in the program as Arielle the Pole Dancer.

Pole dancer? We were all fascinated to see what her act would be like, since for us “pole dancing” conjured up images of strippers in R-rated movies. All of the acts shared the same backstage, and while we were warming up, we looked out of the corners of our eyes at the other dancers, wondering which one was Arielle.

She wasn’t hard to spot once she showed up. For one thing, she was the only solo act, but I think we would have picked her out anyway. Her hair was short, bright blond, and slicked back from her face, and she was wearing a long silk dressing gown decorated in peacock colors, like something out of the roaring twenties. Unlike all the other dancers, she was barefoot. She warmed up with a kind of yoga routine by herself in the corner, every movement poised and deliberate. Her attention was completely focused on her preparations, as though she were the only person in the room. She had a confidence, a magnetism, that drew my eye even though she was only warming up.

When it was time for her act, we crowded into the wings to watch her. Right before she went on, she peeled off the silk dressing gown, revealing a pair of very short dark shorts and a gold handkerchief-like halter top that left her midriff bare. Her body was short, compact, and muscular, much more like an acrobat than a movie stripper. The routine, too, was like something you might see in Cirque du Soleil: she climbed up the pole (a feat in itself); did splits, backbends, and handstands in the air while holding on to it; and spun around the pole while gripping it with hands, ankles, and knees. Every move had a sensual grace to it, and in every way the routine was the opposite of Irish dance (being upper-body intensive, acrobatic, and slow in pace, not to mention unembarrassed about showing some skin), but there was nothing risqué about it. When my thirteen-year-old student said, “Well! I just saw my first pole dancer!”, I didn’t need to worry that I’d let her watch something inappropriate (although I did wonder if I’d need to explain to her mom). It was athletic and beautiful.

pole1

Photo credit: Christian Lendl, https://www.flickr.com/photos/_dchris/

 

So, when my friend Abbey suggested that we try a pole dancing class as one of my adventures, I jumped at the chance.

tease1

The studio Abbey found was called Tease Studio, and it was offering new students a special deal for three introductory classes. I looked through their online “class menu” to see what kinds of classes they taught. Besides different levels of pole dancing, from 101 to 401, they offered a number of different exercise classes. Most of them looked to be pretty standard aerobic-style classes, but there were a few more, um, titillating offerings:

Look Good Naked

use your own body resistance to melt away in this slow & sensual toning class. slow style sexy music & movements throughout class will have you feeling the burn. look and feel confident both naked and fully clothed.

Stiletto Dance

learn to strut with the power of seduction. this feminine class will empower you as a sexual animal, dancer and women. class will begin with warm up in your heels, targeting your ankles and flexibility.  choreography to follow warm up will focus on burning, sculpting and tempting as you sway to the music.   grab hold of your womanhood.

Good grief, there were a lot of grammatical and punctuation errors in these class descriptions. Maybe I should offer my services as an editor. And “grab hold of your womanhood”? In front of everybody?

Twerkshop

not your average cardio workout. get ready to sweat, sculpt and melt those curves away with today’s most popular movements. get the sexy booty you’ve always wanted and have fun while doing it. this class will start with a hip hop dance warm-up that will have you moving to today’s hottest beats. get ready to drop it like its hot!!! sneakers required.

And my personal favorite:

The Naughty Hour

a tease signature combo class that begins with an intensive sensual style body resistance warm up to tone and learn sexy transitions. the warm up is followed by lap dance and striptease technique and combos. NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART: the end of class will include performing a routine on a fellow student. be sure to bring heels and layers (i.e. hoodies, button downs, extra tank tops, bikini tops, etc). a new choreographed routine begins at the start of each month but anyone is welcome and encouraged to attend any week of the month!

Yeah. Nothing on Earth could have made me sign up for The Naughty Hour class.

When we arrived at Tease Studio for our Pole Dancing 101 class, we walked through the front door into a tiny, chicly decorated space that was part reception area, part store. Apparently, you could enhance your pole dancing experience by purchasing super-tall spike heels, since they had more than a dozen different styles for sale around the walls. In the background, we could hear the thumping beat of a nearby classroom’s bass, topped by the shouting of the teacher: “Come ON, ladies–move it! Higher! HIGHER!”

tease2

We checked in with a perky receptionist who crossed our names off a list written on notebook paper (surprisingly low-tech given that we’d signed up online). She told us that if we went through the doorway behind us, we would find the dance studio, locker room, bathroom, and “glow bar,” where we could treat ourselves to a spray tan for an extra fee. In the meantime, though, our class would be in the pole studio upstairs.

The upstairs room was directly over the reception area, but to get there you had to go back outside, walk to the next doorway down the sidewalk, and head through that doorway up a steep flight of stairs. It made me wonder what the businesses in the building had been originally; it looked like the building might be from the early twentieth century.

There was a landing at the top of the stairs, and a door on the left led into the pole studio. The room was medium-sized and rectangular, with a small strip of waiting area off to one side. Most of the space was taken up by the dance floor, which was made of polished wood and had two rows of shiny silver poles sticking out of it. The poles were anchored into the ceiling somehow, disappearing through square holes hacked in the plaster. I wondered where you bought poles, and who you got to install them so they didn’t fall on top of you when you tried to use them.

tease3

As we came in, the class before ours was finishing up. I had noticed on the schedule that it was a 201 class, the next level above ours, and I watched with interest. There seemed to be two students and a teacher. The teacher was a curvy woman in her mid to late twenties, I would guess, wearing Capri-length leggings and a tank top. She had a friendly face and long blond hair pulled into a ponytail. The student she was working with was older–in her forties, I guessed–with the square, weatherbeaten look of a serious outdoor athlete (like triathlons). She had dark hair chopped off short, the only person I saw at Tease besides my friend Abbey with short hair.

The teacher was showing the student how to do a particular spin on the pole. The student grabbed the pole between both hands, jumped up with her legs bent, squeezed her knees on either side of the pole, and twirled around. I thought she looked great, except for her expression: she was grimacing the whole time as though she was in horrible pain. The teacher corrected her form and had her do it several more times. Every time, she set her jaw and gritted her teeth like she was going into battle.

pole2

Photo credit: Andrew Campbell, https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewcampbell1/

This was the spin the student was doing, but not the expression on her face.

Between repetitions, both teacher and student would sometimes grab small face towels, squirt something on them, and clean the poles. I wondered what they were doing. The poles certainly looked shinier afterward, but no one was there to admire them except for Abbey and me.

Meanwhile, the other student seemed to be doing her own thing. She was in her early twenties, fit but curvy, with long blond hair hanging loose down her back. She was wearing a pair of black briefs and a sports bra that made me blink in surprise, mostly because Irish dancers go in more for the shorts-and-t-shirt look, so I’m not used to women exercising in their underwear.

It seemed to me that this woman was more advanced than the other student. Much more advanced. She would reach up, take a grip on the pole, and then casually lift herself up to hook one leg behind the knee so she could spin and then turn herself upside down. Then she would gracefully right herself and land on one foot. After a breather, she would go through the series of moves again.

pole3

Photo credit: Kyle Nishioka, https://www.flickr.com/photos/madmarv/

Good grief. Was this woman only level 2? I hoped not, because that meant that level 1 was going to be a lot harder than I thought. But the teacher never actually talked to this other person, so maybe she was an advanced student practicing a routine on her own.

The class finished, and the teacher moved off toward the restroom. The first student, the older one, came over to the waiting area to get a drink and put on her shoes.

“Hello,” I said, as she stopped near me. “You looked great.”

She gave me a toothy grin. “I was terrified,” she confided. “Those spins are scary. I was just trying to hold on for dear life.”

Well, that explained the grimace. “It looks like fun,” I said.

“Oh, it is, but I don’t know how much more advanced I can get. I’m sixty-three, and I don’t really want to slip and fall on my head.”

tease4

Sixty-three? Under the dim, recessed lights of the studio, I had seriously thought she was ten to twenty years younger. She’s my new adventure idol. I want to still be trying out new stuff like pole dancing when I’m sixty-three.

There was a short break before our class started, and Abbey and I waited for our teacher to come back and introduce herself. I was feeling pretty jazzed by the glimpse we’d gotten of level 2. Small class, lots of individual attention, and presumably much easier moves. This was going to be fun.

The second student, the more advanced one, had finished her practice and disappeared toward the bathroom. She came back a few minutes later with a pair of shorts tied over her briefs, and she unrolled a mat and laid it out on the floor.

Hmm. The next class was an introductory class, and this woman clearly wasn’t a beginner. Maybe she was the teacher. I looked at her, trying to see if she was showing any signs of coming over and introducing herself, but she wasn’t. She pulled a beauty magazine out from somewhere, stretched out on her stomach, and began to read.

Another woman came in from the landing. This one had long black hair and was wearing booty shorts and a really tight t-shirt. She also spread out a mat, but rather than sitting down on it she started practicing spins on one of the poles. The spins looked very polished, at least to my untrained eye.

pole4Photo credit: Andrew Campbell, https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewcampbell1/

I was starting to get worried. Were we in the wrong place? Why were all these advanced people sitting here? And where was the teacher?

More and more women came in and spread out mats. There was a variety of heights and body types, but I was amazed to see that most of them:

  1. Had long hair, either worn loose or wrapped up in artistically disheveled buns
  2. Were obviously familiar with the pole or were incredibly flexible or both
  3. Were in their twenties, making me feel a little old
  4. Wore skimpy booty shorts and/or tank tops, making me, in my baggy shorts and t-shirt, feel more than a little overdressed and frumpy

So many people came in that Abbey finally asked if we should go ahead and spread out our mats, too. We headed to the far corner and set up camp, self-consciously doing some warmup stretches like the other ladies were doing. I’m not particularly flexible (especially for a dance teacher), so doing my stretches in that crowd of athletic women felt a bit like a tin soldier trying to do yoga with Gumby. No one said anything to us, and only a few people were even talking to each other. Not a particularly friendly atmosphere. There was no teacher in sight. All my jazz from watching the earlier class was gone.

gumby

Photo credit: Fernando de Sousa, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fernando/

Or maybe like Gollum stretching with Gumby?

When the room was full to bursting, the teacher arrived from downstairs, where she’d been leading a class on the first floor.

“Hi!” she said enthusiastically, grinning at us. “Big crowd tonight!”

She was a woman of semi-Amazonian proportions, tallish and big-busted, with powerful legs that were still somehow ultra-feminine. There was a little of a Picabo Street look to her, if you remember the US Olympic skier from the 90’s. She had long blond hair (of course) and was wearing brightly-colored capris and a tank top. She was confident and sexy and brimming over with energy. Her name was Becca.

“Let’s start with some warmups!” she exclaimed, putting on some bass-thumping dance music and cranking the volume until the windows buzzed. “Neck rolls!”

Becca started rolling her head side to side across her chest and then across her back, expecting us to follow. I did some kind of half-hearted imitation, having heard in a seminar once that neck rolls aren’t so good for you. When she started doing full neck rolls at double speed, I gave up and just watched everybody else flipping their hair around.

hair

Photo credit: Ashley Webb, https://www.flickr.com/photos/xlordashx/

Yeah, I didn’t look glamorous like this.

We did side bends, rib cage circles, and hip circles, me squinting through the dim lighting to see Becca and straining my ears to try to catch her enthusiastic instructions over the mind-numbing volume of the music. Just like with aerobics classes (which I’ve taken a number of in my time), there wasn’t any real explanation; you just watched and imitated and hoped you were doing it right.

“Down on your mats!” Becca shouted, and most of the women did some kind of fancy handstand into a crosslegged position to get to the floor. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. Seriously, this was the INTRO class? I got down on my mat gingerly by squatting and putting my hands down.

Next we did an exercise where we started from a kneeling position, our bottoms touching our heels. Then we sat up, lifting our hips until we were still on our knees, but now in a vertical line from shoulders to knees. We repeated this for more than a minute.

“Use your arms, ladies!” Becca yelled, and most of the women started making these sexy, graceful movements with their upper bodies as they continued the exercise. The woman in front of me, who looked about nineteen and had (guess what?) long blond hair, began to run her hands up her torso in a way that would get a guy slapped if he tried it on a first date.

Um. OK. I felt awkward, but I had, after all, signed up for this. I decided to try adding some arm movements. But did I mention that I’m an Irish dancer, and Irish dancers don’t use their arms? I ended up sticking my arms straight into the air over my head and lowering them down again every time like I was practicing surrendering.

surrender

Photo credit: Jan Fredrik Frantzen, https://www.flickr.com/photos/janfredrikf/

“Hands and knees!” Becca instructed, and we got down on our hands and knees and started to do some Angry Cats. I’ve taken a few yoga classes, so I was familiar with Angry Cats: you tuck your head between your shoulders and arch your back, and then you lift up your head and sway your stomach toward the floor. What a relief. I could do this exercise, and I didn’t have to try to move my arms.

“Double speed!”

Um, what? I looked up. Everyone else had started doing the Angry Cat motion faster, turning it from a restful, introspective yoga exercise into this weird kind of kneeling bump and grind. Well, OK. I sped up, too, feeling silly.

“Even faster!” Becca cried.

The woman in front of me began to do this sort of shimmy with her back and hips, as though she were an electric appliance that had been turned from Medium to High. It looked bizarre, but it didn’t seem to be hard for her, so I gave it a try, too. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirrors at the front of the room. I looked like I was having convulsions.

weirdyoga

Photo credit: Steven Depolo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/

This is what I felt like.

“Now we’re going to bend your elbows and take your chest to the floor!” Becca shouted over the music. She demonstrated. From the kneeling position, you bent your arms, touched your chest to the floor, and then pushed forward until you were stretched out your stomach. Then you lifted your hips to come back on to your knees, all in one fluid motion.

We tried it. The woman in front of me looked like an extra in a glam rock video from the 90’s. She slithered onto the floor with sexy slowness, one pointed toe lifting coyly behind her, and then her hips came back up with a little sway that would probably have gotten her video banned from VH1.

I, on the other hand, looked stiff, jerky, and awkward, as though a robot programmed to do push-ups had experienced a horrible mechanical failure.

robot

Photo credit: Doctor Popular, https://www.flickr.com/photos/docpopular/

“Now put your hands on the floor and jump into the splits!” Becca hollered.

She had to be kidding.

Warmup over, Becca turned the music down a little and told us to grab a drink of water, a towel, and a pole. There were so many of us that we were going to be 2 or 3 to a pole. Thank goodness I had Abbey to share with; I don’t think I would have enjoyed sharing a pole with one of the advanced students. I felt awkward enough as it was.

No one told us where the towels were or what they were for, but by following the herd I managed to find them. They were gray hand towels. Aha! I thought. These were the same towels I’d seen the previous class using to clean the poles. Other students were squirting something clear from a bottle onto their towels, so I did that, too. Monkey see, monkey do. I think it was rubbing alcohol.

While I was doing that, Becca and several of the other women put on spike heels. Becca wore leg warmers, too, taking me back to my 80’s childhood. Abbey and I were barefoot, which seemed to be fine–thank goodness, since dancing around in spike heels on a polished wood floor sounded to me like a recipe for a broken ankle. Becca seemed used to it, though. She told us that her three-inch stilettos were her “kitten heels,” the shortest pair of heels she owned.

Good grief.

pole5

Photo credit: Francisco Osorio, https://www.flickr.com/photos/francisco_osorio/

“Since we have some new ladies with us today,” Becca said, looking at us and the giggling pair of college students at the next pole over, “we’re going to start with the basics. Let’s do The Walk.”

Becca grabbed a pole and demonstrated The Walk. Holding the pole at a point above her head, she straightened her arm and walked slowly around, pointing her toes behind her whenever she lifted her foot off the floor. When she’d made one circle, she planted her outside foot, turned toward the pole, switched hands, and walked the other way. Simple.

But, instead of letting us try that right away, she showed us another move: The Vixen. Starting from The Walk, she planted her outside foot, turned toward the pole, and pivoted completely around on the one foot until she was facing the same way again. She made it look easy, flirty, and fun.

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Photo credit: Christian Lendl, https://www.flickr.com/photos/_dchris/

“Now you try,” she said, and turned the music back up to eardrum-bursting levels so we could all enjoy it while experimenting with The Walk and The Vixen. “Advanced students, I need you to just work on those two moves just like our new ladies, OK?”

The Walk wasn’t too hard, but The Vixen was not as easy as Becca made it look. Pivoting around on one foot while switching grips on the pole was hard to do without losing your balance, and even harder to do with any kind of grace. Abbey and I took turns, but even so, both of us were getting dizzy long before we had mastered the one-footed spin. Becca was making a tour of the room and eventually got to us to offer some advice, but before that, Abbey and I had to try to help each other. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

Since most of the students were more advanced, and since there were so many of us, people got bored before Becca finished looking at everybody. It wasn’t long before several people were hanging upside down from their poles and spinning around.

“You girls are being so naughty!” Becca said when she turned down the music to demonstrate our next move. That was the extent of the chiding. I thought about what I would say to my dancers if I caught beginners trying out advanced moves in class. My sister calls the glare I have for such occasions The Look of Death. Of course, I don’t let my advanced dancers take the beginner class, either. That’s just asking for trouble.

One hazard of taking dance/exercise classes when you’re a professional teacher yourself is that it’s hard not to think about how YOU would run the class. It sometimes makes us teachers pains-in-the-rear as students.

The next move Becca showed us was the Fireman Spin. Starting from The Walk, she planted her inside foot, swung her outside leg around the pole, grabbed the pole with her free hand as well, and jumped up, wrapping her second leg behind the pole and squeezing the pole with both thighs. The momentum from the jump spun her around the pole, and when her feet touched the ground, the rest of her momentum helped her unwind her legs and stand up. It looked super cool and sexy when she did it.

