Loving Competition

Orange zest sourdough.
Sven is now 3.5 months old.

Claggy. Stodgy. Squidgy. Prove, not proof.

Daughter and I are learning the language of British baking by binging the wonderful Netflix show. It’s the best reality TV there is, no question.

Every season starts with 12, sometimes 13 amateur bakers from all over the UK, men and women, old and young. Each themed week (cake, biscuit, pastry, bread, and others) they undertake three challenges, one of which is conducted blind, meaning they have no idea what it is until it starts, and the judges rank the identical attempts without knowing who made which. From the beginning, we the audience can relate to the bakers as friends, coworkers, and family, thanks to fun biography videos interspersed throughout the episodes. Daughter and I choose our champions early on.

One person gets eliminated every week for nine weeks, then the final three bake their butts off for the crystal cake stand trophy in week 10. That last contest ends in a great big garden party where friends and family, as well as previously eliminated bakers, gather to celebrate an entire summer of convectionary creations they never dreamed of making before.

Despite constant tension and suspense from time constraints, mixing failures, collapsing structures and the like, there is minimal, if any, drama. No sabotage, no trash talk, no passive aggression, condescension, or ad hominem of any kind. In fact, the bakers *help* one another every single episode. They cheer enthusiastically for each other’s successes. They rush to assist stragglers to present in time. They banter with ease. And there is a lot of hugging.

Make no mistake, they are each in it to win. Their projects span cultures, geography, seasons, and all genres and media of things bakable, and their flavor, texture, and height ambitions drop our jaws every episode. And though the premise of the show is competition and winning, its ethos is grounded solidly in love. The bakers simply love baking. It is their passion. They respect and admire the judges, one another, and the art of their craft. And by the end of the season, they love one another, as evidenced by post-production coda videos of cohort members cavorting, crisscrossing the UK to hang out, cook, travel, and karaoke together.

I binge this show because it lifts my spirits. The humor, the personalities, and the creativity, ohmygod! But much more than any of that, it’s the relationships and connections that mean the most to me. Somehow the show leaders have created a culture wherein it’s okay—expected, even—to show vulnerability, to admit to fear, self-doubt, and struggle. And in so doing, the bakers form a tight tribe of safety and mutual support in the striving. While in competition, there is no conflict. I do my best and you do yours. We each show up to give it our all, and we leave it all on the table, literally. At the end of the weekend we trust that the elimination process is fair. We celebrate those who make it through to next week, and we surround the one saying so long with tears of empathy and gratitude for such a worthy rival, who elevates our own game. Group hug!

I write “we” as if I’m one of them, as if I could dream of joining this loving tribe. I wish! But don’t we all wish for this? Wouldn’t we all benefit and grow from the nudging and pushing of loving competition and rivalry, from showing one another what might be possible if we dream a little bigger, take a little more risk, and show up all and only ourselves? We have nothing to prove to anyone but our best selves, and even though only one can take home the prize, we know that that person truly earned it, and we all became better in the process. No grudges, no bitterness. Only love, growth, and friendship.

I wonder if the Olympics are like this? Higher, faster, stronger! Elite athletes. Star bakers. Regular folks.

Who pushes you by pushing themselves, leading you by this example? How do you do this for others? In the end our most important competition is the one against our former selves. We play the infinite game of growth and self-improvement alongside one another, each with our own goal posts. We ourselves may be great. But without each other, we won’t ever get far.

The Menopause Inflection

From overlook on Ptarmigan Trail, Silverthorne, Colorado. Left to right: Buffalo Mountain, Red Mountain, Silverthorne Peak

What does the graph of your life look like? 

I imagine we’d all put something related to time or age on the horizontal axis, but what goes on the vertical?  What is meaningful to you, that is worth measuring, over a lifetime?  Joy?  Financial success/accumulation?  Education? Learning?  Status?  Growth?  Contribution?

For a long time I conceptually contrasted puberty and menopause, seeing the former as an exponential acceleration in growth and the latter a rapid decline, like the two stems of a broad arch, an upside down parabola.  This past week during a patient interview, however, a wholly different perspective dawned on me.  Menopause may signal the end of child-bearing years, of youth.  Some may perceive it only as a global decline—the unmistakable physical sign that we are now closer to the end of our life than the beginning.  But what if it’s also a new beginning, life expectancy not withstanding?

My patient and I discussed the trade-offs we are called to make throughout life—career, relationships, geography, etc.  What do we get in return for trading away our reproductive years?  For me the greatest payoffs are wisdom and confidence.  After about 5 decades of living, learning, and being in relationship with self and others, I welcome this phase of life with keenness and joy.  What a relief to have my personality and values established, to know what I stand for.  How rewarding to feel that I can walk into any room and talk to anyone, knowing fully and without question who I am, without having to compare myself to anyone around me.  How fun to find opportunities for continued learning around every corner, in domains I never thought I’d encounter, or even knew existed!  Everything I have experienced, learned, and struggled through until now comprises a thread in the tapestry of my life, and the picture gets more dense and colorful with each passing day, year, and decade.

The life graph of learning and personal growth is most interesting to me.  Superimposed on the graph of challenge and pain, I might see the lines travel in parallel trajectories—no surprise.  As the years pass, though, I see a net positive slope, a steady climb of the most meaningful curves, and menopause perhaps as a milestone inflection point, beyond which the ascent may well progress with fewer stutters and regressions, as wisdom and confidence accrue, and mission/cause come into greater focus and clarity.

I choose to see and draw my life graph this way.

Why not keep climbing until the end and go out at a peak? 

Gotta go now, I’ got work to do.