October 10: The Art of Winning

“Did I win?” the ten-year-old boy asked as I lowered him from a climb. Baron, a sandy haired kid with a bowl cut, was my charge for an hour-long private belay session and had just finished flailing his way up a 5.7 route. I had no idea how to answer this question which was asked without a trace of irony or self-mockery.

“Uh, yes?” My eyes involuntarily darted to his mother, who was reclining on the padded floor behind us, watching her son’s every move.

I’d been about to start my own workout when Von, the gym employee who wears a button down shirt, waistcoat, bow tie, and dress shoes without fail (the gym uniform is a black t-shirt with the gym name in white letters across the front), asked if I’d be willing to do a private.

“He’s climbed outside before. He’s very advanced,” Baron’s mother informed me within seconds of our introduction. I nodded politely. I have yet to find a West LA parent who inderestimates his or her kid’s climbing ability.

“When he was four, we wanted to take him outside. The guy who was guiding us wouldn’t work with kids that young. We begged him to take Baron. He said he’d do it, but don’t expect to get your money back if he cries. Afterwards, he was amazed and said he’d never seen a kid that young climb that high.”

“Wow,” I said, nodding.

“We went to that wall they used in the movie Planet of the Apes.” Though I hadn’t seen the movie, this was one of the few walls in the LA area I’d been to, so I nodded again.

After trying on 6 different pairs of shoes (we started with size 5, his alleged shoe size, and worked our way up to 7.5), Baron and I headed over to the slab wall. It’s a slightly less than vertical wall (the opposite of an overhang), which means that the climber does more of the work with his legs. This is the wall we start most beginners on. I asked Baron which route he wanted to climb.

“Which one’s the hardest?” He asked. I indicated a 5.11b consisting of tiny red crimps and credit card feet. This, of course, was the climb Baron wanted to do.

Baron’s feet never left the ground. Eventually, I suggested we try a different route, an orange 5.8 on the same section of wall, estimating that this was near the upper limit of what he’d be able to climb.

“Which one’s the second hardest?” he asked.

“He’s stubborn,” his mom called out from where she was observing. It sounded like this was a point of pride for her.

Baron proceeded to fall off the dark blue 5.10b repeatedly. Eventually, he decided he’d climb the 5.10b with the help of an unlimited number of additional holds from other routes. He wanted to know if this still counted as climbing 5.10b. I told him it did not.

I finally got Baron to try a 5.7, which he completed with some effort. We then moved to an overhung wall. I suggested a green 5.9, but yet again, he wanted to know which climb was the hardest. I indicated a 5.11c and prayed he wouldn’t try it. Showing some sense of his own limitations, Baron selected a 5.10a instead. After failing to get beyond the first move, he agreed to switch to the green 5.9.

Baron was clearly athletic and not afraid of heights, but his technique was poor. His lack of footwork and tendency to pull with his arms meant he tired fast on the overhung 5.9. As he alternated between climbing and resting, I tried to offer tips about using his feet and balancing his weight. My success was limited. His mom came up next to us and began telling him specifically where to move his hands and feet, offering suggestions every time he seemed to hesitate.

“Mom, I’m resting,” Baron said, clearly annoyed.

“He’s so stubborn,” his mom repeated, winking at me.

“He’s strong,” I said, uncertain whether I was allowed to agree that her son was stubborn or if that was a privilege reserved for parents.

“Oh yes. He’s got legs like his daddy, strong like oak trees. And crazy upper body strength. He gets that from his dad too.” I nodded, trying to remember if I’d ever heard the phrase “strong like an oak” used outside of books and movies.

“But he’s got my agility,” she added with a conspiratorial grin. I would not have pegged this woman as agile, but judging by her tone and expression, having her agility was a good thing.

“Wow, that’s a lucky combination,” I said. Baron’s mom returned to directing her son’s every move. I considered explaining to her that she was stunting his ability to develop the problem-solving skills necessary for climbing. What will Baron do when he has to try to figure out how to get up a wall without his mom?

“Am I good?” Baron asked when I lowered him from the climb.

“Yes. Of course!” I said after only a slight pause. “Most people your age can’t climb just one color.” This seemed to satisfy him. I wondered what would’ve have happened if I’d said “no.” Would he have quit climbing on the spot? Does he only enjoy the sport because he thinks he’s good at it? What happens when he gets more into it and reads about a dude named Alex Honnold? 

In 6th grade, my math teacher told our class that there was always going to be someone out there who was smarter, faster, stronger, better in every category than we were, and that was life; we had to deal with it. At the time, I’d struggled to wrap my head around this idea. What was the point of existing if someone else could do what you were doing only better?