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Photo credit: Christian Lendl, https://www.flickr.com/photos/_dchris/

She then demonstrated a harder version, the Reverse Fireman, but I pretty much tuned that out. I knew I was going to have my hands full with the ordinary version.

And I did. There was nothing cool or sexy about the move when I did it. Although I managed to actually spin around the pole with my feet off the ground, I could only do it by clinging to the pole for dear life, when I guess I was supposed to extend my arms and relax. That did not happen. Abbey never managed to do the complete spin at all, since every time she tried to get her second foot off the floor her hands would slip, dumping her back down. Both of us ended up with a kind of “pole burn” on our thighs from friction and bruises on our shins from whacking our legs against the pole.

Speaking of pole burn, I found out what the towels and rubbing alcohol were for. After a while, the pole would start to get a little sticky, and that made it really hard to spin. So you cleaned it with the towel and alcohol, and then your skin would slide over the surface of the pole instead of sticking to it and getting pole burn. Aha! I was glad that I’d seen the 201 class using the towels, since no one ever told us what to do with them.

The last move Becca showed us was the Backslide. You leaned your upper back against the pole, grabbed the pole above your head with your left hand, planted your right foot out in front of you, and then kicked your left foot off the floor. When Becca did that, she slid quickly and gracefully along the pole to the floor, one leg up in the air like a can-can dancer.

“Then you roll over onto your hands and knees,” she said, demonstrating, “and do a Sexy Up.”

A Sexy Up involved putting your right foot on the floor and doing a kind of lunge toward it, twisting your hips as you came up onto your left foot and then swaying into a standing position.

Becca looked sultry and confident as she showed us the move. “Now you try!” she said.

Abbey turned out to be really good at the Backslide, dropping fast and fearlessly to the floor and doing the Sexy Up with attitude. I was (for whatever reason) a lot more nervous about the Backslide than I’d been about the Fireman Spin; planting my right foot so far out in front of my body seemed wrong, probably because if you do that in Irish dance you fall on your butt.

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Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eatants/

I eventually convinced myself to stop being a weeny and kick my left leg up in the air, and I slid to the floor slowly but safely. That wasn’t so bad. Now for the Sexy Up.

Unlike the pole moves, the Sexy Up was easy, but it really needed a slinky confidence to pull it off. Having spent the last 30 years stepdancing (possibly the least sexy kind of dancing in the history of mankind), I just don’t have any slinkiness in me. A ballet teacher once told me during a workshop that I did barre exercises like a soulless robot, and that’s about what I felt like getting off the floor. Or maybe like a plumber climbing to his feet after spending twenty minutes looking at the leak under your sink. Oy. I practiced the Backslide and Sexy Up a bunch more times, but they never got any better.

plumber

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/matchfitskills/

This is exactly what I looked like doing the Sexy Up.

The last five minutes of class were devoted to “free dance,” where Becca put on a special tune (still at a volume that registered on the Richter Scale) and we got to make up our own choreography on the pole. “Express yourself!” Becca exclaimed. “Let yourself go with the music!”

Abbey and I expressed ourselves by trying to string together the few moves we’d learned and studiously avoiding looking at the advanced students doing their routines on the other side of the room. I was proud of myself for remembering everything, but it wasn’t either graceful or in any way related to the music. My bruised shins kept knocking against the pole every time I tried The Fireman, and I was started to get a headache that pounded in time with the bass.

All in all, I was ready for class to be over when Becca finally turned off the music.

When we got back in the car afterward, I turned to Abbey. “What did you think?” I asked.

“It was…interesting,” she said. “I’m really glad we tried it for your blog, but…would you mind if we tried a different class next week?”

I did not mind.

I don’t think I have as a future as a pole dancer. Which is probably ok, because I’m not sure how I’d explain my second career to my Irish dance students.

I had a doctor’s appointment about a week later with my back doctor, who is very skilled but doesn’t exactly have an engaging bedside manner. I was wearing shorts and lying on my back on the examining table, and he was standing near my feet. Suddenly he stopped and looked at my shins, which were covered with green, yellow, and purple bruises from ankle to knee.

bruises

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/magic_bee/

Something like this

“You have extensive contusions here,” he said. “What happened?”

“I, uh, tried a pole dancing class,” I said, with a little laugh. “I kept smacking my shin on the pole.”

He looked at me. Then he looked at my legs. Then, without another word, he went on with his examination.

I could feel my face burning bright tomato red.

Yeah, I definitely don’t have a future career as a pole dancer. I think I’ll just stick to my soulless robot dancing instead. 🙂

polebots

Photo credit: Abul Hussain, https://www.flickr.com/photos/abulhussain/

Although I guess you never know…

misspoleireland

Photo credit: William Murphy, https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/

Adventure #4–CrossFit

Originally written 8/17/14.

Photos from Flicker used in accordance with Creative Commons:  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

4_of_clubs

Photo credit: http://farvei.deviantart.com/art/4-of-Clubs-215758059

 

http://www.crossfitbanshee.com/

My husband Ray has been taking CrossFit classes for several months now. If you haven’t heard of CrossFit before, it’s the latest trend in exercise regimens, the heir to Tae Bo and Jazzercise, Jack Lalanne and Charles Atlas. CrossFit was founded in 2000 by a man named Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California, whose aim was “to build a program that [would] best prepare trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable” (http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/what-is-crossfit.html).

Today, there are more than 5000 CrossFit gyms worldwide, and Reebok sponsors the annual CrossFit Games, with the national finals televised on ESPN so that millions can watch one man and woman be crowned the “Fittest Athletes on Earth.”

What exactly is CrossFit? CrossFit.com explains it this way:

CrossFit is many things. Primarily, it’s a fitness regimen developed by Coach Greg Glassman over several decades. He was the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way (increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains). CrossFit itself is defined as that which optimizes fitness (constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity). CrossFit is also the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together. In fact, the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it’s so effective.

If you find that this explanation doesn’t really tell you what you actually do when you go to a CrossFit class, while making you feel like it might be some kind of cult, you are not alone. On the internet, CrossFit has something of the reputation of being a crazy fad with fanatic followers. Comedian Mike Mulloy famously said, “I found out that CrossFit is a lot like reverse Fight Club. Because the first rule of CrossFit is to never shut the f*** up about CrossFit” (http://likealaugh.org/laugh/23972).

crossfitred

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossfitpaleodietfitnessclasses/

 

However, CrossFit is hardly the first fitness regimen to inspire a zealous following while seeming bizarre to the uninitiated. Zumba, Pilates, yoga—there’s a long list of exercise systems that are popular now that were considered really, really strange when they were first introduced to the American public. Heck, some people still consider them weird. There will always be both zealots and scoffers when you discuss any activity. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.

Basically, the goal of CrossFit is to gradually improve students’ strength and stamina using a variety of different exercises, some using body weight and others using equipment like barbells and kettlebells. There is a different workout each day, and while some of the workouts might be done only once, others are done so often that they have names: Jason and Grace and Daniel, for instance. These are called benchmark workouts, since you can use them to chart your improvement over time. Benchmark workouts with male names, like J.T. and Michael, are named after American soldiers killed in the line of duty, which I think is a wonderful tribute.

There are also benchmark workouts with female names, like Elizabeth, Fran, and Cindy, known as “The Girls”.  Founder Greg Glassman had this to say about why he chose these names:

According to the National Weather Service the
use of “short, distinctive given names in written
as well as spoken communications is quicker and
less subject to error” than “more cumbersome”
identification methods, so since 1953 storms have
been assigned female given names.
This convenience and logic inspired our granting
a special group of workouts women’s names, but
anything that leaves you flat on your back and
incapacitated only to lure you back for more at a
later date certainly deserves naming.
CrossFit Journal, Issue 13, September 2003
http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/13_03_Benchmark_Workouts.pdf
(Thanks to my friend at http://bluebirdblvd.net/ for finding this quote for me!)

 

I am not as enamored over the naming of “The Girls.”

 

crossfitko

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/evilerin/

Ray and I first heard about CrossFit in 2007 when he saw a video that had been posted to a martial arts message board he read every day. It showed a CrossFit seminar where the instructors pulled a volunteer out of the audience to demonstrate how the CrossFit system improves strength and fitness. The volunteer was Glover Texeira, a professional mixed-martial arts fighter, and they had him compete head-to-head in squats and pull-ups with a CrossFit instructor named Nicole Carroll who was about half his size. She demolished him. You can watch it for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFdREos5v5E

Ray watched that video many times. He was intrigued. Practicing CrossFit had made it possible for an ordinary person to do things that even a professional athlete couldn’t do without training. At the time, he was practicing the Israeli martial art Krav Maga, but when his teacher moved, he eventually decided to try CrossFit out instead. Earlier this year, he started taking classes with a gym called CrossFit Banshee.

For the last four months, I’ve come from work every night and asked Ray, “How was CrossFit?” and he has answered every time, “CrossFit sucks.”

“Well, why do you keep going, then?” I’ll say. “You could find something else.”

“No, I like it,” he’ll reply. “But it sucks.”

It’s like our nightly comedy routine.

I was curious to find out why Ray both hated and liked CrossFit, so I asked him if I could come watch his class when I had a week off from work in July. He had a better idea.

“Guess what?” he said one night when I got home. “Steve, my CrossFit instructor, said that you could try out class for free during your week off if you promise to kick my butt.” (Except he didn’t use “butt,” Ray having a terrible potty mouth and Steve probably having one, too).

“Uh…” I said.

“You can use it as one of your adventures!”

Well, who was I to pass up an opportunity like that?

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Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossfitfever/

But I was nervous. Six years ago, I had some serious health problems that involved debilitating back pain, and none of the many doctors I visited could ever pinpoint the cause. I finally got better with a combination of weekly chiropractic visits and vitamin D supplements, but I have been terrified ever since that the pain will come back. Because of that, I’ve babied my body over the last six years, giving up weight training and other activities that I thought might strain my back, and I’ve worn a brace called an SI belt every day.

However, six months or so ago, I started seeing a new doctor who said that I had a weak ligament in my lower back that could be at the root of my problems. We tried out a treatment called prolotherapy which is designed to help strengthen lax ligaments. The prolotherapy has made my back feel stronger, and I’m doing so well now that the doctor has decreased my follow-up visits to once every two months. I haven’t had to get a chiropractic adjustment since October.

But I’m still scared to death of hurting myself again. I just don’t trust my body the way I used to.

It didn’t help that Ray and I watched the CrossFit Games two days before my first class. We were out at lunch with Ray’s mom, and one of the TVs at the sports bar-type restaurant was showing the second-to-last event of the Games. The women in the event were climbing 20 feet up extra-thick ropes to touch the rigging the ropes were hung from before climbing (not sliding) back down–and then they had to do it three more times! And then, as if that wasn’t hard enough, they grabbed barbells loaded with 165 pounds, hefted them overhead, and did three squats.

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Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossfitfever/

The event was called “Thick N Quick,” which prompted some inappropriate comments from the drunk twentysomething men at the next table over, as did the fact that the women were muscular (and looked like they wouldn’t take crap from drunk twentysomething men). I thought they were beautiful, myself; I love athletic bodies. But also, as they climbed and squatted in unbelievably fast times, I thought that there was no way I could ever do what they were doing. Not at 39 with a questionably stable back.

So I was pretty nervous going into my first class at CrossFit Banshee.

 

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CrossFit Banshee’s gym (or “box,” as CrossFit gyms are called, since “gyms” are too fancy and frou-frou for CrossFit practitioners) is in a suburban strip mall, next door to a consignment shop and a revival-style Mexican church. There’s a strip of tile floor just inside the door, with some couches and a TV thrown haphazardly in one corner, and then the rest of the rectangular space is covered in industrial black rubber matting. Against the far wall stands a framework of wood and metal like a jungle gym for adults, with gymnastic-style rings hanging from straps here and there. Another wall holds shelves full of medicine balls, yoga mats, foam rollers, and other equipment, and near the bathroom are stacks and stacks of round weights for barbells, like giant black hockey pucks with holes in the middle.

When we walked in at 6:15 or so, the 5:30 class was still finishing up. I was heartened to see that the students in the 5:30 class were not the chiselled athletic powerhouses of the CrossFit Games, but were ordinary-looking men and women like me in their late twenties to mid-forties. One of them was squatting a barbell with a modest amount of weight on it as we came in, and I watched as an instructor corrected her form and encouraged her to finish her last few reps. OK, I thought. That looks hard but doable. I can do this.

I repeated my mantra to myself over and over while Ray laughed at me. “It isn’t going to be like what you saw on TV,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”

The owner and head instructor, Steve, came over and introduced himself. Steve is tall, maybe 6’3” or so, sporting a shaved head with a mustache and goatee. He’s fit but not in an intimidating, Arnold Schwarzenegger kind of way, which I find comforting–he’s more like a walking advertisement for the way CrossFit can help normal people. He has a loud, booming voice and a super positive manner which I warmed to instantly. I could see right away that that he wasn’t a hardcore fanatic who was going to drive me to injure myself; he was a teacher like me who cared about his students.

That made me feel a lot better.

There were five students in class: Anna, an assistant instructor; Jo and Scott, both of whom are in my age range and have been taking class for several months; and me and Ray.

We started off by grabbing jump ropes from the supply area and doing 2 minutes of jump rope. I haven’t jumped rope at all for more than five years and not seriously for probably twenty-five, but it came back to me quickly and I only tripped myself once. Awesome! I had successfully made it through the warm-up, I thought. But no, Steve told us to all grab a piece of PVC for the warm-up. So I guessed that the jump rope had been the pre-warm-up.

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Photo credit: Mike Licht, https://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/

I went to the corner, where a couple dozen pieces of white PVC were stuck in a bucket, like the CrossFit version of an umbrella stand. The PVC was 1.25” in diameter, I would guess, and maybe five feet long. I took a piece out of the bucket and walked back to the main floor with Ray, who was twirling his piece of PVC around his head and back like a martial arts staff—a flashback to his days as a ninjitsu student.

Steve walked us through each movement of the CrossFit warm-up. First, we practiced squats, which I’d done before, and then we got to do the squat with the piece of PVC held over our heads. That was called an overhead squat, which I found out is a staple of CrossFit. My squats weren’t quite deep enough, so Steve put a medicine ball right behind me, and every time I squatted I had to touch my butt to the medicine ball without sitting on it. We did 5 or 6 of those, with Steve checking our form to make sure we were doing them correctly. So far, so good.

Then we did pushups. I’d done pushups before, but not the CrossFit way, where you have to keep your elbows tucked in by your sides the whole time. Steve showed me how he wanted me to do them, talking me through each part of the movement, and then he had me try. I splatted down on the floor like a bug on the windshield. Keeping your arms tucked in like that is hard. So Steve brought me a foam roller to prop my feet up on, making the movement easier, and then I managed to do 4 or 5 to his satisfaction. He told me that I could move the roller up my legs, closer to my body, to make the pushups easier, but I was anxious to show him that I wasn’t weak, so I kept the roller near my feet. That was a decision I would come to regret. More on that later.

Next we did situps. Again, I had done situps before, but not the CrossFit way. In my dance classes we mostly do crunches, only lifting the head and shoulders up off the mat, but CrossFit does full situps, where you lift your whole upper body off the mat and touch your feet. I got to put a pad under my lower back to make sure that the lumbar area was supported.

Now it was time for some ring pull-ups. I got to hold the gymnastics rings that were hanging from the wood-and-metal framework, and then I walked my feet forward until I was tilted at an angle underneath them. Then, squeezing my shoulder blades together, I pulled myself up until my chest was even with the rings before lowering myself back down to the starting position. Challenging but doable.

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Finally, we did what Steve called “Good Mornings,” where you prop the piece of PVC across your shoulders and bend forward with straight legs until your back is flat and parallel to the ground like a table. Then you squeeze your butt to stand up. We did several of those.

All right, I thought. I made it through the warm-up! Way to go, me!

But no. I hadn’t made it through the warm-up yet. That was just me learning all the movements. Now everybody had to go through the whole routine two more times.

Well, this is what I’d signed up for. I squared my shoulders and did the routine twice more, and I made it through OK, although my arms were definitely burning by the end. I was also the last person to finish by almost five minutes. Steve kept telling me that it was OK—speed didn’t matter as long as I was doing the movements right. I really appreciated the fact that his emphasis was on correct form (but I still wished that I wasn’t quite so slow).

“How do you feel?” Steve asked when I finally finished. “Are your muscles warm?”

I stared at him. Were my muscles warm? They were burning!

He laughed. It might have been my imagination, but it sounded like an evil cackle. “Yeah, in CrossFit, our warm-up is other people’s whole workout!”

Great.

Now it was time for the “skill” portion of class, where we would slowly go over the technique for a unique CrossFit move. Today’s skill was ring pushups. That’s where you lower the gymnastics rings nearly to the ground, and you grab on to them and do CrossFit pushups.

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Photo credit: http://crossfitmidland.com/

In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s as hard as it sounds.

We all got to take a turn trying it out. Scott was the best, followed by Anna and then Ray. I was really proud of myself when I was able to hold onto the rings and keep myself upright instead of splatting on the ground again. That’s as far as I got; lowering myself down didn’t happen, let alone pushing myself back up again.

“How does that feel?” Steve boomed at me, grinning.

“I don’t think I have the same muscles you do,” I said.

So now it was time for the actual workout. Steve told us to grab our PVC poles again so we could all go through how to do a Thruster correctly. This was the first time I’d ever heard of a Thruster. We started out by doing a squat, like we’d done in the warmup, but this time, instead of holding the bar over our heads, we held it tucked up under our chins with our elbows stuck out in front. I was so busy trying to do this correctly that I never did ask Steve why we had to stick our elbows out.

