Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mile 12 of My Cancer Marathon: Working outside the Comfort Zone

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything for Carmen’s Cancer Marathon Chronicles or whatever this should be called. Life has been hectic as of late which is to blame for part of the delay. Nothing bad, just busy with kids, work and life.

In all honesty, though, the primary reason for the lack of updates is a bad case of writer’s block. Mile 11 was pretty meaty – how do you top an entry that includes both keg stands and remission? – and I was having trouble coming up with a topic that would compare.

I tooled around with several potential topics but none of them seemed appropriate for where I am at mentally or in the context of my writing. And I wasn’t passionate about them.

To step back, I’ll be the first person to admit that I am not a writer. The last time I did any sort of regular writing was high school when I wrote a column for our small town’s newspaper (Total Circulation: About 5 - my parents, my grandma and about 3 other people). The column was entitled “Warrior Weekly” and it covered such earth shattering topics as the theme of the homecoming dance and whether the Junior or Senior girls would win the annual Powder Puff football game. Heavy hitting journalism obviously.

In college I probably wrote less than 5 papers total. One of the dirty little secrets about engineering is that the professors make up for the horrendously difficult and time consuming practice sets by never giving writing assignments. So I escaped higher education without ever pulling an all-nighter to write a term paper. Crazy but true.

I do so some writing in my current occupation (Project Manager for a company that designs and builds custom websites) but it’s mainly brief and boring. The only time I write something for work that is not totally snooze worthy is when I am sending a collections letter to a client. I can get a little saucy then :)

So while I enjoy writing these entries, and enjoy that you crazy people enjoy reading them, they are something that does not come naturally to me. Every time I sit down to write I am working way out of my comfort zone.

Working outside the comfort zone.

This is a saying that I’ve caught myself saying a lot recently. I was on a panel advising female college students about the workforce and I caught myself telling them that they needed to pursue opportunities that had them working outside the comfort zone. At work I was reassuring a developer that while a new technology is tough, working outside the comfort zone will yield a better product later. We took my meat loving in-law’s to a vegetarian restaurant and assured them that while falafel might be outside the comfort zone, it was indeed delicious.

As I sat down to write today, I was uncomfortable but I knew if I just started typing the words would come together and a topic would emerge. And there it was, slapping me in the face for weeks but I was too busy avoiding discomfort I couldn’t see it.

I’ve always loved shopping at farmer’s markets and roadside stands. It’s a bit of an adventure peering into the booths to see what’s for sale this week and I love that it allows you to connect to your food in a way that browsing the aisles at Giant Eagle just can’t.

However, farmer’s markets were also a source of anxiety for me. I feel overwhelmed by the choices and intimidated by the vegetables I didn’t even know the names of let alone tried. I would watch as others would confidently survey the produce, expertly examine it and then with assurance swoop them up and place them in their bag (eco-friendly of course).

Meanwhile my bag would be filled with “safe” fruits and vegetables – stuff like corn, cucumbers and strawberries – easy to cook and kind of boring.

How did they know about all these different fruits and vegetables? What would they cook with them? As I watched these ”experts” I would find myself becoming enviousness. I wanted to be the kind of person who brought home zucchini and made muffins or the kind of person of brought fresh herbs instead of using the dried kind in a bottle. But I was too afraid to try.

You see, I have a reputation in my family for being a lousy cook. A really lousy cook. When it comes time for family holidays, I’m the one who gets assigned to bring the wine – and nothing else.

Like most newlyweds, when I first got married I had illusions of making gourmet meals daily for my husband. Let’s just say after a few remarkably bad attempts, we ate a lot of pizza our first year of wedded bliss. Domino’s was vital to the success of our marriage.

However, once I had kids I got more health conscious. It just made sense for our health and that of our children (and I definitely didn’t mind the 10 pounds I dropped as a result). So I made a concentrated effort to include more whole grains, organics and fruits and veggies in our meals. It’s difficult to eat healthy without being able to cook but you can get by and we did.

Once I got diagnosed with cancer, I wanted to really step up the quality of foods our family ate. Unfortunately, I was at the point where I needed to learn to cook.

So I was grappling with the desire to cook but the intimidation to do so when I was on my weekly trip to our local farmer’s market late this summer. Once again, I found myself picking “safe” foods and envying those picking more “exotic” items such as squash.

But then I had a moment of reckoning. I can’t live my life scared of vegetables. I faced and beat cancer for goodness sakes. Why are a few squirrely vegetables making me so scared?

And that’s when I started my love affair with the butternut squash. On that late summer day, when I put that odd-shaped vegetable into my own eco-friendly bag, I made a big jump out of my comfort zone and into the world of cooking.

I went to the library and checked out a whole stack of “Cooking Light” magazines. I googled “Squash” and learned the difference between summer and winter varieties. I created a recipe binder. I made meal plans. And I cooked and cooked and cooked.

Notice I didn’t say I cooked well. I’ve had some wins (“Spice Rubbed Pork Tenderloin” dubbed “very good” by my picky husband) and some epic fails (“Chicken Spaghetti Casserole” declared “absolutely disgusting” by aforementioned husband who also doesn’t mince words).

But I tried and I continue to try. Cooking, like writing, still isn’t easy for me and I have to force myself to do it. But every time I do it successfully, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction.

In running, the only way you can get better is to push yourself by running harder and longer. But doing so kind of sucks. Your legs ache, it’s hard to catch your breath and it’s not generally pleasant.

To a non-runner, probably all running seems unpleasant. However, after you’ve done it for awhile you build up enough stamina and speed that there is such thing as an “easy” run. Easy runs are fun and relaxing - frankly just a jog in the park.

While vital for mental sanity, easy runs don’t make you better. So that’s where tortuous devices such as intervals, fartleks, tempo and progression runs come in. They are not fun. But afterwards there’s a sense of accomplishment that you can’t get from an easy run. You pushed your body out of the comfort zone and as a result you made yourself a better runner.

I’m planning on bringing “Butternut Squash/Apple/Cranberry Casserole” infused with spices and garnished with walnuts for Thanksgiving. I’m excited to be bringing something other than wine for once and looking forward to showing off my new found culinary skills.

Whether it’s learning to cook, running (or in my current situation, aquajogging) faster, sharing my innermost thoughts through writing or conquering cancer, it sure is delicious working outside the comfort zone.

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