When I first started rock climbing at the age of 9, I’d enjoyed being good for my age and the praise I’d received, but did little to ensure steady improvement. Eventually, someone came along who was younger and better. I stopped climbing when I entered high school so I’d have more time to pursue other sports, sports for which I still received praise. When I got to levels where I no longer received praise for those sports, I quit them as well. It took a two year stint as the worst player on Yale’s varsity softball team to realize I was selecting my “passions” based on what I was good at rather than what I actually enjoyed. I guess this is more or less the future I imagine for Baron unless his mentality changes (or he becomes the next Alex Honnold).

I’m still not sure I have an answer to what the point of existing is if someone else can do what you’re doing better, but I do know that it’s not a productive line of thought. I’ve interpreted it as license to do what makes you happy.

On her son’s last climb of the session, Baron’s mom resumed her narrative of their time at Planet of the Apes wall.

“He’s fearless; he climbed 600 feet in the air, and it didn’t scare him.” The Planet of the Apes wall is a top rope wall. A standard rope is at most 70 meters, which means on a top rope route, the climber isn’t getting more than 35 meters off the ground, 115 feet. I realized then that I was being incredibly petty. We all live with our own delusions (though they might seem reasonable enough to us). What did I care if Baron’s mom thought her son had been 60, 600, or 6,000 feet off the ground? My job was to make sure the kid had a good time climbing.

I lowered Baron for the last time. Back on the ground he turned to me. “Did I struggle less than other kids on that climb?”

I’m pretty sure this was the moment where I was supposed to give him a speech about how climbing is about competing with yourself, striving to be the best that you can be, etc., etc. But I’m also pretty sure any impassioned speech I could have given, no matter how poignant and filled with introspection, would have gone in one ear and out the other as it would have for me at that age. To this day, I’m not sure I fully subscribe to the “you’re only competing against yourself” philosophy. It’s the intellectually and morally superior philosophy, but if I’m being honest with myself, I only ever use it as a crutch in situations where I know I’m not going to win.

September 29: Shooting Stars

Located just about 100 miles north of Los Angeles and largely devoid of what Angelenos would describe as “sites of cultural significance,” Bakersfield is not the typical Friday night destination.

As we pulled into town at sunset, we passed windowless buildings, chainlink fences, and oil wells. The air was dry and filled with particulate matter. While it’s population makes it the 52nd largest city in America, in 2015, Bakersfield earned the distinction of being the 2nd most polluted city in the country. We parked along the side of the road to avoid paying and joined the throng of Bakersfieldians making their way toward the large ferris wheel silhouetted by orange sky. The sound of mariachi music and arcade games became increasingly loud, and the breeze began to smell of fried dough. After a 2.5 hour drive and a ten minute walk, we had arrived at The Kern County Fair.

How, you might be wondering, did three good-looking, intelligent millennials with a car end up in Bakersfield on a Friday night? While the rest of our peers were heading out to bars and movies and art museums (or staying home and pulling up The Office on their parents’ Netflix accounts), we were on our way to see Smash Mouth, the one-hit wonder whose song All Star had spawned countless Shrek-themed memes.

I’d had to select my companions for this adventure with great care. It’s not just anyone who will drop everything, duck out of work early, and spend hours commuting at rush hour to one of the least exciting cities in California in order to see a band they don’t care about. Jared and Katie were temperamentally well-suited for this idiotic mission–good-natured people who are routinely kind to those around them. Katie’s the kind of person who’s up for pretty much anything out of the ordinary and has a good time no matter what. Jared DJs in his spare time and engages with music as a craft. He’d been ready to turn down my invitation until he learned that the concert was free with the price of admission to the fair ($10). In particular, I worried he would regret the decision to come.

Unlike Jared and Katie, I am as close to an un-ironic lover of Smash Mouth as a millennial can be. In early September, when I heard the lead singer, Steve Harwell (a Guy Fieri look-alike), had suffered from some kind of heart episode and had had to cancel shows, I knew I needed to act fast or risk never seeing Smash Mouth perform live. While in the early 2000s, the zenith of the band’s popularity, they’d won a Kid’s Choice Award, featured prominently in the Shrek opening credits, and filled stadiums, in 2017, they were mostly performing at county and state fairs. The Kern County Fair was the only place they’d be performing in California during the month of September, so it was either make the pilgrimage to Bakersfield, or gamble on Steve’s heart lasting into October.

We had some time to kill before Smash Mouth was scheduled to perform at the Budweiser Pavilion, so we headed for the second most exciting entertainment option listed in the fair’s program, The Great American Duck Race.

Robert Duck (who claimed that this was his actual last name), served as MC. He introduced us to his ducks who have won The Great American Duck Race hosted annually in Deming, New Mexico twelve times. He selected volunteers from the audience to come up and hold the ducks. When the whistle blew, the lucky duck-holders would drop their ducks into channels with water (like lanes in a pool), and the ducks would swim to the other side. The person with the fastest duck would move on to the finals.