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Photo credit: Adrian Valenzuela, https://www.flickr.com/photos/adrianv/

After Steve checked our form on the squat, he showed us how to do an overhead press. From the starting position with the bar tucked under our chins, we straightened our arms, raising the bar over our heads. The trick was to move your chin out of the way when you started to raise the bar, or else the bar would take your head off.

Once we had that to Steve’s satisfaction, we got to put the moves together to make the Thruster: we squatted, then stood up explosively and used the momentum to help raise the bar over our heads. Sounds easy, right? But I had a lot of trouble standing up explosively. Steve kept telling me to use my hips, which I didn’t really understand (maybe because in Irish dance we don’t really use our hips). Finally, after trying for a while and watching Steve do it, I tried jumping up from the squat (since jumping IS something we do in Irish dance). That seemed to be what Steve wanted.

Great! We did a bunch of Thrusters, making sure that we had the technique. Then Steve told us that the other part of the workout would be pushups, so we should do a couple pushups so he could check them. Ugh–we’d already DONE pushups. But I did a couple more. My arms were starting to shake like crazy, so Steve had me scoot the foam roller up past my knees. My pride hurt, but my arms felt better.

At this point, we’d been doing what I thought was a workout for about 40 minutes, and I was sore and sweating. But apparently we were only just now ready to finally start the workout. The “Workout of the Day,” as it’s called in CrossFit, was 10 Thrusters followed by 10 pushups–and then you did 10 total rounds of that. I stared at Steve in dismay. I’d already done about 10 Thrusters and probably twice as many pushups, and now he was asking me to do 100 more of each.

No! I wanted to whine. I’ve already done enough!

Anna, the assistant trainer, handed everybody 10 playing cards to help keep track of the rounds. Every time you did a round, you got to turn a card over. Steve told us that was because after a few rounds, you stopped being able to think clearly enough to count.

Oh, great.

Well, if I was going to do this, I might as well get started. The other students were grabbing barbells and in some cases putting weights on them, but I stuck with my PVC. Just doing the movement by itself was enough of a challenge. I took a deep breath and thought about the proper form, and then I went slowly through 10 Thrusters. That wasn’t so bad. I got down on the mat and did 10 pushups. That was pretty bad; my arms didn’t really want to push my body back off the ground anymore, and it took an act of will to keep my elbows properly tucked to my sides. But I got through them. Standing up, I took a long drink of water and flipped over my first playing card. 1 round down.

3

“OK!” boomed Steve. “We’re doing 10 rounds for time! You need to do them as fast as you can!”

I frowned. “We’re getting timed? But I did my first round already.”

He grinned at me. “No, that was just for practice.”

ARG! I could have screamed as I reluctantly bent to flip my card back over.

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Photo credit: Ian Burt, https://www.flickr.com/photos/oddsock/

“READY!” shouted Steve, like a quarterback in the huddle. “SET! GO!”

And then a big red timer over the bathroom started ticking, and we were off for real. Anna and Scott, the two most advanced students in the class, were belting out their Thrusters at a fast pace; Jo and Ray were slower but steady. I was like a turtle–a beginner, perfectionist turtle, who had to check her form before every single movement. By the time everybody else was on to their first set of pushups, I was still only halfway through my first set of Thrusters. By the time I got to my pushups, Anna and Scott were almost on their second round of pushups. I was going to be doing this until midnight.

As the workout progressed, my Thrusters got smoother and (very slightly) faster as I began to understand the movement and feel more confident. My pushups, on the other hand, got slower and slower and slower, and the foam roller got closer and closer to my body, until the roller was practically under my belly button and I was pausing at the bottom of each pushup to talk myself into getting back up. My arms trembled, and they didn’t seem to have any strength left in them. It was a good thing my life didn’t depend on my ability to do pushups, because I would have been a goner for sure.

I was the last person to finish the workout–by a lot. But I DID finish the workout, and moreover I finished under the final time limit that Steve had announced before we started. I can’t tell you how proud I felt as I got to write my name up on the class white board with my finishing time. It had been hard, but I had done it. And my back felt OK. I had done a strenuous workout without hurting myself. It was a wonderful feeling.

“Great job!” Steve shouted in his quarterback voice, giving me a high five (although it was more like a sideways five, since Steve had to stick his hand out at shoulder height in order for me to reach it). “What did you think?”

It was hard, I thought. I’m sore, I’m tired, and I wish I hadn’t been so gung-ho about doing the pushups at the beginning without using the foam roller as much. I’m not going to be able to lift my arms tomorrow, and my legs aren’t doing so hot, either. That was the hardest workout I’ve done in years.

But at the same time, I really enjoyed the way Steve broke down each movement and coached me through it, making sure that I had correct form before we started the Workout of the Day. Before I even warmed up, he had asked me about my physical health, and he checked in with me throughout the hour about how my back was feeling. He made sure that I was getting a good workout without hurting myself, and he encouraged me every step of the way. And when I finished the workout? The feeling of accomplishment was exhilarating.

“I loved it!” I said. “Can I come back tomorrow?”

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Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossfitfever/

Adventure #3–Alligator Wrestling, Part 3

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Originally written 7/29/14.

Part 1: http://nerdseye.com/2015/08/24/adventure-3-alligator-wrestling-part-1/

Part 2: http://nerdseye.com/2015/08/25/adventure-3-alligator-wrestling-part-2/

As I waded into the pool full of 6-8-foot alligators, Drew pointed out a gator hanging out near the wall. Unlike the other alligators, who were all black, this alligator had yellow stripes, and his back arched up out of the water like a mound.

“That’s Hunchback Oregon,” Drew said. He told us that baby alligators all have yellow stripes to help them stay camouflaged, since other animals eat them when they’re small. The stripes fade over time when the gator’s skin gets exposed to sunlight. That means that only an alligator raised indoors will still have stripes when it’s 6-8 feet long. Also, Hunchback Oregon’s rounded back showed that he was kept in a cage that was too small for him, so that as he grew, his body wasn’t able to straighten out fully.

He said that more than 100 of the alligators at the reptile park were rescues, and many of them had similar deformities. It made me glad that there was an organization like this one that took care of unwanted reptile ex-pets.

It was now time for me to catch my 6-foot gator. Drew pointed out one that was completely submerged near the far fence, and I reached down and grabbed the tip of her tail. She didn’t move, so (having learned from my previous experience) I braced my arms and started to walk backwards, using my legs to move the gator. The gator began to glide with me. Yay! However, after about two steps, she decided that she didn’t really want to make the trip. She thrashed her tail side to side, splashing up water in a spray all around me.

When I did some research for this blog post, I couldn’t find any reliable information on how much a 6-8-foot gator weighs; I got answers anywhere from 50 pounds to a 250. All I can say is that my alligator felt really heavy and really, really strong. I hung on to the tail for dear life, feeling like a cartoon character getting dramatically tossed around by this huge, powerful tail.

“Don’t let go! Don’t let go!” Drew was shouting.

All of a sudden, my gator cracked her tail like a whip, and I found myself being flung sideways into the water. The water was only two feet deep or so—that wasn’t a problem—but right in front of me was a very irritated predator who was extremely nimble underwater and who had extremely powerful jaws. Not to mention sharp, pointy teeth.

This isn’t good, I thought.

I scrambled to my feet as quickly as I could. It felt like I was down in the mud for about a minute, just daring my gator to reach around and chomp me, but when I watched the video later it was really more like 2 seconds before I popped back up. You have never seen a dance teacher move faster.

Amazingly, I still had the gator’s tail in my hands—I hadn’t let go. I don’t know how I did that.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t braced anymore, and the gator gave one last mighty wriggle and snatched her tail out of my hands before jetting full-speed toward the far corner. She had gotten away.

I screamed in frustration, mad at myself for letting go. Drew, though, was thrilled.

“Good going! Holy crap!” he exclaimed. “You’re a maniac!” He turned towards the group gathered on the bank. “She held on through that!”

I can’t tell you how good that praise made me feel. It made me feel like I could do anything.

Which was good, because I still had to catch my gator. “Are you OK to go again?” Drew asked me in a low voice that the rest of the group couldn’t hear. Like a good leader, he was making sure that the fall into gator-infested water hadn’t completely shaken me up.

Actually, it had just made me mad. “I’m good,” I said. “I’m just angry that it got away.”

“Well, let’s find her again,” he said. He then started searching the pool for my gator, which I guess was distinctive because the base of her tail bulged out in a funny way. I would have been happy to grab a different gator if it was handy, but Drew seemed to want to set up Me vs Alligator 2: The Revenge (“this time, it’s personal!”).

After a minute, he found her again in a corner of the pool, where I would need to walk up on the bank to get her. “There she is!” he said, pointing. “All right. Why don’t you go around—you’ve got her in the corner. Go around Lori.”

I thought Lori must be his girlfriend, who was standing on the bank. “Go around Lori?” I repeated.”

“Yeah. Lori’ll spin.”

That didn’t make much sense, but I was so focused on getting the gator that I didn’t even think about it. It wasn’t until much later (when I’d found out that Drew’s girlfriend was named Rosana) that I realized Lori was another of the alligators. I could see her next to the bank when I watched the video.

Good thing I didn’t try to grab her tail.

I walked back up the bank and around to the corner, where a bunch of tires were sticking up out of the mud. Drew pointed out my gator to me, and I bent down and grabbed her tail. She didn’t wiggle much this time, but she did hook her front legs over something to hang on, and for a second or two I couldn’t move her. I heaved, and she started to move reluctantly back with me. Then we got hung up on the tires, and I couldn’t go anywhere. Seriously, I think she might have weighed more than me.

Drew asked my classmates to come help me over the tires, and Svan and Chris ran over to pull on the tail with me (Ray was still on the other side of the fence).

“That’s a big gator!” Drew exclaimed.

We pulled her out onto the bank, and Svan and Chris held her tail while I jumped onto her back and put my feet up under her front legs (her “armpits,” as we kept calling them, except I’m not really sure that alligators have armpits). I am not sure I could have held onto her by myself; she was still trying to crawl forward, even with three of us holding her. Alligator wrangling would probably not be a stellar career choice for me. But, with their help, I was able to get my fingers in front of her neck and lift her head off the ground, immobilizing her.

As Drew took my picture, he said, “How do you feel right now?”

I beamed. “I feel amazing!” And I did. There is something very rewarding about struggling with something bigger and stronger than yourself and coming out on top (literally!).

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Now it was Ray’s turn. I didn’t think that Drew and the class would be able to talk him into it this time, but, after a few minutes of cajoling that ranged from Ginger’s, “I felt the exact same way,” to Svan’s, “I feel ya, dude. This is nuts,” he (to my surprise) climbed over the fence and waded into the pool.

He told me later that Drew’s girlfriend Rosana had been working on him the whole time the rest of us had been wrestling. She’d stood by the fence and gave him the crap that the guys hadn’t given him, saying things like, “Does it bother you that your wife is so much braver than you?”, “I guess we know who wears the pants in your family,” and (the kicker), “I’m five months pregnant, and I did it.”

Speaking of which, I think that makes her the bravest (and craziest) person there.

Anyway, Rosana’s “encouragement” worked, and Ray waded in and grabbed his alligator. Of course, the one he grabbed ended up having big bite wounds all over it, so instead of being able to get in and out quickly, he had to sit there and hold it still for several minutes while the rest of us dabbed it with paper towels and ointment. I’m pretty sure it was his version of purgatory.

“Know what this proves?” he said when he was done. “That peer pressure works!”

We took a water break, and then we headed out for our final challenge: the “lake,” the biggest of the ponds, where the 8-12 foot alligators lived.

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First, though, we went in to visit Elvis, one of the original alligators the farm bought in 1987. Now 25, he’s lived in the park his whole life, and he is huge. He’s got his own enclosure, which is good, because he’s aggressive. Most of us enjoyed watching him from a distance (except for Svan, who walked closer, because Svan was crazy. More on that later). Drew wanted us to see Elvis because he’s a perfect alligator specimen, unlike so many of the rescues, who have deformities after being kept in bad conditions for most of their lives.

The lake was next to Elvis’ enclosure. By that time, the ground was baking hot, and everybody but Drew was walking with these side-to-side hopping motions so that our feet were in contact with the ground for only about a second at a time. Drew seemed immune to the heat. I was coated in mud up to my waist because of my fall, which didn’t bother me until Svan leaned over at one point and said, “I just realized that the gators poop in this water.”

Hmm. Guess I should have brought some sanitizer.

On the bank of the lake, Drew reminded us about keeping our feet low in the water, and he reminded us of another rule of dealing with alligators: if you feel something brush by you, freeze and pretend to be a tree.

Then we set off through the waist-deep muddy water, heading for a little mound of dirt like an island that was decorated with a sign that said “Colorado Gator Complaints Department: Line Forms Here.” Right in the middle of the gator-infested lake.

 gatorlake

Walking through the lake, I was about as nervous as I’d been all day. This was their habitat, and the water was deep enough, and murky enough, that I couldn’t see whether any alligators were around me or not. But I scooted my feet through the dirt at the bottom and moved slowly, and I reached the island without disturbing anything more than a couple of old gator bones—which are disconcerting enough, let me tell you. I didn’t even see any gators anywhere near me. I wondered, after I reached dry land, if there weren’t really that many in the lake.

Drew and Alex went off to find our last gator. The gators in this pond were too big to drag out by their tails, so Drew was going to tow one in with a rope. Meanwhile, we stood around talking, feeling pretty darn good about ourselves. After a few minutes, I looked around, and I was startled to see more than a dozen pairs of eyes poking out of the water around the island, watching us with the disconcerting stillness that gators use to help them ambush prey.

Good Lord. ALL of those had been there while we’d been walking to the island? It was just as well that I hadn’t known that. Alligator eyes sticking up out of the water make them look really, really evil.

“It’s lucky that alligators don’t have a pack mentality, isn’t it?” Ginger said, echoing my thoughts.

Actually, alligators, like most wild animals, are shy of human beings. There has never been a fatal alligator attack in Louisiana, and even in Florida, where humans come into more contact with big gators than anywhere else, there have only been about a dozen fatal attacks in the last ten years. Crocodopolis.com says that you have a better chance of winning the Florida lottery than you do of being attacked by an alligator. They’re not evil; they’re just reptilian ambush predators, largely unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs and operating mainly from instinct. Like Greta Garbo, they just want to be left alone.

Unfortunately for one specimen, it wasn’t going to get its wish. Drew and Alex pulled a big gator ashore—it was more than 8 feet long—and we all took turns posing with it, even kissing its head and resting our chins against its nose a la Tahar the Alligator King. That’s safe(ish) once you’ve got the gator immobilized, since it can’t twist, and it also can’t either see or feel you doing it. Even Ray had his picture taken, and my very favorite picture of the day is him looking up at the camera from the back of the gator with this plaintive look that seems to say, “Can we go home now?” Of course, Ray ended up being the last person on the gator’s back, so he had to sit there and immobilize it while we checked it for injuries (which included, in this case, a loose tooth! Gators lose teeth frequently and then regrow them).

I felt pretty content with my adventure, and I had definitely gotten my money’s worth. Svan, however, wanted one last challenge, so he and Drew waded off under some willow trees so that Svan could catch his own big gator. The rest of us sat down and talked. I found out that Ginger worked with Drew at his kennel, that Alex was Drew’s roommate, and that Chris was originally from L.A.

It was maybe ten minutes later that we heard Svan’s characteristic shouting: “Come on, girl! Come on, Mildred! That’s right! Settle down now, girl, I’ve got you!”

“Does he do that on the ranch, too?” I asked Chris curiously. “Talk to the animals, I mean.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Chris. “All the time. When we’re catching calves, you’ll always hear him yelling, ‘Who’s your daddy?’”

Mildred must have gotten away, because Svan and Drew moved back closer to the island. Then Svan exclaimed, “I’ve got one!”

All of a sudden, his shout of triumph turned into a scream. “No! It’s got me! It’s got me!” His shoulders were under the water now, and there was a ton of splashing. “Jesus Christ! Oh, sweet Jesus! I’m a goner! I’m done for!”

Having heard Svan do this all day, we were all laughing. Drew, standing next to Svan, was not laughing, but he also didn’t seem panicked, so we figured everything was OK. Over by the fence, some park visitors were watching. There was a little boy, maybe eight years old, staring with round eyes and an open mouth, but his dad, a big guy in a Harley Davison t-shirt, was laughing his head off and filming the whole thing on his phone. Probably made his day.

Svan heaved, and the gator’s head popped up out of the water. “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!” Svan yelled. “I’ve got you now!” And then he leaned forward and kissed the gator on the nose. Better him than me.

When he and Drew got back to the island, I said, “You were really funny with all your shouting over there.”

Svan looked at me. “Funny? I was serious. I thought the gator had got me.”

“Oh, come on,” said Drew. “What was the worst that could have happened?”

Ray was not looking forward to walking back through the lake, but it turned out there was a way you could walk back to the gate on dry land. He was pretty peeved about that; he would definitely have taken the dry-land route on the way there if he had known about it.

Back in the gift shop, we were all given Certificates of Insanity with our picture on it:

“Awarded for willingly and knowingly abandoning all common sense and good judgment and endangering life and limbs while taking the world’s only Alligator Wrestling Class at Colorado Gators Reptile Park.”

As we walked back to the car, I asked Ray if he’d enjoyed himself.

“Yeah,” he said. “I did. And you know what? This Certificate of Insanity is going on my wall at work right next to my Facility Management Professional certificate. It’s one of the proudest achievements of my life!”

Find out more about Colorado Gators at http://www.coloradogators.com/

Adventure #3–Alligator Wrestling, Part 2

gatorpockets

Originally written 7/29/14.

