August 19, 2011

"That boulder's so easy even a girl could do it"

I've been bouldering for four and a half years now. I usually train three times a week at my local climbing gym, and the muscle strength in my arms grew so fast that in the first few years I was frequently grounded with weird finger injuries. But even then, after only two years, I was nudging a 7a in the famed Fontainebleau and playing with the burley, lengthy 6cs at the gym. And I can hold on to small edges in a way that'll make you cringe. When I'm there, I don't think about poetry or Versal or the lit world. Or anything else, really, besides being there. I don't compete, and don't want to, but bouldering is the only sport I've ever loved, I'm good at it but not an elite by far, and it confronts me with a range of challenges and fears, from the physical to the intellectual to the spiritual/emotional.

And that brings us to "That boulder's so easy even a girl could do it".

Last night during training, I was warming up on a fingery 6b. Rumor has it I'm one of the only ones in the gym to have topped it out because the last hold is such a small pinch that most guys can't hold on long enough. But it's shaped perfectly for my small hand, plus there's that finger strength.

My buddy Casper was showing some newer climbers a 6a nearby. I think these kids are exchange students; two of them speak Russian and two of them German, but they speak a broken English between them. They struggled on the boulder but one of them, the louder of the bunch, finally did it. When he jumped off, he said, "That boulder's so easy even a girl could do it."

Casper shot a look at me and then blew some air out of his nose. "Don't ever say that again," he said. Casper knew I'd attack the dude.

I was close enough to have heard but not close enough to have been a natural part of the conversation, but f*** that. I shouted across the bouldering cave, "What did you just say?"

The kid looked at me blankly. "What did you just say?" I repeated. He stammered. I didn't let up. "I can climb better than you any day," I said.

"I'm sure you can," he replied, but unconvinced.

"Yes," I said flatly. "I can."

One of his friends looked at me sympathetically. "He didn't mean it like that."

"That's bullshit," I replied.

The little troupe of boys got quiet. Casper and I started talking about a 7a we're both attempting, and the boys moved on to another part of the cave.

Boulders at my gym are burley and reachy, which means they're mostly all built by tall Dutch guys who like shouldery moves that will show off their muscles. The technical, subtle boulders that I love are rare there, and I plateaued at the 6b level for quite some time thanks to a combination of those reachy boulders and my own attitude that the boulders are "too reachy" and stupid anyway. But I finally read the famed 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes by Dave MacLeod, and I've been working the last two months to overcome my attitude problem. Just because guys dominate our gym doesn't mean I can't climb successfully there. Within a week or two I had ascended my first plastic 6c, and several more since.

Guys at my gym either ignore the girls who boulder, or spend a lot of time giving them advice. This advice usually comes in the form of a laugh when you fall off, and then them going to the wall and showing you the move. Keep in mind that a move between holds can be very different for a tall person. I'm 5'4", so my methods are often more technical and creative, whereas a tall guy can usually just reach up and go. Older men who are not very good climbers themselves seem to approach me sorrowfully when I'm working on a harder boulder, and they offer all kinds of "tips" with a patronizing smile. This has become more frequent since my hair has grown out (when I started climbing, I was Sinead O'Conner shaved). I've watched the exchange between guys there, and have noticed that the better guy climbers never seem to attract advice. People just leave them be.

Last night, I was the only girl bouldering. Well, my friend Fleur was there, but she's 8.5 months pregnant so she was staying on the flat walls and taking frequent breaks. I mean, 8.5 months pregnant and she's been at the gym every week at least once. That's hardcore. I'm not sure I would do it.

About a half hour after my exchange with the Russian kid, he came up to me. I thought he might try to apologize. Instead he said, "If you're so good, why don't you show me how to do this." He'd been working on a 6a in a roof.

"I'm not going to show you a thing," I said. "If you're so good, why don't you teach yourself."

"I'm not so good."

"No, you're not." Which was unfair of me to say, I realize, however true.

"But you're good."

"Yes, I am."

"So show me."

"I'm not going to show you anything." I was calm but stern. "Don't talk to me again, dude. I don't want to have anything to do with you."

His request was part-apology, part-challenge, and I was not going to yield. He left me alone the rest of the night, as did his friends, but I noticed they kept an eye on me. Out of suspicion or anger, I'm not sure. I don't really care. What I care about is that I'm confronted more often than I'd like in middle-class Europe with misogyny and unfounded male-domination, be in at climbing gym or in the poetry world.