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No matter how many times I raised my hand, I was never chosen. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was competing with 6-year-olds for Robert’s attention. The first round of racing ducks had names like Michael Phelps, Simone Manuel, and Katie Le-ducky. The next heat was filled with ducks named after NASCAR drivers. The third heat was a Duck Dynasty round. I was very impressed by Robert’s ability to tell all the seemingly identical mallards apart (how could he distinguish Michael from Simone every time?), until he let each kid name their own duck in the finals and I realized they were randomly assigned jokes. In the finals, most of the competitors selected duck puns for names, except for the two littlest kids who named their ducks Lucy and Jake. After a short but intense race, Jake proved victorious, and his temporary owner was crowned with a duck mask. After the ceremony, Robert said he wished he could give everyone a chance to race the ducks, but there just wasn’t time. However, for only $5.00, we could buy the right to race a duck. This $5.00 purchase included a complementary duck whistle. A tempting offer, but Jared, Katie, and I had places to be.

After purchasing the most expensive, least satisfying burrito bowl of my life (for $9.50 it only included meat, rice, and beans. Everything beyond that was an “add-on,” including salsa), we got in line to enter the pavilion. Jared and Katie were shocked by how many people had come to see the has-been band. Nearly all of the pavilion’s 3,000 seats were full. There was even a VIP section cordoned off with rope. Who these VIPers were and what exactly they were hoping to get from this experience remains a mystery. The band was scheduled to go on at 8pm. When 8:30pm came and went, and there was still no sign of the performers, the audience began to chant “Smash Mouth.” Logan, the eight-year-old in front of us, informed Katie that Smash Mouth was a fake band that did not actually exist.

Just as I began to despair that Steve had actually suffered the fatal heart attack, the man himself walked on stage, red solo cup in hand. The band launched into their first song, “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby,” and the crowd went nuts (several people were wearing Shrek masks). I’ve been to a number of concerts for bands I actually admit to liking, but this was the first concert where I knew the majority of songs on the setlist. I was embarrassed and proud at the same time. Up on stage, Steve didn’t seem to know how to interact with the audience. While he sang, he paced back and forth between the bassist and the guitarist. He’d encroach on their bubble of space, placing an arm on their shoulder and singing directly to them. At one point, he kicked the guitarist on the butt. I wondered if there were women out there who fantasized about being romantically involved with Steve.

Logan turned again to Katie and told her that the man on stage was not the real Steve Harwell. He pulled up images of Steve on his iPhone as evidence. It was hard to say from such a distance if the man on stage was really Steve. He’d lost weight since the band’s early years and was now bleached blond. He didn’t sound like the recordings, but then again, neither does Katy Perry.

As the performance wore on, the anticipation built. There was one song everyone there had come to hear, and it wasn’t Walkin’ on the Sun, Holiday in my Head, Pacific Coast Party, Road Man, or even their cover of I’m a Believer. The couple behind me started chanting “All Star” every time a song ended. What’s it like to be a band and know that the thing you’ve created far surpasses you in terms of significance?

All Star was the very last song of the night, and it was glorious. The people in the Shrek masks jumped up and down in time with the beat. The crowd lit up with cellphone screens as people recorded the moment for their Instagram accounts. 3,000 voices joined Steve’s for the chorus that has scored this milenium. The concert ended with Steve softly repeating, like a mantra or a prayer, the words “only shooting stars break the mold.”

“That was awesome,” Jared commented as we walked back to the car in the dark. Katie nodded in agreement. I felt inspired, rejuvenated, a part of something much larger than myself (like a generation or a social media platform or something). I looked up at the night sky, searching for a sign, maybe a shooting star. There were none to be found, of course. The air in the 2nd most polluted city in the USA does not lend itself to stargazing.

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September 25: Ants!

I’m half-awake and feel something tickling my face. I reach up to brush it off, and my index finger hits something small with many legs. My eyes are now open. The ant writhing between my thumb and forefinger comes into focus. I brush my face, checking for more ants. A sticky patch on my cheek tells me I’ve been drooling. Clustered around the watering hole of saliva on the edge of my pillow are five more ants. I jump out of bed and realize with horror that there’s something moving in my mouth. Reaching in, my fingers touch something small and alive. I pull out two very sodden ants who must have seen my mouth as an open invitation. How many more crawled in during the course of the night? Hundreds? I run to the bathroom and spend the next 10 minutes spitting real and imagined ants into the sink.