Be sure to read Part 1: http://nerdseye.com/2015/08/24/adventure-3-alligator-wrestling-part-1/

While Ray and I were wandering around the reptile park, we passed an outdoor enclosure that had people in it, and we stopped to take a look. The enclosure was square, fenced in with a combination of wood, chain link, and what looked like aluminum siding. A pool of water took up most of the enclosure, with a dirt bank in one corner. There was a ring of old tires right at the edge of the water, making a lip around the pool.

The pool had maybe a dozen alligators in it, all between four and six feet long. Several men were standing on the dirt bank watching the alligators. One of them was an older man with gray hair and a mustache. He was wiry, looking very trim in his sunglasses, shorts, and black shirt, and there was something about him that made me wonder if he rode motorcycles. He seemed to be in charge of the group. There was a second man in a sleeveless t-shirt who reminded me of Ray except for the mustache; he seemed to be very knowledgeable, and I thought he might be an assistant. The other two guys were in their twenties, I would guess, and shirtless, showing off fit physiques and a number of tattoos (one of them had a whole scene on his side and back, showing a lighthouse, a shipwreck, and a ghostly woman’s face).

This had to be the 10:30 alligator wrestling class! We leaned on the fence, ready to enjoy a preview.

The older man and one of the young bucks walked out into the water, wading in it up to their knees as they approached the far fence. The student grabbed an alligator’s tail and dragged it backwards up onto the bank, where he then jumped on its back, following the teacher’s instructions. He put his hands around the back of the gator’s neck and leaned some of his weight onto his hands, pinning the animal in place while the others clapped and shouted encouragement.

My mouth dropped open. Oh, geez. There was suddenly a tightness in the pit of my stomach. THAT’S what I was going to be doing?

I suddenly had a lot more respect for Tahar the Alligator King. Out here, up close, the gator looked bigger than I had expected, and looked awfully real, not to mention pointy at one end. He did stay very still as the student dragged him up on the bank, but the stillness didn’t look like resignation; it looked more like he was trying to lull everybody into a false sense of security so he could whip around and snap somebody’s hand off.

I glanced over at Ray. Ray’s face had a greenish tinge, and he seemed to be having the same thoughts I was. Hurriedly, we pushed away from the fence and went to go look at something else—something preferably small and harmless.

What had we gotten ourselves into?

 gator1

When we were done looking around the park, we went back inside the gift shop and looked around at the t-shirts and knickknacks. One of the women behind the counter told us that our class would be meeting outside near the playground, so at 12 we walked out there and and watched some turtles and small gators swimming around in a big metal tank. There were two guys in their twenties out there, too, both wearing sunglasses and Crocodile Dundee-style leather hats. I wondered if they were part of our class.

The 10:30 class ran long, the assistant from that class told us in passing, so our instructor was late getting out to us—giving us plenty of time to get good and nervous. Why oh why had I thought this was a good idea? Even the two-foot alligators in the tank suddenly looked big and vicious, and the last thing I wanted to do was try to catch one.

At about 12:15, our instructor came out, damp and a little muddy from the end of the last class. It was the driver of the yellow car. No wonder he’d sounded authoritative! He was still barefoot, and now he was also sporting a shin guard on his left leg. I found the shin guard slightly ominous.

His name, he told us, was Drew, and during his day job he was a dog trainer in Gunnison, Colorado. On the weekends he came out and volunteered at the reptile park.

We introduced ourselves. The two other guys were indeed part of our class. Their names were Chris and Svan (pronounced like “swan” with a v instead of a w), and they were ranch hands on a ranch up in Fort Collins to the north of Denver. Both of them were pretty tall and looked strong. Chris had dark brown hair, tan skin, and a roundish face; Svan was blond and as pale-skinned as me, and when he took off his shirt later I worried that he was going to fry like an egg (I had coated myself in about a gallon of sunscreen on the car ride over to prevent that exact thing).

Drew got someone to take a picture of all of us together holding our hands up, “to show that we have all our fingers and toes,” he said. “For insurance. Just kidding—we don’t have any insurance.”

Ha ha. Colorado Gator’s macabre sense of humor didn’t seem quite so funny right at the moment.

Drew hopped into the metal tank we were standing near. It was maybe a dozen feet in diameter and three or four feet tall, made of steel that had once been painted blue. There was dirt and water inside to make a small pond, with rocks sticking out in one corner and planks of wood floating here and there for the resident turtles and gators to sun themselves on.

From this new platform, Drew thanked us for coming out and told us that we were helping Colorado Gators with a very important task: we were going to pull alligators out of the water so that Drew could look them over for injuries and treat them. Gators, he said, are not very nice to each other, and they can get bites and scratches that need attention. He would show us how to handle the alligators, and then with each one we would all help look it over for injuries.

There were two rules to handling gators, Drew told us. #1 was Don’t Hesitate. Alligators aren’t sensitive to human emotions like dogs, so they can’t “smell fear,” but they are fast and aggressive. Once you start to grab one, if you hesitate, they’ll either swim away or turn around and bite you. A pit bull, he said, exerts 230 pounds per square inch of bite pressure; an adult alligator exerts 2000. So you really don’t want to get bitten.

Rule #2 was Don’t Let Go. Alligators can move powerfully side to side, but they can’t twist their trunks or bend either backward or forward. Also, just like us, they can’t see directly behind them. This means that if you can pin a gator down with your hands behind its head, it can’t reach around to bite you. However, if it wiggles side to side and you let go of it, it can then spin around (which it does frighteningly fast) and take a chunk out of you. So don’t let go.

After giving us these very reassuring pieces of advice, Drew showed us how to pick up one of the 2-4 foot gators in the tank. He herded one of them against the metal wall of the tank and then put one hand behind its head and the other one on its tail. “Even this small, they’re strong,” he said, “so to keep hold of it, you have to pull it apart like an accordion.” I must have looked horrified, because he said, “It’s OK—you are not going to be able to hurt it. Gators are really tough.”

He then showed us how to safely put the gator back in the tank, by lowering it until it was flat in the water and then pushing it away from you as you took a step back. The step back was to get out of the way in case it felt like spinning around and chomping your shin. “No animal likes getting hauled to the vet,” he said, “but it’s necessary. When you have your gator, I’ll take a picture, and then you’ll keep holding while I look it over for injuries.”

Then he glanced between the four of us, apparently sizing us up. My heart was pounding in my chest, and Ray beside me was doing the same deep breathing exercises in through his nose and out through his mouth that I teach my dance students to do when they’re panicking before a competition. This was insane. Why were we doing this?

“Ladies first?” Drew asked.

No way was I going to look like a wuss in front of all the people now gathered around the tank. “Sure,” I said, and climbed into the tank.

Drew laughed and clapped his hands. “Oh, we are going to have a FUN class today!” he shouted.

I stood there in the lukewarm water, watching the various residents of the tank swim around me. Besides the six or so gators, there were a number of turtles, including two snapping turtles. I eyed the snapping turtles with distrust. One of them was pretty small, but the other one was about the size of my cat, and I remembered stories of how Bob the Alligator Snapping Turtle at the Denver Zoo was powerful enough to bite people’s fingers off. I really didn’t want my toes anywhere near this snapper.

Drew pointed to an alligator now swimming behind me. “How about that one?”

I turned around. The gator in question was surely about to graduate to the next tank. It looked huge. Also, its mouth was wide open, displaying tiny but sharp-looking white teeth, and it was hissing at me like a cartoon snake. I had no idea until that moment that gators could hiss.

“The one hissing at me?” I asked shakily. Eek!

But that one swam away before I could do anything, so we turned our attention to a much smaller one cruising around the wall of the tank.

“Go for it,” Drew said.

I looked at the gator. It was eyeing me distrustfully, as well it might. Sorry, little guy. “I’m supposed to grab it between the front legs and the head?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“OK.” Well, here went nothing.

Repeating Rule #1 over and over in my head—don’t hesitate, don’t hesitate—I bent down and grabbed the gator behind the head with my right hand, lifting it up and then grabbing the middle of its tail with my left hand. I lifted it out of the water. Suddenly, I was holding an alligator in my hands, an alligator that I had caught myself. Wow.

The gator’s skin was tough and bumpy, not unlike the surface of a tire but more leathery. It was warm from the sun, and I could feel it breathing underneath my hands. I felt a thrill go through me, a little connection between me and this living thing.

Drew took my picture with it, and then he looked it over for bites. While he was looking it over, it started wriggling, eager to get out of my hands.

“Pull him out like an accordion!” Drew said.

I didn’t want to tell him that I was trying. Maybe I needed to hit the arm weights at the gym when I got home. I pulled harder, and the gator stopped.

“He looks good. Let him go.”

I lowered the gator until he was right at the surface of the water and then, following Drew’s instructions, I pushed the gator away from me and stepped back. The gator swam away, only too eager to get as far away from me as possible. Everybody around the tank clapped. I felt awesome.

Svan and Chris followed, and then Ray. All of them got their gator, although there were some abortive attempts where the gator escaped just as the would-be wrestler bent to grab it, and everybody was taken by surprise (like I was) by how strong they were. When they wiggled side to side, trying to break your grip, they meant business.

Having passed our 2-4 foot tank test, we went on to our next challenge. Drew had told us all to take off our shoes before going into the first tank, so we padded barefoot down the concrete walkway through the building where Mr. Bo Mangles lived. We stopped in front of various exhibits while Drew told us about the animals in them (that’s how I learned some of the information I passed on in Part 1).

When we reached the tank with the alligator snapping turtle, Drew got in the tank and talked about the snappers, and about the caiman who lived there. I sincerely hoped we weren’t going to wrestle the caiman (we weren’t). Instead, Drew picked up the 60-pound alligator snapping turtle, a beast named Godzooky. Ray told me later that Godzooky was Godzilla’s cousin in this animated cartoon from the late 70’s. The turtle certainly looked like he might be related to Godzilla, big and primitive, and as soon as Drew picked him up he opened his bony mouth and kept it open, ready to chomp anybody who came too close.

“Does anybody want to hold Godzooky?” Drew asked.

I thought he was kidding. I shook my head emphatically.

But apparently he wasn’t kidding. “You moved first!” Drew said. “Get on in here.”

I climbed into the tank and stood beside Drew. “Put your hands inside the top shell diagonally across from each other, and then rest the back of his shell against your thighs.”

“OK,” I said, and did what he said. Drew let go. Geez, the turtle was heavy. No wonder they moved so slowly.

I had my picture taken, and then Drew told me to lower Godzooky into the water and let him go. Unfortunately, as soon as I unpropped the back of the turtle’s shell from my legs, I lost my balance (did I mention he was heavy?), and I broke Rule #2: I let go and dropped him. He splashed down into the tank with a horrible thump, and I gasped.

Oh, no! I felt awful. “Is he all right?” I asked, bending over to peer at the turtle. He seemed to be OK, swimming around, and nothing looked cracked or broken. Thank goodness. But boy, did I feel like I had taken myself to the bottom of the class. I’m sorry, you fail: you broke our turtle.

The guys all then took their turns holding Godzooky, except for Ray, who said, “No, thanks, I’m good.” Ray doesn’t like water very much, and he was definitely not enjoying the class as much as I was.

From the snapper tank, we walked outside to the 4-6 foot enclosure, the same one that Ray and I had watched earlier. Drew let us in through a gate in the fence and we all went in, walking barefoot across the hot, hard-packed dirt. I heard a hissing noise behind me and jumped; a gator had crawled up next to the fence and was letting us know that he didn’t appreciate us being that close to him.

 gatordelicious

“You know,” Ray remarked, “I think I’m good. I’ll just watch while the rest of you guys do this part.”

Drew explained to us that with the bigger gators, we weren’t going to be able to pick them up like we did with the little ones. Instead, we were going to wade into the pool and grab an alligator by the tail before pulling them backwards onto the bank. That was going to be possible, he said, because the alligators’ armor plating didn’t have a lot of nerve endings in it, so they weren’t sensitive to touch. He reminded us of Rules #1 and #2. Also, he said, while the alligators couldn’t twist to get out of our grasp, they could spin around to one side to try to get us, and if they did that we needed to “dance” (his word) away from them to the other side.

Sure. Great. No problem.

Then Drew told us that this size alligator was the most dangerous, because they were big enough to do a lot of damage, but small enough to be really fast.

I had to be out of my mind. I wiped my sweaty palms on the side of my shorts.

By that time, the three women who had ridden in the yellow car had joined us. They had taken the earlier class but had to stick around because they were traveling back with Drew, so they decided they might as well hang around with us. One of them, a slender, short-haired woman in her twenties named Ginger, told all of us (as we stood there staring at the gators in the pond) that she was terrified of water and aquatic animals, so if she could do it, we all could, too.

That made me feel better. I actually would have volunteered to go first, but Svan had already peeled off his shirt and was wading into the pool. We watched him snatch at a tail and miss, the alligator wriggling away.

When he finally got his gator tail and pulled the animal back out onto the bank, he was talking to it. “That’s right, girlfriend. Settle! Settle down! You ain’t going nowhere. I’ve got you, and that’s how it’s going to be.” He sat down on the gator’s back, put his hands behind the gator’s neck, and pushed it firmly down into the dirt to pin it, all at Drew’s direction. Then he laced his fingers in front of the gator’s neck and pulled its head back, because in that position (which doesn’t hurt the gator), the gator can’t do anything to get away.

Drew took a picture and then told Svan to put the gator back down so we could all look it over. Armed with paper towels and a tube of waterproof antibiotic ointment, we found all the bites and scrapes along the alligator’s hide, wiped the mud clear, and applied ointment, like a crazy cross between a NASCAR pit crew and a team of EMTs. And boy, there were A LOT of bites. Drew hadn’t been kidding.
That done, Svan let the gator go, and it crawled back to the water and disappeared.

It was my turn.

I waded out into the pool, shuffling my feet along the sandy bottom like Drew had instructed (“keep your feet low” was another rule; stepping on an alligator wasn’t going to end well for anybody). Drew was next to me, as he had been with Svan, acting as both guide and buffer. We walked toward the far fence, where several alligators were sunning themselves.

“That one looks good,” he said, pointing to one of them. “Go ahead and grab it.”

“Uh…” I looked at the next gator over, who seemed uncomfortably close to me. “I don’t want to get too close to this guy, though, do I?”

“It’s just an alligator,” said Drew, and everybody laughed.

Oh, yeah. Just an alligator.

Well, I had signed up for this. Squaring my shoulders, I reached down and grabbed the alligator’s tail. It just lay there and let me touch it, which surprised me. The tail was thick, like a scaly club, and my fingers didn’t go all the way around it. I probably should have grabbed a little closer to the end. Anyway, I had a hold of it. I pulled.

Nothing happened, except the gator realized that I was yanking on it. Good grief, was the alligator heavy. And strong. I pulled again with my arms, but the gator decided it didn’t really want to go with me and started to crawl forward, lashing its tail back and forth at the same time. I wasn’t prepared at all for the strength of its tail.

“Go, go, go!” said Drew. “Pull! What—do you think he’s just going to let you do it?”

There was no way—NO WAY—I was going to let go of that tail, not after dropping the turtle earlier. I squeezed for all I was worth. “No!” I panted, fighting the thrashing tail. “I’m just not very strong.”

I was not making any headway. The gator felt like a wiggling 2-ton weight. But then, all of a sudden, my feet gained traction in the bottom of the pool and I was able to take a step backward. It was like magic. I found myself walking back towards the edge of the pool, dragging the alligator across the top of the water in front of me like a deranged pool toy. Behind me, I heard my classmates clapping and shouting encouragement, and I pulled the gator onto the bank.

“Pull it towards you and drop!” shouted Drew.

I was supposed to sit on the base of the gator’s tail, right where it joined the body, and then put my hands behind the gator’s neck to push it down. That did not go quite according to plan. I sat down, but the gator squirted out from under me, making a short-legged dash towards freedom. No, no, no! I was not going to let that happen. I hurled myself forward onto the gator’s back (which is NOT what I was supposed to do) and fumbled for its neck.

“No, no, no!” yelled Drew, as my face came down right on top of the gator’s nose. “Head up! Like a horse!”

I somehow managed to sit up, dropping my butt onto the gator’s tail, and when I looked down, my hands were in the right position behind its head. Whoa. I did it! The gator still thought it had a chance, though, and kept crawling forward until I was finally able to lace my fingers together in front of its neck and lift its head off the ground.

Yay!

I stayed there while the others put antibiotic ointment on the various bites, and then Drew talked me through my dismount: I had to leave my hands where they were, get my feet under me, stand up, and then push the gator forward while jumping back. Luckily, my gator wasn’t the vengeful kind—all it wanted to do was go back to sunning itself against the fence. I stood up and it crawled away.

Everybody cheered. I felt like a rock star.

Chris went next, and then it was Ray’s turn. But Ray’s enthusiasm for the project, already virtually nil, had been even further diminished by watching the rest of us thrash around in the water. “Nope,” he said. “I’m good.”

“Come on, Ray,” said Drew. “I’ve only had to give out the Sir Robin Award for Cowardice once in my five years as instructor, and I’m not giving it out today.” (Nice Monty Python reference!)

“I’m OK with the Sir Robin Award,” said Ray.

“No. Come on.”

Everybody pitched in, trying to talk Ray into it. I was amazed at how positive and encouraging the group was. It wasn’t so surprising from Ginger and Alex, the two women from the previous class, but it really did surprise me that Svan and Chris, the two ranch hands, were being supportive rather than giving Ray crap. That was actually my experience the whole day—the class felt like being on a team.

“Look,” said Drew finally. “There’s a gator in here named Stevie who I really need to look at, because he had to have a leg amputated by a vet recently. He’s blind, so he won’t give you much trouble. Come help me with him, will you?”