I had planned to write about my experiences at the Prague Microfestival but never did. The organizers of the event are good people, even if they surround themselves and the festival with men who walk around acting entitled and superior. Several of the readings there were public displays of male masturbatory pride. One poet who will remain unnamed read an excerpt from some ridiculously long poem that was designed, we concluded later, just to piss off his audience. He read slowly and with a smirk on his face for 45 minutes, 2x longer than most other readers. The Amsterdam contingent was me and three other women, and luckily a few other women did sprinkle the program. But the contrast was stark and the masculinity of the event pervasive. We even made up a rap one night, after a few of those big Czech beers, called "Penis on the Table, Penis in Prague" – taken from an image Shayna gets whenever testosterone fills the room. As I described in my piece in A Megaphone, the Microfest is like most other events in the international community here on the continent -- male-dominated, and unapologetic about or purposefully unaware of it.

Last night's confrontation reminded me of a few things. One, that I had never written about my experience in Prague, out of fear that I would upset its organizers. Two, that speaking up isn't hard. Three, of that fantastic scene in Antonia's Line when the mother aims a shotgun at the man who raped her daughter. Four, that my feminism runs through me through-and-through, and is a part of every step I take in this world.


  1. MG, you are larger than life. Thank you for carrying the standard and for your willingness to describe the exhausting effort it takes.

    Five years ago, I finished a quarter-century of wage earning as a police officer in a major city in the US. The toughest part of that job was dealing with colleagues of both sexes, but we’re talking about testosterone overload here, so I’ll stick to the subject. The hormone itself may predispose individuals to be physically competitive, but if that’s not the case, then it’s probably safe to say that most men are socialized to be dominant. Society rewards them for achievements that demonstrate dominance, and in more than just physical pursuits. Women take notice of them. (I’m generalizing, of course.)

    When a woman proves herself as capable as a man at an endeavor that has earned men special status and all the rewards that go with that status, some men feel especially threatened. How masculine can an accomplishment be, they wonder, if it’s within a woman’s reach? Now what? After all, their ability to earn a better living and the attention of attractive mates and more than their share of available resources depends on how well men can demonstrate superior fitness, however fitness happens to be defined.

    It’s not easy to imagine the downside of being dominant, but there are drawbacks. Maintaining dominance, or the appearance of it, requires the constant concealment of vulnerability, failure, and more than a few emotions (particularly fear).

    I learned over the years that the men who were the most disparaging of their female colleagues were the men least capable, physically or intellectually, of doing the jobs they held. They knew that the best defense was a good offense.

    Thanks for your candor, as well as your patience with such a lengthy comment.

  2. Robin, I have such deep respect for women who follow careers, as you have done, in hierarchical, male-dominated worlds like the police force, business, the army - obviously the list is long. "How masculine can an accomplishment be, they wonder, if it’s within a woman’s reach? Now what?" This is so much at the heart of my frustrations with bouldering. I wonder how often the difficulty level of a boulder is downgraded as a result of a woman's sending the problem.

    The "constant concealment of vulnerability, failure" that you also mention is a major problem in Western society, as well. In fact, in 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes, climber Dave MacLeod encourages climbers to embrace failure. He writes (and I'm paraphrasing here) that our society's impatience with failure is what so often keeps us from succeeding. He gives this example: a president who does not make change fast enough or good enough is automatically deemed incompetent and sent on his way.

    Thank you for reading and participating in this important dialogue.

  3. Must have lost my earlier comment somehow. I mentioned my experience with yoga as a practice that teaches one to work with vulnerability. You learn to read your body and mind as it is on the day and work with that knowledge. Fearing failure often works against moving to new levels in yoga. It's more common for people to buy into failure, telling themselves they will never be able to do a certain pose. Yoga also teaches one patience. You can't hurry into perfection.

  4. Yesterday, I spoke at a local PEO (Philanthropic Educational Organization) which exists to support the education of women on an international level. The tables were beautifully decorated and each table sported the name of a famous woman author--all except one, from the past. Once again, I was reminded of the difficulty women have had to be taken seriously when several of the names were pseudonmys of female authors who took male names, such as George Elliott. I was feeling pretty good thinking about how far we've come--that is until I glanced over and saw the name JK Rowling.

  5. @writingcompanion I totally agree! Failure is a tool.

    @Slyvia That sounds like a fantastic event. I laughed outloud at your comment about Rowling, I would have had the same reaction!