The worst part of an ant infestation is the paranoia. Once you find ants in your trashcan, your sink, your dishwasher, your bed, your mouth, you begin to imagine that they are everywhere. The feel of water evaporating from your skin is no longer a sensation you ignore. Instead, you search the area because even the slightest tickle on your skin could be an ant.

Ants begin to star in your dreams. Sometimes I wake up from dreaming there are ants in my bed to a reality where there are ants crawling on my legs under the covers. The distinction between the real and imagined begins to erode.

You learn things about ants you never wanted to know, dark secrets they left out of the sugar-coated Hollywood movie “A Bug’s Life,” like the fact that all ants can bite.

Over the course of the past 3 nights, I’ve slept in 3 different beds and 1 couch in an effort to escape them. After waking up with ants in my mouth, I moved out of my room. I spent the next night in my mother’s bed while she was out of town, but they found me there too. I woke to the now familiar sensation of an ant crawling across my face. It was early enough that I moved to the couch to continue sleeping. The third night, I slept in my sister’s bed. It was there that I finally found a sanctuary from the ants (though images of them still haunt me in my sleep).

During an ant infestation, you begin to ask yourself questions like “why now?”; “why me?”; and “what do they want?” It’s hard to imagine their motivation, but it starts to feel personal when, no matter how many times you spray them with vinegar and whatever other homeopathic extermination methods your mother researched on the internet, they keep coming back.

And maybe it is personal. After all, you don’t hesitate to end thousands of their lives in the name of a pristine sink.

 

For those who want visuals:

September 18: Boys and Girls

A troop of little boys in catholic school uniforms marched into the gym. I’m not someone who usually goes goo-goo for little kids or anything like that (if anything, I’m actually kind of afraid of them), but even I had to admit that these kids were pretty cute. They’d come straight from school to celebrate Patrick’s 9th birthday.

The party started off normally enough. I helped the first few kids into their harnesses and met my coworker, Colin the Lifeguard. I guessed Colin was somewhere in his 40s. He had the characteristic tan skin and bleach-blond hair of someone who’s spent a lot of time at the beach, and he wore a necklace with three fangs dangling from it (before Colin, these fangs had belonged to a sea lion).

Things went downhill when Colin asked everyone to listen up while he went over the safety rules for the gym. On cue, the adorable little boys began running, screaming, and attempting to strangle each other with balloons. Someone found the light switch and started flipping it on and off, creating a strobe effect. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a night club for catholic school-going demons. While Colin attempted to control the situation, the kids’ parents looked on with pleasant smiles, but did little to help restore order. It was at this moment that I realized why my mom had signed me up for activities in my youth. I’d always thought that she wanted me to get exercise, make some friends, and maybe learn how to dribble a ball around a field. Watching the chaos and the way it had become our responsibility to contain it, I realized the true purpose of activities like climbing, soccer, ballet, etc.: to give parents a reprieve from their children (with perhaps the distant secondary goal of getting their kids into an elite institution for higher learning). I had to admit that, were these my kids, I’d probably end up killing them if I didn’t have people like me to look after them a couple hours every day.

When the kids weren’t climbing with Colin or me, they were wrestling on the floor and climbing higher than they were allowed to without a rope. The worst offender in this category was Thor, Patrick’s older brother (I’m very interested in what changed for the parents between child 1 and child 2), who is on the non-competitive climbing team at the gym and thinks he’s god’s gift to the sport of climbing. He was unmoved by explanations that I would lose my job if he didn’t come down, and enjoyed striking provocative poses while on the wall.

At every opportunity, Patrick reminded us in his best outdoor voice that it was his birthday, which roughly translated to “I get to do whatever the f— I want.” One of the better behaved kids at the party, a kid with blond curly hair and glasses, informed me that he was a boy scout. As a boy scout, he took great interest in the knot I used to tie him in. He asked me to show him how it worked, after which, he insisted on tying himself in. This would have made my life easier had he actually been able to execute the knot. Untying was something he could manage on his own, a service he then insisted on providing to all his friends. Every time a kid came off the wall, the boy scout would rush over and start untying the kid’s knot, completely undeterred by his friend’s shoves.

Colin was, admirably, trying to teach the boys a string of commands to check safety systems before climbing. When this inevitably failed, he resorted to scare tactics, describing the importance of safety systems on a multipitch trad climb in Joshua Tree. The boys, entirely unfamiliar with the concepts of Joshua Tree, multipitch, and trad, remained unmoved. When they finally took a break for pizza and cake, Colin joked about putting cyanide in the pizza.

My second party that day, which I worked with a former parkour artist, was a birthday for 7-year-old girls. They were infinitely calmer and better at following directions than the boys. I vowed that, if I ended up having kids, they would all be girls.

