A warm end to this northwoods winter just gave way to a brutally cold first week of spring. I’m writing from a hotel in Virginia Minnesota, my right leg propped up on an ottoman because my old man tendons are having a hard time transitioning from skiing to running. A few weeks ago our MYSL season ended with fireworks, state champion skiers, and speeches. I couldn’t make out much of the closing ceremony through the gorilla suit I was wearing. However, the rest of the day was magical as six of the state champion Ely girls ski team joined my group of sixth graders (eight girls and one boy) on our final ski. When we got out on the trail I went for a Herb Brooks-eque speech about what an amazing opportunity my skiers had to learn from champions, but I think they all just wanted me to shut up and get on with skiing. So I paired them up with the champs and we hit the trails.
I ended up co-coaching a group of three novice skiers with Laura, a high schooler that had coached with us for most of the other sessions. The kids were skiing between me and Laura while working on transitioning around a corner. We’d each give them a few words for technique then watch them ski away from us and disappear around the corner heading toward the other coach. While I was leaning on my poles and waiting for the skiers to come back my way, I could hear Laura clearly through the winter air. She was kind, smart, and encouraging, and I felt a lump in my throat listening to her coach and cajole. There was something beautiful about listening to a teenager teach someone younger with that kind of wisdom and skill, and it was humbling to hear the ease with which she skillfully found the right words. When we were done, I stifled the urge to tell her that she should think about going into teaching. Instead I ended up congratulating her on her season and thanking her for her help. Maybe that wasn’t the right move, but she was a state champion and I didn’t want to say anything to diminish that ferocity.
At the end of the day, my skiers huddled around me in the chalet and I passed out their certification cards along with little awards that I wrote out for each of them. It was ridiculously fun to watch their eyes light up when I read their awards and explanations for why they earned them. My only regret is that I only gave out one “The Next Jesse Diggins Award.” There was no MVP award or bullshit “best hustle” award, but “The Next Jesse Diggins Award” was close to the top honor. What I didn’t anticipate however was that I would get to look them in the eyes and realistically say that I thought they were all on track to become state champions. Watching those sixth graders look up to the high schoolers reminded me how important it is for people to have role models to look up to, identify with, and then topple.
My own ski season ended much more inauspiciously than the Ely Nordic Wolves. I drove down to the Pepsi Challenge 50K at Giants Ridge with the stated goal of winning it. It was a hot day with temps reaching almost 40 degrees Fahrenheit by the afternoon. I shot off the line and took off ahead of the pack for the first 5 kilometers. Once the elation wore off I started to feel a little funny before my lower back locked up as I was cresting one of the hills on the Silver Trail. Unfortunately for my ego, it wasn’t due to any nefarious cause, I was just pushing harder than I should have been and my body failed. The main pack caught and passed me after a few minutes and I spent the next six kilometers struggling to work out my spasming back. Eventually the second pack caught me and it was all I could do to hang on for the next twenty kilometers or so. Soon enough however we began to pick off skiers falling off the first pack, inching our way into the top 10.
I didn’t have the race I wanted but I could care less. I had nothing left in the tank at 45 kilometers and blew my body out in order to comfortably beat my packmates. When you’re a grown person racing in spandex, you can’t take yourself too seriously. I race now because it’s my church, my meditation, and my education. I can live with the fact that for lack of training and probably talent, I didn’t finish as high as I wanted at the Pepsi or Vasaloppet. Exploding towards the finish with nothing left to give is still good enough to remind me that I’m alive.
When I was little, I was under the impression that it growing up was a linear process with a clear beginning and end. I figured that I wouldn’t have to keep glancing over the edge to remind myself where I was standing and who I was, and in some ways that’s true. Somewhere between the ages of twenty four and twenty six, I emerged from an amorphous fog of multiple personas as a complete human being. What I didn’t anticipate was the need for continued maintenance and reflection on that being, or how difficult it is to change once the epoxy has hardened into something more substantial. I’ve been thinking about this specifically lately in terms of how it relates to feminism. I’m not delusioned enough to believe that one day I’ll go to bed knowing that I lived the perfect day, thought the perfect thoughts, and acted in the perfect manner. Racism, classism, homophobia, chauvinism, and all of the other isms live inside me in one way or another. However, many of my isms have been tempered by experience and education.