Reluctantly, Ray waded into the water with Drew toward where Stevie had been floating the whole time, apparently perfectly content. He took Stevie’s tail, which Stevie didn’t bat an eye at, and pulled Stevie out of the water. Even then, though, Ray was less than excited about sitting down on the alligator’s back. Drew had to count “1-2-3 go” twice before Ray finally knelt down on Stevie’s tail. Everybody cheered. Stevie seemed resigned, and he mostly just lay there while Drew looked him over.

It was after one o’clock by then, and the day was heating up. The dirt I walked on was uncomfortably warm under my feet. We went through the gate and on to the pond next door, where the alligators were 6-8 feet long. I looked at them over the mismatched material of the fence and wondered, Where is the gate?

It turned out there wasn’t one. Instead, we had to climb over the fence, which was four feet tall. The barrier was mostly made of plastic siding with wood here and there, and there was a cinder block which I could use as a stepstool to hoist myself up. But on the other side, the only footrest was a long strip of aluminum, apparently attached as a support. There were two-inch-long screws sticking out of the aluminum every couple feet, and the metal sizzled in the hot sun like the surface of a frying pan. As if wrestling alligators wasn’t enough of a challenge.

I made it over the fence without either impaling myself on a screw or burning my foot, so that was a success. Drew put his hands on the top and vaulted over it like a stuntman, which made me envious. I wish I could do that. Ray didn’t even come over, but stayed outside, leaning on the top of the fence. He told us that if stayed out there we couldn’t make him grab an alligator.

The enclosure was very similar to the one next door, except for the size of the inhabitants: dirt bank, pool taking up most of the space, tires around the edge of the pool. Our wrestling technique was going to be the same, too, except, since the gators were bigger, heavier, and stronger, we were going to need to put our feet up under the gators’ front legs to help push the tail down in back.

Okay. I’d gained some confidence from the last gator encounter, and even though I was a little nervous, I felt like I could do it. Just as I was thinking that, I stepped on something sharp and bent down to see what it was. It was a huge alligator vertebra half-buried in the dirt. Oh, geez.

Drew picked our order this time. Chris went first, then Svan. Then it was my turn.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

Adventure #3–Alligator Wrestling, Part 1

Originally written 7/28/14

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http://www.coloradogators.com/

About ten years ago, my husband Ray and I were driving from Denver to Colorado Springs when we saw a billboard advertising a place called Colorado Gators. It interested us so much that we looked it up when we got home.

Colorado Gators, it turned out, had started out as a tilapia farm in 1977. The Young family raised tilapia in the San Luis Valley in geothermal pools, since tilapia need warm water to survive. In 1987, they purchased 100 baby alligators as a way of getting rid of the remains of dead fish. Locals wanted to see the alligators, so in 1990 they opened up to the public. Word spread about their farm, and soon people from all over were dropping off unwanted reptile pets that had gotten too big or too aggressive: alligators, crocodiles, iguanas, and pythons. Now the facility is both a tilapia farm and an animal rescue, taking care of a variety of exotic ex-pets and trying to educate the public about these animals.

They also, their website told us, offered classes in reptile handling and alligator wrestling.

I’m not exactly sure why that last part stuck with me. Part of it was just the unexpectedness of the whole facility. Alligators are definitely not native to Colorado, which is not only too cold in winter but too dry all the time, and even at the Denver Zoo the crocodilians are housed inside in a climate-controlled habitat. I found the idea of a reptile park in Colorado intriguing; I love anything out of the ordinary.

Part of it was my memory of going to the Ringling Brothers Circus once as a kid when the headlining act was Tahar the Alligator King. Tahar was like a cross between a Moroccan Yul Brynner and Tarzan: bald, muscular, and wearing a leopard-print pair of briefs. He sat on the backs of alligators, pulled their heads back, put his chin on their snouts, and even put his head between their jaws. The climactic moment was the “Water Chamber of Doom,” where he jumped into a cylindrical tank of water with one of the gators and swam around with it.

I remember being disappointed. The trappings of the act—Tahar’s flowing gold cape, which he removed with a flourish; the water tank under the spotlights; the dramatic music; and Tahar’s personal showmanship and flair for the dramatic—all led me to expect great, exciting, death-defying things. I waited for the wrestling with wide eyes and bated breath. But when the wrestling came, it looked…easy. It reminded me of episodes of Star Trek where cast members had to lift Styrofoam rocks and things and pretend that they were heavy. Tahar was sure putting on a good show, but the alligators looked a lot smaller than on the posters, and there was something in their expressions and body language that made them seem resigned to being dragged around and bent in half.

So, when I saw that Colorado Gators offered an alligator wrestling class, part of me thought, “I bet I could do that.”

Fast forward to this year, when I told Ray that I wanted to try 40 new things. Both of us immediately thought of alligator wrestling. I had a weekend off coming up near our anniversary, and we had just enough extra money in the bank, so (after going back and forth with the practical part of my brain, the part that kept saying, “This is crazy!”) we booked the trip.

We left Denver on Friday afternoon, taking Highway 285 through the mountains on the way to southern Colorado. The traffic in town was heavy, but once we got outside the metro area things sped up, and we were rewarded with a beautiful drive: mountain slopes covered with pine trees, grassy meadows with flowers growing along fences, even the occasional deer. We stopped for dinner in the town of Fairplay (famous as the inspiration for South Park) and then drove through alternating rain and sunshine for another three hours or so, snaking in and out of the mountains with the highway. The farther we went, the more the other cars dropped away, until sometimes it seemed like we were the only car on the road. It was amazing how quickly we left the urban setting of Denver behind  and found ourselves in farmland, with fields of hay or cattle to either side of the road during the flat stretches. There were lots of horses, too, and the occasional goat, llama, or donkey.

We spent the night at the Windsor Hotel in Del Norte, Colorado (http://www.windsorhoteldelnorte.com/). Del Norte is a big town for the area (population 1700), being the county seat of Rio Grande county, and sported not only a hotel but a gas station, an organic grocery, a yoga/tai chi studio, and a number of restaurants and touristy shops. The Windsor Hotel was built in 1874 and was recently saved from demolition and then remodeled, so it’s both historic and beautifully up-to-date. We enjoyed the comfortable beds, the air conditioning, and the free wifi, not to mention the rate, which was significantly cheaper than the big chain hotels that we looked at in nearbyish Alamosa. A pianist was playing in the lobby when we came in at 8:30, sore and tired from the long car ride, and when he finished his tune he went to find the manager to check us in. Everyone was amazingly friendly, something that we actually found during our whole trip.

The next morning, after a lovely breakfast in a little café near the hotel, we hopped back in the car and drove the 30 minutes to Mosca, Colorado, home of the reptile park. We drove through a couple tiny towns on the way, but the area around Colorado Gators was all farmland, flat and nearly treeless, dotted with occasional houses and trailers. Off to the east, the yellow hills of Sand Dunes National Monument gleamed in the sunshine against the purple backdrop of the mountains. We’d thought about getting up early to go drive to see the sand dunes, which Ray had never visited, but we decided that we’d save that for another trip and spend the time at the reptile park instead.

 gatorsign

There was a green, handpainted wooden alligator pointing down the road to the reptile park when we finally reached it, which was good, because otherwise the road was just another featureless turnoff along the long, flat ribbon of Highway 17. We seemed to be the only car moving on the road as we drove down it to the parking lot, a dirt pad sitting between fences, a creek, and a collection of ramshackle buildings. It was 10:15 or so, and our class wasn’t until 12, so we made ourselves peanut butter sandwiches and ate them while watching a horse graze in the next field over.

As we ate, cars started arriving. I love people-watching, so I checked out each vehicle that pulled onto the dirt road, trying to guess the relationship of the people who got out. There was a thin guy in his late teens or early twenties, wearing a black “Keep Calm” shirt where the words had been crossed out and replaced with a red scrawl that warned us zombies were coming. He had long, brown hair that hid his face like a curtain. The two people with him were an older man and woman, both gray-haired and heavyset. His parents, I guessed after watching them, or possibly his grandparents.

An SUV pulled up next to us, the windows rolled down against the heat. We could hear kids whining in the back seat and the dad behind the wheel yelling, “I’ve had enough! Stop it!” Everyone seemed to feel better when they got out of the car: a mom and dad in their early thirties, a tween girl, and two younger boys. The mom carried the youngest boy in her arms on the way to the entrance.

There was an old train car or semi trailer on one side of the parking lot near the road, and a little yellow car pulled up alongside the train car, looking way too shiny to be driving on the dirt. It was a small-looking two-door, and I was surprised when four people got out of it, kind of like a junior clown car. The driver was a man who looked, superficially, a lot like Ray—average height, broad shoulders, stocky build, beard and mustache—and seemed to be in the same age range. The girl who got out of the passenger seat was petite and pretty, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and her long brown hair was pulled into a ponytail. Glancing at her between bites of sandwich, I thought she looked pretty young. When she gave the driver a hug, I wondered if they were dad and daughter, but then I got a better look at them and realized she was probably ten years older than I’d thought, and also pregnant.

Oops. I mentally apologized to them.

Two other women got out of the back seat, and the driver told them to take off their shoes and leave everything but their water bottles in the car. I pricked up my ears at this. He sounded authoritative. Were they taking the alligator wrestling class, too? Had he taken the class before? I watched them as they walked barefoot across the dirt to the entrance, my heart starting to beat a little faster with excitement. For some reason, that moment made the class real to me in a way that it hadn’t been before.

 gatormission

We finished our sandwiches and walked toward the entrance ourselves a few minutes later. There was a wire fence to our left, dividing a dusty playground from the walkway, and there were several handpainted wooden signs along the fence. One had the facility’s mission statement written on it; another had a warning to visitors that the place was dangerous and you should be careful.

 gatorwarning

These signs (and all the signage that we saw at Colorado Gators) were very different than the signs we were used to at the Denver Zoo. Not only were they hand-lettered, but the wood was weathered and looked as though it might have been used for something else previously. The messages on the signs were important and informative, but there was also a dry and almost macabre sense of humor behind them, like a sign inside that said “This Facility Has Been Accident Free For ___ Hours.” There was a hook to put a number on between “for” and “hours,” but the hook was empty.

 gatoraccident

Being a dry, sarcastic, and wacky person myself, I instantly warmed to the writer of the signs. I thought, I’m going to like this place.

The front entrance led into a square room that was part ticket office, part gift shop, with t-shirts, stuffed alligators, and a cold drink display lining the walls. We walked up to the counter and introduced ourselves, and the woman on duty gave us waivers to sign. Ray signed his right away without really reading it, but my dad taught me to always read before I sign, so I did. I have requested Colorado Gators to permit me to enter…areas of the property…that are normally closed to customers…yada yada…I undersand that alligators are dangerous…etc etc…I do hereby admit that if I am crazy enough to put my hands on an alligator, I deserve to get bit. Furthermore, I promise not to whine too much if I do get bumps and scrapes or even a flesh wound…

Wait—what??

Okay, I was definitely going to like this place.

There was more than an hour to go before our class, so the woman suggested that we do the tour of the park and then come back. We followed the signs out the door and into the next building, where some of the exotic ex-pets were housed.

Like the signage, the buildings and displays at Colorado Gators showed practicality, humor, and a thrift born of necessity. The buildings were ramshackle, looking like a combination of shacks, old barns, and greenhouses shaped like Quonset huts, with repairs and modifications made with whatever material was lying around handy. Floors were made of concrete; indoor animal displays in the first building were made largely of old aquariums and other repurposed objects, like a meat display case and the plastic housing of a TV.

 gatortv

There was nothing pretty or slick about the facility, but I could tell that the owners really cared about the animals. Every display had a note taped to it telling you the animal’s species, its name, and whether it would make a good pet or not. One of the big goals of Colorado Gators is to try to educate people about reptiles so that they don’t buy animals that they’ll abandon later, and so there were lots of signs telling visitors about the animals’ natural habitats, diet, adult size, and (for lack of a better word) handleability. A volunteer was stationed right inside the entrance to the first building on the tour, and he would tell you about corn snakes and leopard geckos (both good pets) and let you hold them if you wanted to. The volunteer, an older man with a twinkle in his eye, obviously loved the animals, and he made you love them, too.

I held both the snake and the gecko. If you’ve never held a snake, it’s got the most amazing skin: very smooth and almost soft, especially when it’s warm from the heat lamp. The skin looks like it might feel wet or oily, since it has a sheen to it, but it’s actually completely dry. Freddie the Corn Snake moved a little in my hands and along my arm, sniffing the air with his forked tongue (that’s what they’re doing when they stick their tongues out—smelling), and I liked the feeling of his scales against my skin.

The leopard gecko’s skin was tough like leather armor, except for its tail. Leopard geckos can wave their tails to distract predators and then detach them before growing a new one. Because of this, the skin of the tails is newer and much softer; it felt like velvet under my fingers. Re-Pete the Gecko (so called because he looks exactly like another gecko, Pete) seemed completely unfazed by me handling him, sitting quietly in my hands while the volunteer stood by. I don’t think I’d be interested in having a reptile pet (I’m happy with our cat), but for people interested in reptiles, corn snakes and geckos seem like they’d be a good place to start.

Our next stop was the photo station, where volunteers gave me a skinny two-foot-long alligator to hold and took our picture. My first gator! Gators (as many, many signs around the park kept telling us) do NOT make good pets, and actually they are illegal to own in Colorado—although, unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from getting them anyway. My little two-footer (who was an undersized three-year-old, the volunteer told me) was definitely not interested in interacting with me the way that Freddie and Re-Pete did; I had to hold him firmly behind the head to keep him from reaching around and biting my thumb with his teensy teeth.

There was an amazing (and sad, considering the circumstances) variety of animals in the first building: geckos, anoles (which are like geckos), iguanas, scorpions, monitor lizards, bearded dragons, Chinese water dragons, tortoises, pythons, rattlesnakes, and even two African Grey parrots. Some of the species I’d seen before in zoos, but some were new to me. The majority of the animals were rescues, the owners having dropped them off when the pets grew too big or too aggressive. All of them seemed happy in their new homes, with lots of good food to eat, clean enclosures, and heat lamps where needed. The tortoises even had the run of the building and a little area outside. As we walked around the exhibits, one of the tortoises kept running back and forth between outside and inside, (speedily for a tortoise) for all the world like he was jogging laps.

 gatortortoise

As I was watching the parrots, I saw something moving in the back of their generously-sized enclosure. It was a mouse. Parrots are messy eaters, and pieces of fruit and nuts were scattered all over the floor of their cage. This was manna from heaven for the mouse and its buddies, who would scamper out to a piece of food, grab it, and then scamper back to their hole in the wall. What made me laugh was that the parrot cage was probably the ONLY cage in the whole building that was safe for them to go into, seeing as how mice are a prime food source for all the snakes.

The snake next door, however, had graduated from mice up to rabbits. Her name was Bonnie, and she was a reticulated python, the longest snake in the world. She was 20 feet long, and her body was as big around as my thigh. One of the volunteers told us that Bonnie was the most dangerous animal in the entire park, which was terrifying to think about, since we were about to go see alligators. The sign on Bonnie’s enclosure said in big letters that reticulated pythons should never, ever be kept as pets, and in case that wasn’t emphatic enough, it added that Bonnie tried to kill the volunteers every time they went into her cage to feed her. Yikes.

When I walked up, Bonnie was just finishing swallowing a rabbit, and even though I like snakes, it was creepy watching the shape of the rabbit distort her body as it moved from her mouth to her stomach. I heard one of the volunteers say later that she ate six rabbits while we were there.

We reached the end of the building and went outside to the next one, where the tilapia of the still-operating fish farm are kept in big round tanks like vats. From there, we went on the outdoor exhibits, where we saw alligators (lots and lots of alligators in enclosures according to their size, which ranged from about 3 feet to more than 12), a couple crocodiles, emus, an ostrich, and a potbellied pig. There was a peacock walking around near a creek, and a brightly-colored parrot sitting in a willow tree next to the playground—a wonderfully odd sight. Just like with the indoor animals, the outdoor animals looked well-cared for and content, for all that their surroundings were unorthodox.

 gatorparrot

The last building held the park’s two most famous residents. One of them was Morris, an ex-movie star who had been in films like Happy Gilmore and Interview With the Vampire before he, like all the pets, had gotten too big and too aggressive. A female gator had shared his pond in retirement before they’d had a giant fight and had to be separated. Man, Hollywood divorce stories are the same for everybody, aren’t they?

The other was an albino alligator named Mr. Bo Mangles (his name was yet another reason to love the people at Colorado Gators). He was white with a delicate green pattern across his back scales, and he was so striking that I heard a little girl say, “Daddy, he’s beautiful!”, which was the first time I’d ever heard anyone use that word to describe a crocodilian. Someone told us later that Mr. Bo Mangles’ personality did not match his looks, unfortunately, and he was both aggressive and extremely flexible for an alligator (more on that later), so only the most experienced people could handle him.

 gatormangles

In this last building were also snapping turtles and caimans, both of which are legal to own in Colorado but make terrible pets. Caimans are much smaller than alligators and crocodiles, only reaching about 6 feet in adulthood, but to balance that out they’re nasty and super aggressive. One of the caimans was missing the last couple feet of her tail because she’d accidentally bitten it off while trying to attack one of the volunteers. Yeesh.