After working a few birthdays, I’ve made some observations. One I call “the rule of birthdays,” which is that the birthday kid is almost always the best climber. Unlike most of their peers, they usually have some previous experience. The other kids fall into two categories: the ones that intuitively get it and the ones that don’t. Some kids, no matter how many times you remind them that the legs are stronger than the arms, and all they need to do is stand up to reach the next hold, just can’t internalize it. There’s actually a third fairly rare category, the kids who don’t want to climb at all. These kids usually spend most of the party glued to their parents’ sides. The party I was working had one girl in this category, Coco, a roundish blond with a mom in an all denim designer outfit and leopard print flats.

Periodically, Coco’s mom would bring her over to me, announcing that Coco was ready to climb. As soon as I approached her with the rope, Coco would begin to cry. At one point, we got as far as tying her in. Her mom led her over to the wall. Coco wanted to climb while holding her mom’s hand. Once the mother made it clear that she had no intention of going up the wall in her “fancy shoes,” Coco dissolved into tears again. Her mom knelt so their eyes were level and in a raised whisper said, “This is embarrassing. I don’t care if you climb or not, but we’re at someone else’s birthday party. You can’t just sit here crying.” Coco continued to cry. I stood there, reflecting on how I had no idea what the right answer was for this parenting dilemma. Do you let the kid walk away and give up, even though they’re fully capable of getting up the wall? Is that teaching them to throw in the towel too soon? Do you make them go up the wall while sobbing? That seems kind of cold. You want them to feel like you have their back.

 

As Coco’s mom continued to try to coax her daughter onto the wall, I looked at the two of them. They were a mismatched pair. While Coco was blond and a little chubby, her mom was a classic west Los Angeles mother–honey highlights in artificially straightened hair, skin bronzed to perfection, a huge diamond on a hand topped with black talons. Her face appeared hard rather than old. I glanced around the gym. All the party moms were thin, toned, and tan. Their little 7-year-old daughters were all different shapes and sizes, styled according to their imaginations rather than images they’d seen in TV and magazines. Looking at their moms, I saw what the future held for these girls. I wondered what each would have to do to her body to make it fit into the same mold as her mom’s.

Maybe I’d rather have boys. I’m not sure I could raise girls in west LA in good conscience.

September 12: Back to School

I couldn’t stop staring at the elaborately made up blond across the room. All the white women in the room, except for me, were elaborately made up blonds (most did not come by this blondness naturally, judging by their roots), so it wasn’t for these reasons that she stood out. The reason my eyes strayed to her whenever I thought no one else was looking was because of her arms and her lips. She had beautiful arms–toned, with large biceps and forearms. I watched enviously as they bulged whenever she reached up to play with her hair (she did this almost constantly). Her lips were also large, full beyond belief. In profile, it was hard to tell which jutted out farther, her lips or her nose. When she faced forward, I’d search her face for other signs of tampering, quickly averting my eyes whenever she felt my gaze on her.

It was day two of a semester-long class I’d signed up for at Santa Monica College (SMC). After swearing I was done with school forever, here I was, right back in it, taking a class called “Social Media Marketing.” I was inspired to do this by a job I’d interviewed for that was seeking someone with a background in social media campaigns. I didn’t get the job, lacking a background in both social media and environmental activism, but it’d gotten me to think about the world of media beyond film and television.

Someone at SMC, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that it made sense to hold this class in Malibu (45 minutes from SMC’s main campus) in order to attract a “different demographic.” When we went around the class on the first day and said where in LA we were living, the only people from Malibu were a trio of middle-aged women and a blond couple who looked to be about my age and used a shiny red convertible as their mode of transportation (the dude looked like Sean Penn’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). If the demographic they were hoping to attract was white people with money, mission accomplished. SMC is still working on building its Malibu campus, so this class was held at Webster Elementary. Something I hadn’t considered before I showed up for the first day of class was how this would affect the size of the room’s furniture. My thighs were mashed against the underside of the desk. Every time I shifted position, one of the table legs would leave the ground, causing everything on the desk to slide.

Our professor had the physique of someone who goes to the gym a lot and focuses on the big muscle groups. He’s an Italian dude with a full head of silver-gray hair, and a smile that says “I was popular in high school.” On the first day of class, he wore jeans and a red collared shirt with the under armour logo. On the second day of class, he wore jeans and a navy blue collared shirt with the under armour logo. By the second day, I was beginning to sense a pattern.

On the first day, he gave us his professional life story over the course of an hour and a half. He went to business school in Vegas after moving there to spend time with his mother who, supposedly, wasn’t long for this world and needed to live in a dry climate (my mind immediately jumped to tuberculosis, but I think I was probably off base). After school, he started a business with his brother selling carts to casinos that allowed people to walk around making change for customers. These cart were rendered obsolete in 2000 by more advanced technology. At this point, his mom had lived many years past her alleged expiration date, so he moved back to Ventura, CA, where he’s originally from. He worked in marketing for a news paper until the iPhone came out, at which point he’d seen the future. He quit and started selling software. His biggest sale (which he’s mentioned at least once each class) was to Cisco. With that money (somewhere in the millions), he started a business selling ergonomically tailored chairs to large companies.

