Tuesday, February 26, 2008

My First Review

I just got my first real review. It was from Kirkus, a review service - a trade publication - for bookstores, libraries and industry types. It is for anyone who wants to know about a book before it goes on sale. Reviewers for consumer publications read Kirkus before writing their reviews. It is the mother of all review publications. It is the review that begets more reviews. It’s the book about books. The meta book. A good review in Kirkus is important is what I’m trying to say. As you can imagine, I was thrilled when I received very positive commentary regarding CHALKED UP. But it was the following excerpt that got me thinking:

“It’s admirable to aspire to become a champion gymnast, but Sey’s depiction of her roller-coaster adolescence makes the point that it’s far more important to have a happy, healthy and sane childhood.”

Really? I’m not so sure. After all I went through – the emotionally abusive coaches, the bone shattering injuries, the depression, the eating disorders, the temporarily psychotic parents – I’m not entirely convinced that’s true. In my head, I know it is. But in my gut, I don’t really believe it. I struggle with this as I raise my own boys. I want them to have happy childhoods, of course. But adulthood lasts longer, and in my heart of hearts, I believe hard work that leads to success (not financial per se, but achievement in your chosen vocation) breeds happiness in adulthood. Good habits start early. Learning the value of hard work (cliché I know) should happen at a young age. If you don’t learn it when you’re young, I think it may be impossible to learn it later. We all know lazy grown ups. They don’t do the work then they bemoan their fate at not getting what they want.

When people ask my advice about writing (which I find hilarious; what do I know…I wrote one book!), I tell them “just write.” Then I tell them: “after you finish your first ---- (insert document here – book, screenplay, etc), set it aside and write another one. Then do it again.” Practice makes perfect. No matter how much we all want to believe we can be Diablo Cody, the breakout screenwriting star who wrote one screenplay, sold it and won an Oscar, it generally doesn’t happen that way. Many screenwriters – even working screenwriters who get paid to write stuff – toil in anonymity their entire lives. They do re-write after re-write and never get anything made. That doesn’t even include those poor, hardworking (or not so hardworking, as the case may be) folks who write and write and never even get an agent. Their work may not be any good, but that’s not the point. If you don’t work, if you don’t practice, if you don’t keep trying after you get rejected, after you fail, you certainly don’t have a shot in hell at ever selling something, getting something made, let alone winning an Oscar.

I know countless people who’ve written a single screenplay. They send it to me for commentary. (Like I know anything about writing screenplays.) I give my honest feedback because I feel like: If you’re going to ask me, I’m going to try to be helpful. Nice, but helpful. They likely want me to say something like: “This is great! I’ll send it to my agent!” Never mind that my agent doesn’t sell screenplays, she sells books. Even if she did sell screenplays, I haven’t read anything I’d recommend without major revisions – other than my brother’s stuff. But he’s an actual working screenwriter, so that doesn’t count. I give the constructive criticism that I feel obliged to provide, and I suspect many of them give up because I never hear from them again. They never ask me to read a re-write or another story. Imagine, giving up after a little feedback from a barely working writer who knows nothing about that particular craft? If it was your first, it probably wasn’t any good anyway, and I was just trying to clue you in to the fact that you have to keep at it. The first effort is never any good. But perhaps you learned something in writing it that will lead to something better the second time. So that by the tenth time or so, you write something that is actually half-way decent. If you’ve got the natural aptitude to go along with the persistence.

But most people just give up. They try once, assume their God’s gift – the next Diablo or Matt/Ben combo – and throw in the towel when agents don’t line up at their front doors with million dollar offers. My experience has been entirely NOT that. I wrote and then I wrote some more. I’ve got a shoebox full of rejection letters from agents. Ten years after I first tried to write something, I sold a book. When I was a gymnast, I was the one no one thought was any good. But I didn’t accept it. And I labored. If a judge said I was fat, I lost weight. If a coach said I wasn’t strong enough, I did hours of extra conditioning at the end of practice. If a dance teacher said my toes weren’t pointed enough, I had my mother stand on them to bend my feet into perfect arches. I put myself through the grind to prove the doubters wrong. It wasn’t fun, to be sure. But it was satisfying in the end. And despite the brutal disappointment and harrowing and desperate depression that defined the end of my career, I have come to take great pride in what I accomplished.

I want my children to understand this – the value in never giving up, of self-belief in the face of adversity - but I strive to balance it with the desire for them to have pleasant, happy childhoods. I’m just not sure which way the scale should tilt. If I really wanted them to have happy childhoods – HAPPY childhoods – wouldn’t I just spoil them and give them candy for breakfast, McDonalds for lunch and chocolate cake with syrup on top for dinner? With a big glass of Coca-Cola on the side? With no homework, lots of TV and video games? That would make them happy! But I suspect their adulthoods might be filled with obesity, job loss and divorce (the divorce would be caused by activity encouraged later – screwing around, treating women poorly in general. They’d like that as teenagers!) None of these things would make them happy in their 30’s. But boy they’d be happy children.