By the time we’d finished in the building, it was almost time for our gator wrestling class, and we were back at the front entrance. We went inside, where it was blessedly air conditioned, to wait for our teacher.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Adventure #2–Rockies Baseball Game

Originally written 7/21/14

Tulo

Photo copyright Dirk Hansen, https://www.flickr.com/people/dirkhansen

Used by permission through Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

colorado.rockies.mlb.com

On July 5, my husband took me to a baseball game at Coors Field. I don’t usually follow baseball, but he’d gotten the tickets for free, and they were good ones: 25 rows up behind home plate. Coors Field has been listed as one of the Top 10 Ballparks in America by Fox Sports and ESPN, among others. FoxSports.com says:

“Coors Field, home of the Rockies, has its own microbrewery, so not much more needs to be said. More, however, will be said … Coors boasts a vibrant downtown setting, retro-chic architecture and creature comforts and fountains. As well, from some seats you can catch a breathtaking view of the Rockies (the mountain range, not the team — although you can see the team, too). Great pizza, great beer and a great surrounding neighborhood.” (http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/lists/Major-League-Baseball-10-best-ballparks#photo-title=Coors+Field%252C+home+to+the+Colorado+Rockies&photo=11206811)

The Rockies aren’t doing so well this season—they were 37-51 on July 5 and had all but written themselves out of the playoffs—but, as a local radio DJ said, the ballpark experience is so good that it doesn’t really matter how the team is doing. So, on one of my rare Saturdays off work, we spent the afternoon gong to the ball game.

Coors Field is in LoDo, the lower downtown area of Denver. When I was in high school, lower downtown was a scary place, run down and dingy, but the 1995 building of Coors Field and a revitalizing campaign by the city has transformed the area into a busy, hip area full of bars, restaurants, and loft-style apartments.

We arrived early in LoDo, cruising around to find decent parking. Some close parking lots were going for $20 a space or even more (including some spots wedged in tiny back alleys being advertised by guys holding handmade cardboard signs), but for us a few-block walk was worth not paying through the nose. We found a lot not too far away for $10 and hiked our way to the ballpark. In the four blocks we walked, we experienced a representative cross-section of LoDo life, passing Trillium (described on Google Maps as a “sleek, modern, Nordic-inspired eatery”), Ignite! (“happening gastropub with a rooftop deck”), and the Denver Rescue Mission, where homeless men and women were sleeping outside on the sidewalk.

The area around the ballpark was swarming with people: men, women, and children dressed in jerseys and purple Rockies t-shirts; unofficial food and souvenir vendors offering peanuts, water, and those spraypainted foam stick animals that I’ve never seen anywhere but festivals and sporting events; and scalpers waving tickets over their heads. I felt kind of bad for the scalpers, since the game wasn’t sold out and the Rockies were below .500. Probably a slow day for illegal ticket sales.

We shuffled along in the great stream of humanity until we got to the gate closest to our seats. The friendly older man taking tickets stopped me and searched my purse, looking not so much for anything dangerous as for revenue-threatening unauthorized booze. Cleared, we went up a big flight of concrete stairs to the next level, where we followed signs to our seating area. A friendly older woman looked at our tickets and directed us to our seats, which were (as advertised) twenty-five rows up behind home plate. We looked at them, looked at our watches, discovered that we were, as usual, obscenely early (because my husband has a phobia about being late to things), and decided to walk around instead of sitting down just yet.

The inner hallways of Coors Field are practical rather than showy, being made to accommodate huge masses of spectators. They’re like giant concrete tunnels. As you amble along with the crowd, you are deafened by the babble of thousands and thousands of voices bouncing off the hard gray walls and ceilings, and you are constantly in danger of being trampled to death as people find their seats, head to the restrooms, or grab refreshments.

Speaking of refreshments, there are a staggering number of places to get food and drinks along the corridors. Every few feet, there is a new fast food/snack counter to either side of you as you circle the ballpark’s hallways: nachos, burgers, French fries, ice cream, snow cones, cotton candy, popcorn, burritos, pizza, chicken wings, cheese steak sandwiches, and Dippin’ Dots (as my husband kept asking, by the way, when do Dippin’ Dots stop being ‘the ice cream of the future’ and start being the weird ice cream-ish-type thing of now, given that they were invented in 1987?). If you fancy a pretzel, stop by “Tornadough.” If you fancy an eggroll, stop by “A Wok in the Park.”

For traditionalists, there are Cracker Jacks, peanuts, and hot dogs; for modernists, there is one gluten-free food stand and another kind of lonely cart selling salad (they have two entrees: salad with protein and salad without protein). Every kind of soda, lemonade, and ice tea is available, and you can even get coffee (although that probably sells better at a chilly spring night game than at a day game in the beginning of a hot July).

And of course, there is beer. Lots and LOTS of beer. There are bars, and “Beers of the World” stands, and cocktail bars, and beer kiosks, and margarita bars, and a brewing company, and members-only bars, and a microbrewery—and if those aren’t enough, every single food stand (including the salad place) sells at least the basic beer staples of Bud, Coors, and Coors Light. Whatever your tipple, the entrepreneurs of Coors Field are happy to provide it, for a price. So what if the price is on the high side? You’re a captive audience (any contraband booze having been removed from your person at the gate), so you pay what they’re asking.

My husband and I don’t drink, so we didn’t get to enjoy the beer-at-the-ballpark experience. Instead, after circling the whole level and looking at the offerings, we grabbed a soda (for him), a bottle of water (for me), and two swirl ice cream cones before heading back to our seats.

The Rockies were playing the Dodgers that day. As we sat down, the announcer was just beginning to introduce the starting lineup for both teams, and I watched their names appear on the jumbotron. To my dismay, the only two Rockies players I know (Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzales) were not listed, and I found out later that they were both out with injuries. I didn’t know a single player on the home team. My husband knew three. When the announcer introduced the Dodgers, however, I knew two of them: Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. My husband knew half the roster.

I felt kind of guilty.

Watching the live baseball game was very different than watching one on TV. On TV, the announcers, the cameramen, and the editors work together to keep you focused on the action. As long as you’re actually watching the television and not (as my husband sometimes does) playing on your iPhone while the game is on in the background, you know when the play starts, and you get to follow everything that happens in closeup. In the ballpark, I found myself sometimes missing a batter’s first pitch because, during the break between batters, I’d looked away from the field and hadn’t looked back in time. Sometimes someone would stand up in front of me and I would miss something. If a batter made a hit, I couldn’t always tell right away where the ball went—although I’m sure if I watched baseball more I would get better at that.

Also, even though our seats were relatively close, we were still too far away to really make out the players’ faces. We had a good view of the whole field, but the players were figures rather than personalities, all body language and no facial expression. In a strange way, it made watching the game on TV feel like a more intimate experience.

The pace in the ballpark felt slower, too. Baseball is a game that takes its time anyway, and there in Coors Field it seemed almost like we were all at a giant picnic, lazing on the seats, drinking lemonade, and watching some kids throw a ball around. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and since our section was only three-quarters full, some people had their feet up on the seats in front of them. Shirts were taken off. People made leisurely trips up the stairs to get beer and peanuts. No one seemed to be in a hurry.

In the first inning, both teams scored two runs, and the PA system and the jumbotron led us in cheers and chants. Each player had his own introductory song, and the jumbotron told us the name of each player and his date of birth as he came up to bat. Most of the players were born in the mid-to-late 1980’s, and even the oldest was five years younger than me, putting into perspective the short lifespan of a professional athlete.

Neither team scored in the second inning, and during the slow breaks between batters I found myself looking around at the people in our section. Lots of great people-watching at a ballgame. There were two thirtysomething guys in our row who mostly talked about work and friends rather than about the game; one of them, the more talkative of the two, got up so many times during the game (and made us get up to let him out, since we were at the end of the row) that at one point he offered to give us a tip. A man about ten rows closer to the field was there with his young son, and when he took his shirt off and turned around I saw that he had his son’s baby footprints tattooed on his chest over his heart. A dad and his teenage daughter a few rows down were filling out paper scorecards together, bonding over baseball. I saw a lot of families, parents passing on their love of the game to their kids. That was one of my favorite things about the day.

The man sitting on the end of the row to our right was eating sunflower seeds, shelling them with his teeth and then spitting the shells out like he was trying to win a spitting contest. By the end of the game, the concrete around his chair was black with spent sunflower hulls, like the ejected bullet casings around a World War II machine gunner. The casual way he and others littered the ballpark with sunflower seeds, peanut shells, and cups of beer horrified me; I had a vision of the colossal task it must be to clean the stands at the end of each game. Next time I have a hard day at work, I’ll thank my lucky stars that at least it isn’t my job to clean stands.

Meanwhile, food and drink vendors toiled up and down the stairs, coolers and boxes full of wares balanced on their heads or strapped to their chests, shouting “Popcorn, popcorn!” and “Get your cold beer! Cold beer here!” I loved watching them—they seemed, like the Cracker Jacks and peanuts, to be a tie between July 5, 2014 and baseball’s past. People in my grandparents’ day, and my great-grandparents’ day, could have sat in stands similar enough to these and listened to the cry of “ice cold lemonade!” as they watched a baseball game unfold on the field. When my water ran out, I got a lemonade from a passing vendor, not only because I was hot and thirsty, but because it seemed to me to be the perfect ballpark experience. The vendor even thanked me.

I had been worried, going into the game, that the Rockies were going to get crushed, which I know is part of sports but isn’t especially fun to watch. They’d lost to the Dodgers 0-9 the day before, and there wasn’t anything in their record to suggest that they’d do better in their next outing. My husband had told me that if the Dodgers went up by seven runs, we’d leave. But after the 2-2 start, the Rockies scored three runs in the third inning, one run in the fifth, and two in the sixth and were magically up 8-2.

My husband started saying that if the Rockies went up by seven runs, we’d leave. He’d been watching the temperature icon on the jumbotron climb from 81 to 92 while we were sitting there, and the sun was beating down on us unmercifully. Most of the other spectators in our section had abandoned their seats by then and were crowded under the shaded overhang of the next level. I’d slathered myself in sunscreen in the car on our way downtown, but even so my upper legs, bared by my shorts, felt like they were sizzling. I kept bending forward to shade them.

But I didn’t want to leave until after the seventh-inning stretch no matter what the score was, and I told my husband so. If this was my adventure, I wanted to experience it to the fullest, even if I was starting to roast. So we grabbed another bottle of water from a passing vendor and settled down for the seventh inning.

Up through the sixth inning, the pitcher for the Rockies had been Jorge De La Rosa. De La Rosa and the defense had done a good job, keeping the Dodgers scoreless through five innings. But at the beginning of the seventh inning, the Rockies brought out a different pitcher, Nick Masset. Things started going wrong for Nick Masset right away. The first batter he faced hit a double, and the next three batters all reached first base. Then there was a pause while a whole bunch of Rockies joined Masset on the mound.

The Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Dan Haren, hadn’t been having a good day, and a couple times the catcher and one of the coaches went out to talk to him. The first time, the PA system played “Help!” by the Beatles, and the second time it played “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by the Clash. It was funny.

When it was our pitcher being visited by the coaches, it wasn’t funny.

Eventually, a trainer came out to the mound, and Masset was helped off the field with a knee injury. Another pitcher, Boone Logan, came out. I found out later that Logan was pitching for the first time in a month, since he was recovering from an elbow injury. This was not the comeback he was hoping for. He threw fourteen pitches before he finally threw his first strike, and meanwhile, he’d unintentionally walked a player (throwing four ugly balls in four pitches) and thrown a crazy wild pitch that had missed home plate altogether and bounced off the fence.

It seemed like every Rocky on the team walked out to the mound this time. The situation was bad: the Dodgers had scored five runs in the inning, bringing the score to 8-7. A single by Matt Kemp had loaded the bases, and so far they had ZERO OUTS. What was to stop them from scoring another five runs? Another ten?

My heart was pounding and, despite the heat, there was a cold sweat on my forehead. We were going down in flames. All of a sudden, my leisurely picnic of an afternoon had turned into a life-or-humiliating-death struggle, and for the first time I CARED. I WANTED the Rockies to win. They HAD to win. They COULDN’T lose, not after doing so well through the sixth.

And that’s when the magic of live sports happened: the crowd got into the game.

Sure, when you watch the game in your living room, you can see the action better. You can follow the ball. You can see the expressions on players’ faces. You’ve got air conditioning and a comfortable couch and your own bathroom, and the beer that you bought at the liquor store cost less than half than what you’d pay at the ballpark.

But nothing in the world can match the sheer energy of 30,000 fans all rooting together for a team. It’s like surfing a tidal wave. “LET’S GO, ROCKIES!” we all shouted, and then clapped our hands together: clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. “LET’S GO, ROCKIES!” clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. The floor of the stadium vibrated with our chant, and the air itself seemed to vibrate with our desire to win.

The coaches escorted Logan off the mound and brought on another pitcher, Adam Ottavino. We all stared desperately at Ottavino as though we could psychically control his pitches. Throw a strike, Otto, we commanded. Throw the jerk out.

The game on the field seemed sharper to me now, more focused. The bright green of the grass, crisscrossed with the precise geometric lines of the mower; the groomed reddish dirt around the infield; the bright white of the bases. The umpire behind home plate in his black polo shirt and gray slacks, his huge shoulder pads turning him into a triangular caricature of a human being. The Rockies coach waiting at first base, dressed with indignity in the same white-and-purple uniform as the players.

The crack of the bat on the ball was sharp and bittersweet, a rousing sound that we didn’t want to hear. But the hit, it seemed, was part of the team’s plan, as the ball was caught and thrown again with lightning speed for a double play. Two outs, and we cheered. One more out to go, Otto. One more out to go.

The PA system blared a recording of a trumpet: da-da-da-DA-da-DA! “Charge!” we shrieked. And Ottavino answered, striking out batter A.J. Ellis. The crowd went nuts.

It was time for the seventh-inning stretch, and the mood was good. We all got to our feet to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The jumbotron showed the words, like a giant karaoke machine, but we were helped, too, but an enthusiastic elderly fan in our section who jumped down the stairs and turned to face us, singing at the top of his lungs and waving his hands through the air like an orchestra conductor:

“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
buy me some peanuts and Cracker jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.”

Then it was the Rockies’ turn at bat, and we all settled back into our seats with glee. We had the momentum back. We’d show ‘em for sure.

But that’s not what happened. The Dodgers appeared to have found their stride, and every time the Rockies came up with a good play, the Dodgers had an answer. One batter made a beautiful, clean hit right between first and second base, and the Dodger shortstop jumped off the ground, arms outstretched, and caught the ball midair like something out of Cirque du Soleil. It was amazing to watch. Too bad it was an out for the other team.

At one point, the pitcher threw what looked like a wide ball, but the umpire called a strike. The crowd booed, the first time they had really done so all game. There hadn’t been much reason to boo when we were ahead 8-2. Now, with the game, and our pride, on the line, there was plenty of reason. The umpire ignored the crowd and went back to crouching behind the catcher. I imagined what it would be like to have a job where you had to shrug off 30,000 people booing you multiple times a day.

Once again, I felt lucky to have my own job.

The Rockies struck out without scoring a run, and there we were at the top of the eighth inning. My stomach was tight. Please win, Rockies, please win, I chanted to myself while clapping along with the piped-in organ over the PA. It was funny to care so much when a few hours before I hadn’t even known anybody’s name, but that’s the power of sports, especially live sports.

Ottavino was once again the MVP of the inning, striking out Yasiel Puig with a 97-mile-per-hour fastball and getting to three outs without allowing a run. If the Rockies could only score, we could maybe pull out a win!

But we didn’t score, and once again the Dodgers were up to bat. A different pitcher came out, LaTroy Hawkins. I was disappointed and concerned. Where was Adam Ottavino? Why had they pulled him? But then my husband explained that Hawkins was a closer, and I settled back in my seat, still grumbling a little. I didn’t want to trust the end of this tight game to just anyone. What if we LOST? I wanted to WIN.

We, the crowd and I, clapped and chanted and shouted, sometimes when the jumbotron told us to, and sometimes spontaneously (and out of sync) on our own. It was a modern version of a primitive ritual, filling the ballpark with the power of our belief. If we wanted it badly enough, our team would deliver.

And Hawkins and the rest of the team DID deliver, striking out three batters in quick succession. I jumped to my feet and screamed when the umpire called the last strike, throwing my arms into the air and jumping up and down. WE WON! WE WON! I couldn’t believe it. We had pulled it out by the skin of our teeth, 8-7. The Rockies had won my adventure game for me.

I don’t know if I’ll make baseball games a habit; they’re expensive, crowded, loud, messy, and (in this case) very hot. But right at that moment, at the end of the game, I was a true convert.

Bonus Gastronomic Adventure: Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs

http://bikerjimsdogs.com/

bikerjim1

It was 6:00 p.m. by the time we left the ballpark, and we decided to stop for dinner at Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, a restaurant where we’d had lunch once before. It was between Coors Field and our car, so that was handy, and as an added bonus, we got to experience more of the vibrant life of LoDo as we walked past a bunch of people lighting off fireworks in front of the Denver Mission.

bikerjim2

Biker Jim’s serves hot dogs and brats, the perfect post-baseball food. Their sausages are mostly made locally, and all of them are made without hormones or antibiotics. You can eat traditional 100% beef hot dogs, if that’s your pleasure, but you can also try sausages and brats made of duck, rattlesnake, pheasant, buffalo, veal, boar, elk, and more. There are also two kinds of vegan hot dogs and two kind of burgers.

 bikerjimdog

I picked an Alaskan reindeer sausage. I had mine plain, but you can put all sorts of toppings on them, from onions caramelized in Coca-Cola to cactus, wasabi, or apples. You can have fries on the side, or baked beans, or fried mac-and-cheese, or fried pickles, or tahini cauliflower, and to wash it all down there are natural sodas, craft beers, and all kinds of cocktails. Your meal is served in an old-fashioned red plastic basket that’s handed to you by a woman with tattooed sleeves, and you eat at sticky wooden tables while watching sports on the TV in the corner.

It’s fabulous. A delicious end to a satisfying adventure.