On the second day of class, we went through a powerpoint and learned a little bit more about our professor’s wife. Apparently, her idea of a night out is going to Pier 1 Imports followed by Starbucks. Our discussion then turned to Facebook. The professor pulled up the following chart:

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I was sitting at my little desk, trying to figure out what it would look like for a social media platform to know you as well as a spouse, when I heard the professor ask if anyone had any questions. He stopped pacing and stared directly at me. I guess I looked like I had a question.

Me: “Uh, what does that even look like? Like Facebook knows you as well as a spouse?”

This launched him into a scenario where the two of us were married and his mother, my mother-in-law, wanted to know what to get me for Christmas. In this scenario, I loved going to Olive Garden, so he suggested a gift card to that illustrious establishment. I was momentarily distracted by the thought that I needed to find a husband who knew me better. The big takeaway was that Facebook would also know this info about my spending habits. So I guess his mom, my mother-in-law, could have saved herself time and asked Facebook instead. The professor concluded with the idea that after 500 likes, Facebook knows you better than you know yourself, which is more or less equivalent to knowing what you’re going to do before you do it. I was starting to feel like we were living in a Christopher Nolan movie.

Our discussion of Facebook and its relationship to us ended when the professor asked me what my name was. I said, “Ceri.” This, of course, autocorrected in his brain to “Siri,” and a gray haired woman a few rows down started talking about the voice in her iPhone. At this point, I turned back to my fellow classmates for entertainment. Sean Penn was watching a video of someone surfing, dimming his screen every time the professor paced to our end of the room. On the first day, I’d pegged him as a surfer because of his long blond hair and tanned, stringy physique, so I felt somewhat vindicated. The elaborately made up blond on the other side of the room was running her fingers over her impossibly large lips. Maybe they were new.

September 8: Grounded

I’d been ignoring the nagging pain in my left shoulder since the end of the trip. I finally went to see a medical professional about it on Tuesday. After jerking my arm in various directions, Dr. Rosenzweig’s assessment was that I needed to stop climbing until my shoulder stopped hurting. While this might sound logical, in the moment, sitting on the examination table, I struggled to follow his line of reasoning.

Me: So, I should take a few days off, pop some Advil, and then I can climb?

Dr. Rosenzweig (struggling to figure out how to explain this since I clearly wasn’t getting it): Um, no. You should give your shoulder a chance to heal. Then rehab it through physical therapy. Once it’s strong, you can go back to climbing.

Me: So I can go back next week?

Dr. Rosenzweig: If it doesn’t feel better in a month, call the office, and we can schedule a cortisone shot. If that doesn’t work, surgery is the last option.

Me: So if I climb, but make sure I don’t do anything that makes it hurt, I’m good?

Dr. Rosenzweig (having had enough): We want to nip this in the bud.

I’m now on a diet of anti-inflammatory medication, regularly heating my shoulder to “stimulate healing,” and I start physical therapy on Monday. When I want to wallow in self-pity, I think about the irony of working at a climbing gym, having free gym membership for the first time in my life, and being unable to use it.

Now that I’m grounded, I’m having to seek other forms of exercise, exercise that doesn’t involve raising my left arm above my head. Imaginatively, I’ve come up with hiking, biking, and running. Biking has risen above the other options because it doubles as a legit form of transportation, dovetailing nicely with my desire to spend as little on gas as possible. And save the planet, of course.

I’d always thought of biking as a fairly unskilled form of exercise. It turns out this assumption was not entirely correct. I’m slowly learning how and when to shift gears on the janky bike my dad found on the side of the road (our family’s only bike. It has one of those baskets on the back for carrying things, a nice feature, but I can’t figure out how to lower the seat). I’m pretty sure that, as a biker on city streets, I’m supposed to obey the same rules as cars. I try to do this as much as is convenient for me. I’m also still unclear about what arm gestures I’m supposed to make to indicate right and left turns. I’m a little afraid to learn these arm gestures because if any involve raising my left arm above my head, that will eliminate biking as a form of exercise. So far, I haven’t hit or been hit by anything. I’m starting to think the Tour de France might be in my future.

My father’s bike and I are an unstoppable team, making our way all over the west side of Los Angeles (usually no more than a 5 mile radius from the house). Yesterday, we biked to the bank to close out a checking account where they’d started charging me a monthly fee. I had to wait to be seen by a bank official, for which I was thankful because it gave me time to stop sweating. Through my interaction at the bank, I learned that really all they want to do is keep you on as a customer. The woman I spoke to quickly came up with three different ways for me to keep an account with them without paying a monthly fee (one involved claiming I’d be in school for another four years, allowing me to open a new college checking account).