Thus, I try to find the proper balance. They are young and just getting involved in sports. I like that their karate teacher can be kind of strict and give them the ‘I’m-disappointed’ look when they misbehave. Even though it makes the little guy cry sometimes. You’ve got to act right to learn, to achieve. You’ve got to focus, pay attention, maybe even be a little physically and psychically uncomfortable. My youngest wanted his new belt, the one after the starter white one, on the first day of class. Each day after class he cries because he hasn’t earned it yet and other kids in the class have fancier ones with red or yellow stripes. “Keep working,” I tell him. “You’ll get one.” He’s got to learn that not everyone is going to be enamored of his cute little face. Crying big tears won’t prompt the sensei to hand over the candy cane colored belt, so desperately craved.

The world just cares who does best. And while I don’t wish for them to be young champions or old, rich corporate raiders and I certainly don’t want them to sacrifice their health and well-being ala steroid crazed baseball players, I want them to experience an appropriate level of discomfort that comes from good old-fashioned hard work. To ensure their future satisfaction as adults. As unbearable as my competition days were, I am well-prepared for the world as a grown up. I’m happy. Accomplished. Satisfied. Sane. So maybe I’m not so wrong. Maybe a happy childhood isn’t the most important thing. Maybe a disciplined/healthy/moderately happy childhood is what we should strive to give our kids. It worked for me.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Workin' at the car wash

I’ll start by saying that this has nothing to do with anything that my book, CHALKED UP, is about. It isn’t even obliquely related. It doesn’t touch on athletics, mother-daughter relationships, eating disorders, raising children, growing up in the 70s and 80s, what it’s like to grow up and realize you’re not that special having been THE most special at something at one point in your young life. I have no authority to speak on the issue I’m about to. I’ll be brief.

I was at the carwash this morning. I try to avoid going to the car wash for the simple reason that it takes the amount of water to clean my ten year old, beat up, shit-mobile that I imagine could slake the thirst of an entire Chinese village on the verge of dying of dehydration. It just doesn’t seem right to clean a car when there are so many people that are so thirsty in the world. That being said, the filth lining the floor of the back of my car and the moldy – hamburger? veggie burger? - unknown patty that was formerly food that I dug up from beneath a car seat yesterday afternoon prompted me to give in. I actually tried to just go to one of those places where you vacuum it yourself for $1.50, but all the vacuums were broken. I learned that after losing $4.50 in precious bus quarters.

I went to the big, fancy carwash a few blocks from my house. Every car there was a BMW, Mercedes or Lexus. The entirely Mexican, underpaid and overworked employee base was laughing at me in my Corolla with a hole in the trunk. They nodded at the car, snapped a towel in its direction, asking each other in Spanish to whom this jalopy belonged. A surreptitious nod in my direction by one of the dryers caused snickers. They either felt sorry for me or couldn’t believe I’d spend money to have the crap-mobile cleaned. But I like things clean and I don’t mind them old. Lucky for my husband. So, even though the car is scratched and cracked and painted over with the wrong color green paint, and there is a hole in the trunk the size of a very large ruby red grapefruit and its conspicuously covered with aluminum foil – my husband’s idea, not sure what he was hoping to accomplish – I clean it every now and again. The citrus sized hole is there because some ingenious thief dug the lock out to break into the trunk. Needless to say there was nothing spectacular in the boot of my piece of crap ’97 “Cool”. We call it the “Cool” because the same hooligan who dug the hole in the trunk thought it would be funny to remove the “R”, one “L” and the “A”. It now says “CO O L” on the backside of my car. Ironic.

The way this car wash works is you pay an exorbitant amount of money for them to vacuum, wash and windex your car. There is a great big tip jar and the 20 or so on-duty hand-washers/buffers split the kitty at the end of a shift. There are signs that indicate you are not to tip a worker directly when he or she gives you your keys. I gave each of my kids $2 to put into the big square, plastic box containing the tips and then we sat down to wait for the car. An elderly gentleman gave up his seat as he was handed the keys to his Lincoln and he slipped the Levi’s-wearing-thirty-something Hispanic man who finished up his windshield, a fiver. I don’t think the old man had read the signs posted everywhere. Either that or he just didn’t care. He got in his car and drove away and I watched the worker take the five-dollar bill and deposit it in the community jug. He could’ve so easily pocketed that money, I thought. I’m sure there are rules that the employees aren’t allowed to do so, but no one was looking. And yet, he embraced the rules of dividing the kitty, sharing the wealth, or in this case, the figurative nickels and dimes. I don’t want to make any assumptions about this guy but there is no way he was on easy street. He was making minimum wage if he was lucky. I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys were all paid under the table with the tip jar money. And yet, he didn’t hesitate to share.