Adventure #1–Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret

 

Originally written 7/8/2014

One

 

 

For my first adventure, my friend Abbey took me out for my birthday. She’d been out of the country on my actual birthday, visiting Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania with her mom (which sounds super, super fun). When she got back, she asked what I wanted to do to celebrate belatedly, and I told her I wanted to do something that I could use for my blog. So we decided to go downtown to Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret. But first, dinner!

Pinche Tacos
http://tacostequilawhiskey.com/

We started the evening with dinner at Pinche Tacos, a little eatery on Colfax and York in Denver. It’s in a historic brick building on a corner, sandwiched between a sushi place and the building’s postage-stamp-sized parking lot (one of the most impressive moments of the night was watching Abbey navigate the parking lot in her SUV. It was like watching an Olympic kayaker shoot class 5 rapids).

Inside, the restaurant has a lot of exposed brick walls and wooden floorboards, with every nook and cranny of the small space crammed with tables, chairs, and patrons. At 6:15 on a Saturday night, every seat was taken and there was a twenty-minute wait, although we got lucky and slipped onto the last two empty stools at the “high top,” a tall wooden table where you sat side-by-side with other patrons. Music blared from overhead speakers, Foster the People and Bastille and Bad Sons, with the volume so loud that we had to lean forward over the high top and shout to talk.

The menu is a strip of laminated plastic featuring a la carte tacos, and you order by putting a check mark next to the ones you want with a Sharpie. There are plenty of options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike, with eclectic blends of flavors like shiitake mushrooms over creamed cilantro corn, and barbacoa with slices of raw radish. We each ordered three tacos, tiny, open-faced affairs maybe four inches across and piled high with ingredients. I ate mine with a fork, although other people at the high top were folding theirs over and eating them traditional-style with juice running down their faces. The tacos were delicious, and three was the perfect number, leaving me satisfied but not stuffed. At about $3.50 per taco, the price was right, too. The staff was friendly, our order came out in good time, and I enjoyed some great people-watching while we waited (a woman down the high top from me was sporting a necklace that seemed to be made out of a gold-plated hood ornament, for instance).

I wish the music hadn’t been so loud (is that a sign of middle age?), but otherwise it’s definitely a keeper.

Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret
http://lannies.com/

icecream

For my adventures, I’m planning on trying as many brand new things as possible, but I decided that it was OK to use something I’d done before if A) I hadn’t done it in the last five years and B) I hadn’t written about before. Lannie’s fits the criteria for me, and Abbey hadn’t been there previously, so it seemed like a good place to start.

The Clocktower is on downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian mall filled with shops, restaurants, street performers, and panhandlers. One of Denver’s first big department stores, Daniels and Fisher, was on the site from 1911 until it closed in 1950, and the clock tower was part of the D & F building. After the department store closed, the building fell into ruin and was demolished in the 60’s, but historic preservationists had the clock tower saved and designated as a historic landmark.

The tower is twenty stories tall and skinny. It is very elegant inside, with marble floors and polished brass fixtures, and you can rent the upper part of the tower for wedding receptions if you don’t mind your guests being spread out on different floors. One of the wedding reception venues is inside the clock itself.

When you enter the clock tower, you find yourself in a white, elegant lobby, with an expensive-looking elevator right across from the entrance. A uniformed attendant sits next to the elevator, presumably to prevent pandhandlers from wandering in. If you are in the tower for a wedding reception, you take the elevator up. If you are looking for Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, however, you turn left and walk down a set of carpeted stairs to the basement, where you enter a very different environment.

Lannie Garrett, the owner, is a well-known singer in Denver, probably most famous for her country spoof act, the Patsy DeCline Show. She doesn’t limit herself to one genre, however, and has performed jazz, big band, George Gershwin, movie songs, and disco. Her current show is a tribute to Frank Sinatra. She performs once a week or so, and on other nights the Cabaret puts on different acts. We saw ads for an a capella concert, a one-man Nat King Cole show, and a Motown cover group–but the Cabaret’s big specialty is burlesque shows.

Burlesque, in case you haven’t heard of it before, is basically vaudeville-style striptease. It’s much more artistic, and much more fun, than the kind of strip show featured in Hollywood movies, where women spin around poles in high heels and get money stuffed down their undies and everything seems kind of sleazy. Burlesque embraces and celebrates the female form, and even at the end of the number you’re not seeing anything you wouldn’t see at the beach; all the important bits are still covered.

However, the root of burlesque is still women taking their clothes off. If that’s not your thing, you’ll probably be more comfortable if you stop reading now. My next adventure will be a baseball game, and you can come back for that. I promise that most of my adventures will be completely G-rated.

The Cabaret is dimly lit, with low ceilings and the feeling of a speakeasy. Like Pinche Tacos, they make the most of their small space, cramming tables and chairs onto every available inch of floor. There are some booths at the back, high-backed arrangements with padded seats that bring to mind the days of the Brat Pack. At the front of the room, there’s a wooden stage the size of a one-car garage, raised only slightly above the floor because otherwise the performers would bang their heads on the ceiling. Swathes of glitzy, mismatched fabric form the backdrop for the performers.

When we reached the entrance to the Cabaret, a woman in an old-fashioned cigar-girl pillbox hat greeted us and took our names. Behind her were shelves of plastic tiaras and brightly-colored feather boas for sale. She passed us on to the hostess, who was wearing a Goth-style black dress and had her jet-black hair in pigtails. The waiter who took us to our table was wearing a top hat and tuxedo, sort of; the sleeves and pant legs of the tuxedo had been cut off, leaving him in a sleeveless coat and shorts. Under the shorts he was wearing leggings with a black-and-white diamond pattern, a la Harlequin, and around one eye he had a bold pattern of thick black lines drawn on with makeup–or maybe it was a tattoo. Two other members of the waitstaff were wearing a belly dance outfit and a French maid dress, respectively. The cabaret seemed to embrace an anything-goes kind of dress code.

Lannie’s offers a generous menu of cocktails, wine, non-alcoholic drinks, appetizers, and desserts. They want you to enjoy yourself while you’re there. We ordered an ice cream sampler: a scoop of ice cream each in a wine glass, with about a dozen different kinds of toppings served on a glass painter’s palette. I love samplers more than just about anything. There’s nothing better than trying out a whole bunch of different kinds of food, especially when it’s presented in a fun way. We ate ice cream while we looked around at the crowd.

Interestingly, about 75% of the audience seemed to be female. There were at least four separate bachelorette parties, all decked out in tiaras and boas from the shop at the entrance, and while there were several other all-female tables like ours, we didn’t see any male-only groups. The MC later said that 75-90% of their audiences are female.

The MC herself was female, a singer named Sonia Soubrette who was wearing a little low-cut babydoll dress and the most fabulous glittery red lipstick. She was flirty and funny, introducing acts, making jokes, and even singing a couple of numbers. I loved her. She really held the show together and kept it moving.

The first act she introduced was the live band who would be playing for the evening, a duo called My Wooden Leg. Apparently, the name is a dirty joke, which seems appropriate for the entertainment at a burlesque show–but that was the only way in which the band was what you might expect. You’d think that something along the lines of a jazz band or swing group would be the right music for burlesque, but My Wooden Leg played a kind of indie rock/Romanian folk music, with one man on the accordion and the other on acoustic guitar and vocals.

The guitarist/vocalist at least looked right for the atmosphere. I would guess that he was in his thirties, slender and good-looking. He was dressed in a button-up shirt, vest, and tie, and his hair was shaved on the sides and long in the middle, like it might moonlight as a Mohawk on nights when it wasn’t slicked back. There was something artistic and broody about him, and between songs he sipped from a glass of red wine at his elbow. If Lord Byron had been born a hipster, he might have looked something like that.

The accordion player, on the other hand, was a square, balding man wearing plain jeans and a t-shirt. His stoic expression never changed, even when one of the performers wrapped a fishnet thigh-high stocking around his neck during her number. I wondered if the performer was trying on purpose to get a reaction out of him, but he just kept on plugging away on his accordion like nothing in the world could shake him.

From what the MC said, I gather that the guitarist/vocalist wrote all of their songs. The tunes were heavily influenced by traditional Eastern European music, and the lyrics were straight out of a Goth teenager’s fever dream. I know because the MC told us what each of the songs was about, including:

The days when the singer lived in an apartment over the Fort Worth, Texas stockyards
A man who played with a doll every day and kept her in a shoebox
A man getting shot by the police
Vlad the Impaler

If the subject matter sounds disturbing, don’t worry; half the time he was singing in Romanian, and I couldn’t understand him even when he was singing in English.

The tunes were melancholy and haunting and sounded slow even when they weren’t, and they seemed totally at odds with the lighthearted fun of most of the performances. They would have made me feel kind of down if I’d been a performer, but the dancers all seemed to be having a blast.

Actually, burlesque dancers just seem to enjoy themselves more than the average person. They all have funny, suggestive, and/or sexy stage names, like DeeDee Derrière, Alexis Scissorlegs, and Midnite Martini, and they go at their performances with a happy gusto that makes it all right for the audience to have fun, too. Burlesque dancers come in all shapes and sizes, from short and flat-chested to tall and curvy and everything in between, and every shape is beautiful. A lot of the numbers are humorous, and all of them have a wink-wink, nudge-nudge naughtiness to them that invite the viewer in on the fun.

To help with that, the MC and the performers encourage the audience to whoop, whistle, and clap during the numbers, and the Cabaret even provides toy noisemakers at each table that you can spin to show your appreciation. The room is noisy and the energy is high, and everybody is having a good time.

The show I saw was called the Hurly-Burly Circus, and the idea was that it was a mix of circus elements and burlesque. Two of the performers definitely fit the bill: Alexis Scissorlegs, a burlesque dancer who performed on stilts (!), and Midnite Martini, who performed on an aerial hoop and aerial fabric a la Cirque du Soleil. Both were amazing artists, and they ended up being my favorite dancers. It was mindboggling to me that Alexis Scissorlegs could not only dance on stilts and do splits and handstands and all sorts of crazy acrobatics, but that she could look sexy doing it, too. Midnite Martini did a number with the aerial fabric that she ended by winding herself up in the fabric and then dropping toward the floor; it was incredible. If I tried that, I would crash into the ground and break my leg.

Alexis Scissorlegs and Midnite Martini both performed twice, as did two other burlesque dancers. There was also a belly dancer who did a solo number and then joined the other two burlesque dancers for a hilarious cabaret version of The Triplets of Belleville (a French animated movie). That was one of my favourite numbers. The MC sang a Cole Porter song and another song, both of which were lovely, and right after the intermission she chugged a PBR, which I guess could be a kind of a sideshow act (in keeping with the circus theme). I was curious to see if she’d smash the can on her forehead after chugging it, but she didn’t.

The only part of the entertainment that I didn’t like was a stage magician who performed twice. I guess they were thinking that magicians were a part of the classic traveling circus so they should include one, and if he’d been a sexy guy dressed in Victorian evening clothes who sawed women in half, I could have gone for it. But the magician they picked was a stocky, forty-something street magician from Las Vegas wearing a loud purple suit and nerd glasses, and his act was made up of card tricks and disappearing hard-boiled eggs, which he dragged out into tedium by humiliating a couple audience members and cracking a lot of cheap jokes. I wanted to give him the hook.

At least he kept all his clothes on. THANK GOODNESS.

The last act of the night was both the weirdest and the most spectacular. Alexis Scissorlegs (she of the stilts) came out in a silver sequined halter top and matching bellbottoms, wearing a huge blond afro wig and 70’s-style sunglasses. The stagehand (a woman whom the MC kept referring to as either the “stage kitten” or “the stripper picker-upper”) had come out during the introduction and hung a strap from the rigging in the middle of the stage, and during the number the dancer held on to the strap and used it to spin around in midair, usually while in the splits or some other impossible pose. With her big globe of hair and all the stage lights glittering from her silver sequined outfit, she looked exactly like a human disco ball. It would have been perfect accompanied by “I Will Survive” or “Stayin’ Alive.”

Instead, My Wooden Leg performed a soulful, melancholy song which the MC introduced by saying, “If you sing along, this song has the power to revisit any evil done to you back on your enemies.” Um, what? No one could sing along, since the words weren’t written down anywhere (and they might have been in Romanian anyway), and you couldn’t even really clap along with the beat. It wasn’t that kind of song.

So there was a spinning human disco ball up on stage, dancing to this bizarre accordion folk rock tune that maybe was supposed to be some kind of magic spell.

It was surreal.

When we left the Cabaret, it was after 10 p.m., and we walked back along the 16th Street Mall to where my friend’s car was parked a couple blocks away. Downtown was busy, and it seemed like all kinds of celebrations were going on. A bridal party went by in two bicycle-driven pedicabs; another pair of newlyweds was having their picture taken in the middle of the sidewalk; and in the middle of the Mall, a man in a t-shirt and khakis was dancing ecstatically to music that only he could hear.

I felt like we had just attended a celebration, too, because burlesque, at its core, is a celebration of the human form, no matter what shape it happens to be in. A wonderful evening’s entertainment, and a wonderful (and fitting) way to kick off my 40 adventures.

Diary of a Feis Weekend

Originally written 11/18/10. The post is edited here, because no writer is going to pass up an opportunity to edit her stuff.

Toe Stands

Note: a feis (pronounced “fesh) is an Irish dance competition

 

Saturday, November 6

 

6:00 AM — woke up. Stumbled around blearily feeding self and cat. Managed not to mix up cereal and kibble. Minor victory.

 

7:00 AM — drove to U-Haul with husband to pick up cargo van for feis. Usually, at competitions where we will be selling Irish dance supplies, I get one of my dance parents with an SUV to help me drive the supplies to the competition, but no one really wanted to drive an hour north to Loveland with me the night before the competition. So I rented a cargo van instead.

The van didn’t look enormous from the outside; it looked big enough for all my stuff, but reasonably sized for a van. Inside, as I climbed in to drive it, it felt like I’d decided to change careers and become a trucker. It felt huge. The driver’s seat was proportioned for someone Ray’s size, not mine, and I perched on the edge of the seat, peering over the steering wheel like a little kid pretending to drive. I gingerly shifted into Drive, trying to remember the last time I drove an automatic instead of my usual stick shift. Before I left the parking lot, I stopped and started several times, making sure I really knew which pedal was the accelerator and which was the brake. “No clutch, no clutch,” I chanted to myself. The people inside the U-Haul office probably thought I’d just learned to drive.

I drove to my dance studio, coaxing the big van around corners like I was steering a buffalo. Changing lanes was entertaining, since I kept checking my mirrors and then glancing over my shoulder, just like I do in my Saturn, but all I could see over my shoulder was the metal side of the van. No windows in the back!

It was understandable the first time, but I kept doing it. Habit is a terrible thing.

At a stop light, I looked out the window and realized I was looking down at the roof of an SUV next to me. Cool. I was seriously tall. Maybe driving a cargo van wasn’t so bad.

 

7:45 AM — backed the cargo van into a parking spot in front of the studio. Felt proud of self for slow but accurate parking job. Got out of van and realized had parked in a spot where the rear doors opened right on a big juniper bush.

Reparked. It took several minutes and many cuss words.

 

8:30 AM to 12:30 PM — Saturday class as usual. Pretty good day, pretty normal. Two dancers needed ice packs, one dancer had to sit out with a fever, and one young dancer tried to get out of the last part of class by telling me her mom wanted her to leave early. Thank you, teachery spider sense, for helping me catch that one. For dance class, it was a blessedly quiet day.

 

12:30 PM to 2:00 PM — packed up the store.

Packing up the store for a feis is kind of like deciding in one, rash moment that you’d like to move 50 miles away that afternoon. We decide beforehand what items we’re going to take, and then that day we take all those items down off the shelves, inventory them, and stow them in the SUV (or, in this case, the cargo van). It sounds straightforward, and in a way it is, but it is also labor-intensive and chaotic, with multiple people counting, packing, and moving things. Since we don’t take everything, the store ends up looking like thieves with a shopping list came through, or maybe a really selective tornado. At the same time, the SUV or cargo van ends up packed to the gills, which prompted a helper of ours to ask once, “Do you really need all this stuff?”

The answer is complicated. We won’t sell everything we bring. Not even close. We bring probably $15,000 worth of dance shoes, wigs, socks, jewelry, dress bags, and assorted other accessories, but at a good feis we might sell $3000 worth. However, if we leave a particular item or size behind, that guarantees that it will be the one item or size that a 10-year-old girl and her panic-stricken mother must absolutely have in order to compete in 15 minutes.

So we bring a lot of stuff.

 

2:00 PM — finished packing, waved goodbye to all my faithful helpers, and hopped in the cargo van. I was starting to get used to the way the van handled, and my drive up I-25 was much easier than my drive to the studio had been. It helped that the day was clear and unseasonably warm, and I had a gorgeous view of the mountains to my left the whole way up. I just stayed in the slow lane, kept the van at 60, and enjoyed the ride. My enjoyment wasn’t dimmed by the occasional sound of boxes falling over in the back, or by that RV gunning its engine to get around me. I know I’m a granny driver, and I’m okay with it.

 

3:15 PM — reached “The Ranch,” the site of our competition. Officially called the Larimer County Fairgrounds, the site is a sprawling complex with an auditorium, several multipurpose buildings, stables, livestock pens, and an outdoor arena. The feis was being held in the First Bank Building, one of the multipurpose buildings that could be divided into three large areas. As I walked in, wooden stages were being assembled in each of the three areas by volunteer helpers, mostly dancer dads. Just outside one of the areas, a couple of the dads were cutting wood with a miter saw, while somebody’s four-year-old son played with a drill on the floor. Seriously, that probably wasn’t safe. Maybe it was some kind of manhood ritual.