I don’t think that children are born with specific fears and discriminations, but that they do seek conformity, ease, and acceptance. Kids have love and tolerance in them, but it has to be taught to overcome fear, ignorance, and comfort. It’s embarrassing to think about, but I remember how difficult it was for me during the first few hours of volunteering overnight with my family at Camp Courage. At the time, spending the night caring for intellectually handicapped adults made me uncomfortable. That changed through spending time with those men and women, but it took experience through visceral empathy and understanding before it became natural. Through exposure and experience I have grown out of many of these intolerances even as the remnants of prejudices remain as unconscious biases.
I remember sitting in a sociology of work class during my sophomore year of college and feeling a nativism inside me that made me feel ashamed. It was later on in that same class that I felt that nativism melt away. It took readings, essays, and conversations to understand in my gut that as I did nothing special to be born into opportunity in a country as wealthy as mine. I know that race, class, religious beliefs, appearance, sexuality, gender, weight, education, and differing abilities all affect the way that I interact with those around me. However, I see growing up as a continued striving toward seeing those around us for their individual humanity. This isn’t easy for me and in our current culture of blatant and unconscious bigotry, I’ve begun to realize how important it is to continually reassess these biases.
For me, feminism specifically is easy to say and hard to achieve. I recently had a long conversation with two women much smarter than me who talked about the subtle chauvinism of the men in their lives. These are men they love and respect, but who nevertheless patronize them through words and behavior. And I know I do it too. I have trouble seeing gender as a truly constructed phenomenon no more essential than race or class. Sure there are significant differences in biology between males and females, but even that gets complicated medically with variations like XXY, androgen insensitivity disorder, and different adrenolopathies. On a warm summer night this year, I was sitting on the patio outside the new VFW on Lyndale closing down the bar with my friend and his wife. I don’t know who brought up what, but at some point the question was raised regarding what aspect of our culture that our children would think is insane. What will our grandchildren think about and unanimously agree that we were Neanderthals? The three of us decided that our best guess was gender.
I’m not sure where to go at this point beyond staying vigilant to my own biases and striving through words and actions to let those around me know that they can be whoever they want, be it conventional or not. This idea has been especially pertinent this year as I spent two hours every Sunday coaching young women. Chauvinism shouldn’t be a cloak I take on and off. If I can do it while coaching, then I can bring that mindset into other aspects of my life. Seeing through gender to whatever human lies underneath is a challenging but important goal for me if I want to truly see people as themselves and gender as merely another aspect of their personality. Thinking about the way I look at gender is humbling because I see how easily it is to casually live in my comfort zone because my biology just happened to line up with our culture today. If I’m blind to my own chauvinism then I can spare a little more empathy to those who are blind to their own privileges in terms of race, religion, and sexuality. Not for a second do I mean to condone the hatred and stupidity that is propelling this nation towards moral ruin, but that I hope to approach changing this country with a more nuanced appreciation for our common humanity.
That appreciation for common humanity is what I believe that liberals have to offer. You can’t rip something away from someone without giving them something to replace it, so I think we should offer up love. We live in a beautiful and terrible world in which we will all die without knowing what comes after. I understand why we “cling to our guns and religion.” People need something to hold onto, be it power, nostalgia, faith, or tradition. It’s scary to live in a world with so much unknown, so it makes sense that people would want to hold onto stability values. There’s been a lot of talk lately in progressive circles about how racism, sexism, and Islamophobia shouldn’t need to be explained to white men. I agree, but even though something shouldn’t “need” to be explained, it doesn’t mean that taking the time for explanation isn’t a more effective way to create change. At the end of the day, if we want to live in a world that’s changing beyond our own bubbles, we have to go out there and change it ourselves.
I can’t help but return to the values that I was taught by my parents and then which I eventually taught while in the Peace Corps and as a kindergarten aid. We teach children that humanity is precious, that difference is to be celebrated, and then we should strive to be loving and accepting of those around us. I was always uneasy regarding the hypocrisy of teaching these values without perfecting them myself. Even so, I think they’re a powerful and solid foundation to hold onto. In exchange for faith, tradition and power, my replacement might seem paltry. However, it’s it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and if it’s enough of an existential anchor for children, then it should be enough for me.