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 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 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.

September 1: Day Job

They talk about coffee in terms of waves (kind of like feminism). There’s first wave coffee, which is the approach you find in diners–they brew a pot of coffee with faint turpentine undertones and leave it on a heating pad until it evaporates. Then in the 60s you get places like Peet’s and Starbucks opening. These nationwide chains are the second wave of coffee. Third wave coffee consists of the small, artisanal shops that talk about roast flavor profiles using terms like “floral” and “peach cobbler.” I know this info thanks to “Barista,” a documentary I watched with my aunt about the national barista competition. Apparently, there are no limits to what can be made into a competitive sport.

After a google search titled “how to become a barista,” I concluded that if I was going to get a job in coffee without ever having held a job in the field, it would likely be at one of the second wave places. I got really excited when, last week, I received an email from a manager at Peet’s saying he’d like to interview me. We agreed on a time for the phone interview, 12pm last Friday. I trained for the interview. I rode my bike to the local Peet’s and sampled their offerings (on a total side note, putting condensed milk in coffee seems to be a new fad in the commercial world. I’ve been visiting coffee shops all over LA in recent weeks, and many, including Peet’s, are offering beverages with names like “Havana Cappuccino” or “Cuban Coffee” that contain a mixture of regular and sweetened condensed milk. It kinda seems like the antithesis of the almond/soy/coconut milk fad). The soy cappuccino I had at Peet’s was not too sweet. I was confident that, if asked, I’d be able to list Peet’s beverages I liked and what I liked about them. I rehearsed my answer about why I wanted to work at Peet’s, a combination of loving coffee and needing a job. Despite Urth Caffe’s rejection, I was hopeful that this would be my break. The Peet’s manager would realize that I was a levelheaded, diligent person with a sincere love of coffee, and would hire me on the spot.

Like most of my fantasies, it didn’t play out this way in real life.

12pm last Friday came and went, and the manager never called. I sent a follow up email, and we rescheduled for 12pm the following Monday. 12pm Monday came and went, and I received no call. At this point, I had to conclude it wasn’t an accident. What perplexes me is that the manager reached out to me presumably to fill a position that needed filling. Isn’t he interested in filling that position? Has he already filled it but has some social phobia that prevents him from telling me that this is the case? If not, what’s going on? I sent him an email asking if the position was still available and am waiting to hear back.

I’m not naive. Like any person who aspires to something lofty, difficult, and creative, I’ve come up with a backup plan in case my caffeine-laden dreams never come to fruition. In other words, I have a day job. Though Yale didn’t prepare me for the world of professional coffee, it turns out there’s one thing my time at that institution prepared me for exceedingly well–belaying children at birthday parties. I’ve applied to over 20 different barista jobs and one climbing gym, and it’s the climbing gym that called me back and offered me a job. The manager remembered me from eight years ago when I was last on the youth team at the gym. I was mildly flattered until my mom said it was likely the manager remembered me because I’d been dropped off the top of a climbing wall while at practice.

I showed up at the gym for training yesterday and was directed to Cameron, a bubbly dude who excelled at word play. I asked for some paper for note-taking purposes, and he handed me two sheets of yellow-orange paper, which he said were “bright like me.” I was caught by surprise and unable to come up with a suitably self-deprecating reply. My typical policy for new situations is don’t display personality until you’re confident this is a permanent thing (I don’t think my roommates in college realized how deeply weird I was until our sophomore year), so I wasn’t in a joke-making frame of mind.

The bulk of training involved going through a checklist of do’s and dont’s–do be kind and courteous to the people you are belaying, don’t let kids do anything that looks unsafe like running on concrete or whipping each other with ropes… I’m sure there’s no end to the imaginatively unsafe things kids can do for fun in a climbing gym. We briefly made sure I was comfortable with the safety procedures required of a belayer:

Cameron: “Can you tie a figure eight knot? You can tie a figure eight knot. What’s next on the checklist?”

Me: “Uhh…”

I was toured around the birthday cake distribution area, which also doubles as a yoga studio for all the yoga classes the gym offers, the supply closet, the dumpster out back, and the area behind the desk. Cameron then took me through the typical schedule for a party at the gym. Parties run two hours. The first hour consists of climbing. There’s then a break for food. It’s easiest if the pizza and cake are served at the same time for hand washing purposes, but if the parents insist, there can be a second break for cake. If the kids are tired, the second 30-45 minute climbing session can consists of games like simon says. The max ratio of kids to belayers is 5:1, so at any given party, there’re at least two belayers. One belayer is the “party lead” and is responsible for communicating with the “party parent” about all things party.

We had just gotten to the part of training where Cameron was describing what to do if an accident report needed to be filed–turn over responsibility to the people who work the desk (this was the answer for most complicated issues)–when we heard someone cry out. Cameron rushed over to a woman who appeared to have collapsed at the base of the wall. It turned out she’d fallen with too much slack in the system, so she’d hit the ground, rolling forward onto her foot. She was in enough pain that Aric, a coach for the youth team, ended up carrying her to her car. They looked like bride and groom as they crossed the gym’s air conditioned threshold and emerged into the parking lot beyond.

Training ended soon after, and I signed up for my first shift, an after hours birthday party on Saturday. I asked what age the birthday partiers would be but whoever had booked the event hadn’t noted it. Personally, I’m hoping for an event populated by attractive, single men roughly my age. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to hope for this. If it turns out the laws of professionalism preclude this hope, then I take it back.