Ray joined me at The Ranch to help me unload the van and set up our booth. Usually Ray avoids Irish dance competitions like the lactose-intolerant avoid Baskin Robbins, but since there wasn’t any accordion music and hardly any dancers, he figured it was safe. We’ve often talked about buying a booth at competitions and setting up a “man cave” for dads and husbands to escape to when the wigs and accordions get to be too much for them. There would be La-Z-Boys and beer and an HDTV showing football. We could make a mint.

Anyway, with the help of a couple little boys who were hanging around, we reversed the packing process, turning the vanload of boxes and bags back into a nice-looking miniature version of the store.

 

6:00 PM — with the booth finished, we drove to our hotel, checked in, and then rewarded ourselves with dinner at Cracker Barrel. The fact that there is a Cracker Barrel so close is one of my favorite things about this particular feis.

Oh, Cracker Barrel, I know it’s wrong to love you. The meal I had that night probably had enough calories to keep me going for a week. But your particular brand of chain-restaurant comfort food is really tasty after a hard day, and I just can’t say goodbye.

 

8:00 PM — washed and attempted to style my hair. This was an epic undertaking, since I firmly believe that my hair is actually an alien entity living on my head in a kind of symbiotic relationship. As with my relationship with my cat, my hair is definitely the boss.

 

8:30 PM — posted an update to Facebook using my new iPhone. I love my new iPhone.

How could I have ever thought it was weird for a phone to have a camera?

 

10:30 PM — went to bed.  Mentally gave the lady out in the hall talking on her cell phone 10 minutes before I went out and yelled at her to shut up.

 

Sunday, November 7

 

2:23 AM — woke up to the sounds of diabetic husband having an insulin reaction. An insulin reaction is where his blood sugar drops too low, and if it drops below a certain point, he’ll pass out. Luckily, if he has an insulin reaction when he’s sleeping, his body will wake him up and send him in search of sugary food to raise his blood sugar. He basically becomes a sugar-craving zombie, stumbling around looking for fruit and candy.

This is a serious and scary condition, but, as with any serious and scary condition that you live with day in and day out, you get used to it. It even has its funny side.

What woke me up was Ray bumping into the desk (not very hard, luckily). Apparently, his zombie brain remembered that there was a bag of Reese’s Sticks sitting on top of the desk. Unfortunately, he couldn’t put his hands on it. He did find his iPhone, though, and turned on the flashlight.

How could I have ever thought it was weird for a phone to have a flashlight?

He must have found the bag of Reese’s Sticks, because the light turned off again, and I heard the sounds of munching.  “Mmm…brains….”

He seemed to be okay. I drifted back to sleep.

 

5:45 AM — woke up to the sounds of the Mario Brothers theme song, which Ray uses as his alarm noise on his iPhone.

How could I have ever thought it was weird for a phone to have an alarm clock?

Groaned, rolled out of bed, and went to brush my teeth. Did a little happy dance when I saw that my hair looked reasonable, and was not (as had happened before) sticking up or clumped on one side of my head.

 

6:15 AM — went downstairs to enjoy the free breakfast buffet. I love buffets. All those tasty little foods, and you can have some of everything.

Sadly, there was no bacon. How can you have a breakfast buffet without bacon?

 

6:40 AM — went outside to the van. There was a gorgeous sunrise off to my left, and I stood looking at it for a few minutes. The sky was full of fleecy clouds stained pink and orange by the rising sun, with the clear, vivid blue of another beautiful day hovering around the edges.

Suddenly, being awake at the crack of dawn was completely worth it.

 

6:50 AM — reached the venue again. Congratulated myself on being early.

Reached the front doors, found out they were locked. Congratulated myself on having my wonderful new iPhone to entertain myself while I waited.

Wrote a Facebook post about the gorgeous sunrise. Tried to post it to Facebook. Message popped up: no Internet connection.

Uh-oh.

Tried to send a text. Would not send.

Oh, no.

Tried to call Ray. No connection.

My iPhone was the only method I had to accept credit card payments for the booth, and it wasn’t connecting. All around me, I could hear the kind of ominous music they use in movies and TV shows to signal that something is about to go horribly wrong:

Dunh duhn DUHN!!!

 

7:00 AM — the venue doors opened. I went inside, hoping for some kind of miracle. Maybe if I shook the iPhone…?

Then, in the bathroom, I saw a sign: WiFi provided by FRII.

I was saved!

 

7:05 AM — or not.

The WiFi was not free. You had to pay for it, and it was $39.95 for the day. Highway robbery! Forget that!

Then I had a vision of what would happen if I opened up my booth and told people I couldn’t accept credit cards. My vision included torches, pitchforks, and tar and feathers.

Hmm… $39.95? That sounds reasonable. Where do I sign up?

 

7:10 AM — tried to sign up for WiFi. The website appeared to be formatted more for laptop access than smart phone access. The welcome screen was teeny tiny, and I had to squint to see that there even were words. That was okay; one of my newly acquired iPhone skills was zooming, so I could make the welcome screen bigger.

Welcome to the Ranch, blah blah, proud to be WiFi provider, blah blah… ah-hah! Sign-up for WiFi. I hit the teeny tiny link.

The link took me to a teeny tiny registration form. When I zoomed in so that I could enter my information, I could no longer see the labels that told me what information I needed to enter. No problem; I could just slide the screen back-and-forth.

Okay. First name. Got that. Last name. All right. Company name… hey! What happened?

For some reason, the screen had returned to the welcome screen. Aargh!

Took several deep breaths. It’s okay. Just some technical glitch. I followed the links to the tiny registration form again and started over.

First name. Last name. Company name… no!!! The screen went back to the welcome screen. Why was it doing this to me??

Some primitive self-preservation instinct had prompted me to sit in the audience in front of one of the stages rather than in my booth. I glanced over at the empty booth, and saw people milling around in front of it, glancing at their watches. Was that a pitchfork one of them was carrying? Oh no, oh no…

 

7:15 AM — tried to pull self together. Started over. Welcome screen, registration form, first name, last name, company name. Tried to be extra careful as I touched the iPhone’s little buttons. Wondered how people with big fingers manage to operate phone at all.

Yes! Safely through company name. Address, phone number, e-mail — yay! Made it to the bottom of the screen and hit continue.

Now the screen was confirming the charges. Hey! It was going to charge me twice for the day, for a total of $79.90. I must have hit the wrong button somewhere in there. Aargh!!

 

7:20 AM — started over for the fourth time. Welcome screen, registration form, first name, last name, company name, address, phone number, e-mail. Whew! I made it again. Continue.

No!! No no no no no no no! The screen was again showing that I owed $79.90. I was not going to pay for two days when I only needed the WiFi for one.

Looked up at the booth, and there were even more people standing there. Feet were tapping. Lips were compressed.

Okay. $79.90 it is.

 

7:30 AM — successfully managed to enter my credit card information and sign up for the WiFi. Double checked that it was working. Success! Thank goodness! I hurried over to my booth and took the sheets down from on top of the tables. Within 30 seconds, there was a line of people waiting to buy things.

It was as I loaded the cash register to ring up the first customer that I realized that I’d brought cash, but no coins.  Oops!

For the next 30 minutes, I somehow managed to ring up customers, take their payments, try on wigs and shoes, and advise people on socks sizes, more or less at the same time.  I smiled at each customer and apologized for the delay in opening.  “I was having trouble with the WiFi in the building,” I said over and over.  Most people were very understanding.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, Irish dance customers, for not tarring and feathering me.

 

8:00 a.m.–my first assistant arrived.  I threw my arms around her neck and sobbed in relief.

When we finally got a break in customers, I showed her how to use the super-awesome, brand-new credit card reader for my iPhone.  You fit the iPhone in a special case which has a reader built into the bottom.  The reader plugs into the same place the charger does.  When a customer wants to pay with credit card, you swipe the card through the reader, and then you enter the amount they’re charging.  They sign their name with their finger (which is so cool), and then you can email or text a receipt to them.  It’s all encrypted and secure, and the charges get deposited into the store’s bank account at the end of the day.

Sigh.  I LOVE my iPhone.  How could I have resisted for so long?

 

9:30 a.m.–my other two assistants arrived, which meant that I could leave the booth and go watch my dancers compete.  The competition had started sometime around 8, but we’d been so busy that I hadn’t really registered it, except as a kind of noise in the background.

Irish dance competitions are very noisy.  And chaotic.  In case you’ve never been to one, here’s the general layout:

Dancers are divided into groups by dance level (beginner, beginner 2, novice, and prizewinner) and then by age.  That way, you don’t have a 13-year-old who’s been dancing for 5 years competing against a 6-year-old at her first feis.  Most of the dancers then compete in seven different dances.  The different dances use different music (kind of like the tango and the waltz use different music).  Also, some of the dances are soft shoe dances, which are more like ballet dances, and some of the dances are hard shoe dances, which are more like tap dances.

A feis usually starts off with the Reel competition.  The reel is one of the first two dances a dancer learns when they start taking Irish dance classes.  It’s fast, fun, and in 4/4 time, if you’re a musician.
When the competition is ready to kick off, an announcer will call all the competitors for the reel backstage.  The PA system is usually not loud enough or clear enough, with the result that the announcer sounds like Charlie Brown’s parents and no one has any clue what was said.  However, the few people who did understand will start moving backstage, and the others, with a herdlike instinct, follow.

Backstage, the enormous crowd of stressed-out dancers is sorted into its groups (see above) by the stage helpers, the underappreciated volunteer moms who are in charge of getting everybody to the right place at the right time.  You can spot them by their official-looking clipboards and the wild, I-am-about-to-lose-my-frickin’ mind, looks in their eyes.

Once the first competitions have been organized, the dancers are sent onstage in lines.  The stages are generally big sheets of plywood laid down on the floor of the venue and duct taped together, and because of the number of dancers involved (there were about 500 competitors at Fall Feis), they build 4 stages side-by-side.  So each of the 4 stages has its own line of dancers on it.  When the judge for each stage is ready, a stage helper sends the dancers out two at a time to do their dance.

From the audience’s point of view, this means that 8 dancers are performing at the same time—2 on each stage, with the stages side by side.  And here’s the kicker: the dancers are not all doing the same thing.

They are all doing the same dance, so they are using the same music (played live on an accordion by a musician sitting between the stages). Also, each of the seven dances has its own style, with moves that traditionally go with that dance and music. However, the specific choreography for each dancer is created by their school’s teacher. The steps danced by my students are similar in style but not the same as the steps danced by any other school.

That means that you can stand in the audience and watch eight dancers doing eight different things at the same time.

I’ve been dancing and competing since I was eight years old, so this seems normal to me. However, I can imagine how overwhelming it must seem to a first-time parent. Anyone walking in off the street would have no idea what was going on. Once, my husband’s grandmother came to the regional championships in Phoenix, where she lives. She wanted to surprise me, so she didn’t tell me she was going to come. I didn’t get a chance to warn her what it was like. She walked in, walked around in confusion for about half an hour, and then left. I never even knew she was there.

 

10:00 AM — after watching my dancers in this big room for a while, I went next door to the other two stages. The other two stages were for champion dancers. Champions are the highest level of Irish dance competitors, doing the hardest levels of choreography. There are two different levels of championship: preliminary and open. Championship competition is a little less confusing to watch than the beginner through prizewinner levels of competition, because the dancers don’t all line up on the stage and go one right after the other. Instead, they line up on the side of the stage, and the music stops between each pair of dancers. They still dance two at a time, or sometimes three at a time, and they still do different choreography, but at least you’re only looking at two people dancing and not eight.

For the beginner through prizewinner levels, each competition has one judge (or adjudicator, as they are technically called). For championship, each competition has three judges, and their scores are combined at the end to determine the winner. Also, where the beginner through prizewinner dancers have each dance judged as a separate competition, the champions do either two or three dances, and the scores for the dances are combined.

At Fall Feis, I had 12 champion dancers and about 30 beginner through prizewinner dancers, some dancing in the morning and some in the afternoon. I spent the hours from 10 AM to about 4 PM walking briskly from stage to stage, trying to catch as many of my dancers as possible. I especially wanted to see the dancers who would be going to the regional championships in two weeks so that we could work on any improvements they needed before the big competition.

In class, my job is to teach choreography (which we call “steps” in Irish dancing), polish choreography, and bully/cajole students into stretching and exercising properly. At a feis, my job morphs more into a cheerleader role. Dressed in business-type clothes, I stand in the audience and watch each dancer perform. For the beginner through prizewinner levels, I take notes which I will then send to them after the competition. The backstage for those competitions is usually too crowded for me to go back there, and the dancers don’t want me hovering anyway. If I see them in the audience between dances, I’ll go over and talk to them. For the champions, I take notes, but I also try to say something to them as they come off stage. “Good job,” I’ll say, or, if it didn’t go so well, I’ll ask what happened. I’ll hug some of the dancers; others I know don’t much like to be hugged, so I’ll pat them on the shoulder or clap for them instead. Again, they don’t want me hovering — most of the champions have been dancing five years or more, and they know what they’re doing — but I want them to know that I was watching them dance and rooting for them. When I was a competitor, it meant the world to me that my dad was always watching when I danced, and I want to be that kind of person for my dancers. I try to be supportive without being too embarrassing. I have no idea whether I succeed or not.

 

4:00 PM — time has no real meaning at a feis. Competitions always run late but still manage to feel hectic. I’m always running from place to place. There’s a lot of waiting. Between that and the emotional ups and downs, it’s an exhausting day. It always feels like it’s 2:00 PM in the afternoon, or whatever your low point in the afternoon is — the time when you’re hungry and crabby and really want a nap.

By 4:00 PM, most of my dancers had finished, and we were just waiting for the last of the awards. My assistants were packing up the booth, which had done well, with a minimum of problems (the cash register had died in the afternoon and wouldn’t open, a customer wanted to pay with a gift card but we didn’t have gift card capability at the booth, and a couple pairs of earrings had fallen apart. That was it! A good day). My dancers had been successful, on the whole: one dancer had earned the right to wear a solo costume of her own choosing rather than our school costume; one dancer had won three first places out of four dances, a personal best; one dancer had moved from the prizewinner level to the preliminary champion level.

The champions had had an amazing competition, one of our best ever. Out of the 12 champions, seven had placed in their competitions, and all seven of those had gotten first, second, or third. I was very, very happy, and very proud.

But as I drove home at 6:00 PM in the darkness to unload the cargo van back to the store, I was also sad — sad for the five champions who hadn’t placed, and for all my dancers who hadn’t achieved their goals that day. I wished, as I always wish, that I could magically help them fix the imperfections that kept them from placing; that I could tell them exactly why the judge hadn’t liked a particular dance; that I could make them smile when they wanted to cry. Above all, I wished I always knew the right thing to say when the awards had all been given out and some of my dancers were going home with nothing.

I don’t ever know the right things to say, and there’s no magic fix in dancing. All any of us can ever do is work on the things that didn’t go right, one little piece at a time, and look forward to the next feis.

Introduction to My 40 Adventures

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Originally published 7/1/2014

I turned 39 about a month ago.

Like most people facing the imminent arrival of 40, I’ve gone through various stages of mental struggle over the last couple years: trying to face the fact of my mortality, questioning some of the choices in my life, yanking out gray hairs with tweezers so I can pretend they don’t exist.

But the thing that has worried me the most about turning 40 has been the idea that I have to grow up now.

Maybe it sounds strange, but most of the time I don’t really feel like an adult, even though I’ve been married for fifteen years, have a Masters degree, and own my own business. I keep waiting for the day that I feel grown up, and it keeps not arriving.

While I’m waiting for The Grown Up Day to arrive, I pass the time by watching animated movies, reading young adult fantasy novels, and browsing the toy section at Target every time we go there. I embarrass my husband by dancing down the aisles of stores and taking funny pictures of myself with statues and props in public. I wear t-shirts and socks decorated with superheroes and Disney characters to work. I buy office supplies with Hello Kitty on them. The clothes in the “Women’s” section of stores look too frumpy to me, so I shop in the Juniors section. I build Legos and I play Lego video games on the XBox with my husband. My favorite part is when you shoot a Lego guy in the game and he falls down in pieces.

I enjoy my life.

Lately, though, I’ve struggled with the feeling that being 40 is SERIOUS, and I need to stop goofing around and act my age. There’s a ritzy shopping area here in Denver, and when you go there you’ll often see women in their 50’s and 60’s dressed in tight leopard-print miniskirts and high heels, their blouses low-cut and their hair dyed improbably blonde, trying to recapture their trophy wife heydays. I used to think, “Wow, that’s sad; they’re trying too hard.” Now I think, “OMG I AM WEARING SHORTS THAT I BOUGHT IN THE JUNIORS SECTION AND I’M SHOPPING AT THE DISNEY STORE AND WHAT IF I’M JUST LIKE THESE PEOPLE TRYING TO PATHETICALLY CLING TO MY VANISHED YOUTH????”

I don’t want to be a figure of pity for the young and a cautionary tale for the middle-aged.

But, after talking to some friends who are about ten years older than I am, I’m feeling better. They assured me that I don’t have to grow up if I don’t to, and it’s OK to keep on being silly and undignified if that makes me happy. They got matching tattoos for their 20th wedding anniversary, and for a recent birthday got a garden statue of Godzilla eating some gnomes (which was awesome!), and they are two of the happiest, most well-balanced people I know.

So, with their example in mind, I’ve decided to celebrate my 40th birthday by trying 40 new things and writing about them. These adventures will:

1. Reaffirm that I don’t have to be serious just because I’m 40 years old

2. Be a much healthier way of confronting my mortality than a midlife crisis

3. Be really fun (and funny!) to write about

I’m not sure how long it’s going to take me to have 40 adventures, since adventures often take money and I don’t have much, but I figure that if it takes too long I can always change it to 50 Adventures for 50.

I hope you enjoy my adventures as much as I’m going to!