Post-bank, I decided to reward myself with an espresso drink at the Caffe Luxxe across the street (one of a long list of LA coffee places that have passively rejected me over the course of the past month). Sadly, there was nothing in it for the bike, but I think it understood. When I enter coffee shops, I try to hang back because it takes me time to go through the drink offerings and pretend like I’ll choose something new and exotic this time, before finally settling on an almond milk cappuccino. The place was pretty empty when I walked in, which meant that the baristas noticed me immediately. I stayed back, hoping they would take this as a cue that I wanted to mull over my decision, but I think they read it more as fear. One of them, a guy with glasses, who I would later learn was named Preston, called out to me, asking if I wanted anything. In an effort to appear well-socialized, I took several steps forward and told him I was considering my options. After anther minute of careful consideration, I ordered an almond milk cappuccino. Preston didn’t ring me up; he just started making the drink. After pulling out my credit card, I had nothing to do but wait. I felt awkward waiting for Preston to make my drink in silence, so I brought up the first thing that popped into my head.

Me: You guys sell liquid soap?

There was no reason to phrase this as a question since they were quite obviously selling soap, and it was quite obviously in liquid form. Either that, or it was an art installation designed to be reminiscent of a soap display case. Thankfully, it is the job of all baristas to engage with their customers, no matter how pitiful their attempts at small talk. My comment led to a discussion of all the non-coffee-related items for sale in the store and a recommendation that I try a sample of their hand cream.

I watched with envy as Preston confidently poured dollops milk into a thick, creamy shot of espresso. When he finished, he’d transformed the dollops of milk into the classic leaf-shaped latte art. I offered him my credit card, but he shook his head. “This one’s on me.” I did my best to keep from grinning and thanked him. I sat down on the far side of the cafe with my self-help book, feeling incredibly special. This day kept getting better and better. Free checking account, free cappuccino. I was on a roll, and it was all due to the awesomeness I was evidently exuding.

After reading for an hour or so, my concentration was interrupted when I heard Preston say, “It’s on me.” My back was to the counter, so I couldn’t see who he was gifting a free coffee drink to. Needless to say, that put me back in my place. Still, a free coffee is a free coffee, regardless of whether or not validation of your existence comes with it.

 

September 4: The Party

It was not a party for single, witty, intelligent male models roughly my age. Instead, when I arrived at the gym Saturday night, I learned that the party was for Tomás, an eight-year-old boy. This meant that the bulk of the party-goers were Tomás’ peers, seven and eight-year-old boys. My first task was to get the early arrivals suited up in harnesses. I was a little tentative about how best to harness the children. I tried to remember if, at seven or eight, I would have wanted a stranger to come over and manhandle me. Would I have found it demeaning? Would I have been capable of doing it on my own? Von, one of the people who works behind the desk, suggested I take them over to the stairs where they could sit. From this I gathered that the kids were not expected to put on their own harnesses. I would be the one sliding the harness over their feet and cinching it around their tiny waists. I selected my first victim, a cute little girl with long, blonde curls. Her style of dress reminded me of how I would have dressed at that age–cargo shorts and a boy’s t-shirt. I guided her over to the stairs. I felt a little awkward tightening straps in silence. Recognizing that I was the adult and would have to begin the conversation, I asked her what her name was. She said, “Milo.”

Thus I learned my first lesson of the evening: it is easy to mistake eight-year-old boys with long hair for girls. As I moved around, pulling kids aside to put on harnesses, I developed a script for my interactions. I would ask the kids or their parents if the kid was climbing at the party. I would then ask what the kid’s name was. While putting on the harness, I’d ask if the kid had climbed before, and regardless of the answer, I’d ask if they were excited. As I made my rounds, I was introduced to a wide range of eight-year-old temperaments. There were the ones who knew everything. They’d climbed before and were really good at it and could put on their own harnesses. There were the ones who were scared. One boy was so tearful, his mom had to sign an observer waiver so she could stay with her son during the party. The worst, though, were the ones who wouldn’t talk. I went up to this one boy and asked if he was climbing. His eyes got really big, and he took a step back. He wouldn’t answer me, which I found very distressing. I don’t think of myself as a frightening person (though one of my childhood nicknames was, in fact, Scary Ceri). I was the only female belayer for the party, which I (mistakenly) thought would give me automatic points with kids. I had to remind myself that this kid was eight, at most, and it likely wasn’t personal. If an adult were giving me the silent treatment, that would be an indication that he hated me or that there was something very wrong with him. This behavior in an eight-year-old, however, probably just meant that he was shy.