I thought immediately of the great immigration debate. Barack says give them driver’s licenses, which seems beside the point. Hillary says we need comprehensive reform and driver’s licenses are a distraction. At least that’s what she said last week. And the Republican candidates basically say, “Keep out!” The Republican voter population is whipped up into a frenzy about the influx of illegal immigrants. “They’ll take Americans’ jobs!” they say. Last I checked a lot of those folks were hiring illegals as nannies and yard workers and house painters and slipping them paltry tips for hand-buffing their shiny new Jags. I suppose they’ll do those chores themselves once they lock out all the hard working gents from south of the border.

I was so struck by this guy's sense of fairness. All day, all I could think about was how much I’d prefer to have him and his brethren here in this country, striving to secure a piece of the proverbial pie – not the whole pie – rather than the greedy, fraudulent, take-as-much-as-I-can-when-no-one-is-looking Texans ala Enron. These folks who want to keep people out just don’t want to share. They don’t even want to share with the people that are already here! They think they deserve as much as they can grab, gluttonous American style. Stuffed pockets, full bellies and they still don’t have enough. I say lets kick them out and have the guys who are willing to share come on in.

I said I wouldn’t relate it to anything in my book but just one teensy weensy link. Having been a championship level athlete impacts the choices that I make in raising my children, as anyone’s childhood affects the way that they parent. I was a self-centered little shit quite often, demanding all the attention and parental effort in the house be heaped upon me. Winning mattered most to me and I’d steal more than my share of attention if it meant I had a greater chance of medals. As I raise my own children, I try to instill a sense that there are things that matter more than winning, despite the prevalence and pride of the American ‘triumph over adversity’ tale (‘triumph’ usually means get the most stuff). I repeatedly explain to their very bored little faces that there is, in fact, enough of everything – love, food, water, toys – to go around in our house. There is no need to hoard. I’m trying to make them better children than I was. With that in mind, I related this story to my kids about the man who shared his measly five-dollar bill. I explained, as they fought over the change they found on the ground that had missed the tip box, that the man over there had anted up his money to the team even though he didn’t have much. Likely not enough to afford a car, or his own room, or even all the food he wanted to eat. Virgil, my seven year old, said, “I’d rather keep it but I guess I’ll put it in the box.” Not really the generosity of spirit I was attempting to inspire but it will due for now. If only we could get the Republicans to concede as much – or as little, I suppose - as my second grader.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The "F"in word

Just the other day, I was walking with my two boys - Virgil, 7, and Wyatt, 4 – and my brother, their Uncle Chris. Chris was pushing his toddler son, Harry, in a stroller. Here’s what went down:

Uncle Chris says something like:”Can you believe that fucking shit?" We were chatting about the writer’s strike. He’s a newly unionized screenwriter. His first paycheck depends on the strike being resolved. It isn’t the topic of the strike that interests Virgil. It’s the curse word. His face lights up when he hears the “Ef-in’” word, as he calls it. He turns to me and pleads, "Can I say it, Mama?!"
We have a rule. If a parent says a curse word one time, they each can say it one time. My husband and I figure it takes the mystery out of the whole affair. And lets face it, it isn’t like they’re going to grow up and NOT curse. What’s the big deal really? We send our kids to public school. We are liberal parents who encourage independent thought. We reason that we’re de-mystifying language. Un-taboo-izing. Or some such thing. He asks permission because it’s Uncle Chris that says it and not me.

I nod, stretching the rules a bit, and Virgil jumps at the opportunity. "Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck!"

Yes, he says it more than once. He hasn’t quite grasped the game. Then, of course, Wyatt chimes in with multiple high-pitched, high decibel “Ef-in’” words. I've never seen my sad little guy look happier than when he's saying that “Ef-in’” word. My brother eggs them on, not fully appreciating how embarrassing it is for me as the parent of children that can actually speak, when the decked out, fully hatted, sixty-year-old black women stare as they leave church on this Sunday morning. Filled with the spirit, they tsk tsk me, as I defile these mulatto children by allowing such sordid language; I am a white woman ruining the future generation of black men. It’s bad enough I reproduced with one of their sons, now I’m turning their grandchildren, their future, into pride-less degenerates. (My husband is too, but they don’t know this.) Chris asks, by way of encouragement: "Do you guys know any other bad words?" Virgil bares a jack-o-lantern grin, his eyes atwinkle; Wyatt glows with pure happiness. They are charmed by Uncle Chris and this illicit game.