Once the kids were all suited up, they were released into the gym. One person supervised the auto-belay area (an auto-belay is like giant automatic dog leashes which takes in slack as a person moves up the wall, and then slowly lowers the person to the ground as soon as they let go) while the rest of us belayed kids on the slab walls. The kids would run up to us, and we would tie them in using a figure eight knot. I got a lot of questions about the safety systems in place.

Kid 1: “Why don’t you have those things (indicating the auto-belays) everywhere in the gym?”

Me: “Because then I wouldn’t have a job.”

Kid 2: “Which is stronger? This knot or (again indicating the auto-belay)?”

Me: “That’s a good question. I don’t know. They’re both really strong.”

Kid 3: “What happens if the knot comes untied?”

Me: “The knot doesn’t come untied.”

One lovely little girl who I’m pretty sure was the older sister of the party boy, Tomás, introduced herself in this manner:

Me: “What’s your name?”

Her: “Lucia. Don’t call me Lucia (pronouncing it with a ch sound) because I’m not Italian!

It wouldn’t have occurred to me to call her Lucia (ch) if she hadn’t brought it up. But, as a result of her comment, I spent the rest of the evening mentally correcting myself before saying her name. Another little boy wanted to know when the gym had been built. I told him I wasn’t sure, but the gym had been around when I was 9, which made it at least thirteen years old. That made me feel old. These kids weren’t even 9. They’d all been born in 2009 or 2010! The kids didn’t seem particularly interested in reaching the top of the wall. Most would climb about half way up and then ask to be lowered. The hardest part of the job, in my opinion, is trying to instruct an eight-year-old boy how to be lowered safely. Many were simply incapable of internalizing the idea that you needed to stop holding onto the wall with your hands.

Time passed pretty quickly, and before I knew it, we were already an hour into the party which meant it was time for food. My favorite kid at the party, a very inquisitive boy with dark curly hair and fingerless gloves, wanted to know what they were serving. I told him I thought it was pizza. “Why is it always pizza?” he wanted to know. I thought this was an excellent question. “I think because it’s easy to divide and cheap,” I told him before sending him off to wash his hands.

The 20 minutes during which they ate pizza were the scariest moments of the evening. I was left alone with my fellow staff members, which meant that I had to be on my best human behavior. I was introduced to Guy, a tall lanky dude with a man bun, who works as a masseuse and fitness instructor at the gym when not belaying children at birthday parties. He told me birthday parties are the best events to belay for because of the tips. From him I also learned that, contrary to popular belief, cake cutting is a specialty skill that involves extensive training and discipline.

During the second climbing session, I managed the auto-belay area, which translated to running between four belay stations, trying to clip in/unclip the kids before they attempted to do so on their own. I had one close call where I got to Milo just as he was about to let go of the tether, which would have stranded the auto-belay at the top of the wall. Once again, I marveled at the complete lack of interest the kids seemed to have in reaching the top of the wall. What were they getting out of the experience, other than a forearm pump? There’s probably an epiphany somewhere in that observation, waiting to be had, about my personal climbing philosophy, but so far I haven’t taken the time to figure out what it is.

While Guy doled out cake (in this case, cherry pie from a fancy west LA bakery), I watched this little girl with blond ringlets (I’m absolutely certain she was a girl) repeatedly fall on one section of a traverse. Her father was standing next to me, eating a slice of cherry pie, and started talking to me about his daughter. She’s five years old and just started doing gymnastics as part of a competitive team. Before that, she was self taught. I had trouble imagining what this would look like, but from the way he repeated it a second time, I could tell it was impressive. At first, I thought we were having the type of conversation that causes me anxiety, the type where the other person is expected to contribute to the exchange of words in some way, so I started trying to prepare an anecdote about my sister and her career as a gymnast. As I tried to come up with one that didn’t end in a trip to the hospital, the man informed me that his daughter has very good upper body strength. I observed the way she was pulling herself up the wall and nodded. The man went on to tell me that he has crazy good upper body strength. He’s always been some one who could crank out the pull ups and push ups, but he has weak legs. He doesn’t think his daughter has weak legs, but his son does. His son is a very advanced tennis player for his age but struggles to change direction quickly. This is how his father has diagnosed him with weak legs. It was right around the time when the father started demonstrating effective tennis technique that I realized no response was required or expected of me in this conversation. My role was as an audience member. I smiled and nodded and made noises that suggested interest until, mercifully, it was time to help Guy clean up.

As I drove home, I wondered if something about being a parent gave ordinary people the urge to share detailed accounts of their children’s exploits with strangers, or if this was the kind of trait that manifested itself in certain people regardless of whether or not they had any progeny.