"Asshole?" says Virgil, eyes wild with triumph. He’s found a way around the family rule. Bring Uncle Chris along.

"Yes ASSHOLE!!" says Wyatt. And the ASSHOLE song begins. It’s a simple song. It goes like this: “ASSHOLE! ASSHOLE!! ASSHOLE!!!”

I feign embarrassment for the sake of the church women. I apologize with a palms-to-the-sky shrug and an exaggerated wince. In reality, I’m proud. They are funny little comedians with a firm grasp on irony. They aren’t supposed to say these words, it shocks and dismays the general population; but they are allowed to say them one time; so they go a step beyond, disobeying with repetition; they are intentionally humiliating me with their utterances. But it’s not the words that embarrass. It’s the redundancy and volume. And the fact that others are present that believe I should mind that they are saying these words, when I don’t. Irony is a complicated concept for children so young to understand, multi-layered and multi-faceted. How could I not be proud? Such complexity to their humor. Little geniuses, I think.

"Wait, wait, wait! Do you know any others?" says Chris. He’s really enjoying this now. The boys are quiet. “C’mon! That’s all you got!” He urges them onward but their range is limited. They appear puzzled. Has he stumped them?

“Shit?” Virgil offers. They are resourceful, potty-mouthed city kids, not to be halted.

"Oh yeah, shit!" squawks Wyatt. In unison, they sing the Shit song.

"Whoa...any others?" Uncle Chris is unstoppable. Kids who can talk are fun.
A long pause ensues. We walk at least half a block before Virgil recovers. (Wyatt is singing “Shit” all the while, delighted with the taste of the word on his lips.) And then, Virgil stops dead in his tracks. He thinks he has something, but isn’t sure. "Hooker?" He whispers hesitantly. He’s heard the word and knows it seems vaguely untoward. But he’s not confident he grasps its meaning. Chris and I turn to each other, brows furrowed. Without actually speaking, we admit it seems odd that he’s heard this one. In what context, one wonders?

"Not really a curse word, but OK," I concede. I’m in on the game now. There’s no turning back. We’ve already offended the god-fearing, purple suited ladies. How much worse can it get?

"Do you know what that even means?" I kind of hope he does. That would make him truly precocious.

“I don’t mama!” screams Wyatt. “I don’t know what hooker means!”
Virgil thinks long and hard, the way he does when he’s carrying the one in a complicated math problem. And then it hits him. He smiles and Chris and I practically hear the light bulb moment ‘ding!’

"A woman who entertains a man!" Virgil’s index finger is skyward with a-ha discovery. I didn't expect that. I didn’t expect him to pull that one out and neither did Uncle Chris who is presently speechless. Finally.

"Yes. I guess it is," I say in my best mommy-teaching-curse-words voice. But truly, I don't know what to say to Virgil as he leads his brother stomping through a pile of dog crap, the actual thing always more exciting than the word. The game seems to have wound down, with the adults both finally shocked, the kids’ feet slick with poo.

The clincher of the game was that he recited the meaning of this word, in non-obscene language. And he was right, but didn’t understand its true implications. Who offered this definition? What was the conversation? Chris and I walk in silence pondering these questions. All I can think to offer next is: “Public school! Those kids are fucking asshole shit hookers.”

© 2008 Jennifer Sey

What's a mother to do?

My oldest son, Virgil, is a klutz. He fell five times during a soccer game last autumn. And he didn’t just fall. He FELL with all the drama and legs akimbo he could muster. I suspected he was faking the spills, creating a distraction from the fact that if he got anywhere close to the ball, he'd fumble, missing the kick entirely. He’d done just that in the first few minutes of the game. He’d drawn his leg back, heel all the way to his butt. Way too big of a wind up, I thought. His leg came down as the other team swarmed. Panicked, Virgil swung and missed, the momentum from the pendulous leg carrying him from his feet to his back. While the other team scored, Virgil fled the field in befuddled humiliation. He disappeared into my arms, burying his head in my neck while I patted his back and dutifully whispered, “It’s okay honey.” At only seven, my son hasn’t experienced much in the way of humbling indignities. But with his lack of athletic prowess, he’ll need to get used to it. Or be really good at something else that doesn’t require any sort of physicality. That afternoon, his answer to ineptitude was duplicity. After that first debacle, he employed a strategy of dramatized, outrageous falls that allowed him to appear competent and committed. The team and coach gathered around after each plunge and helped him to his feet with a ‘you really went for it!’ pat on the back. I didn’t believe this lack of coordination cast as gumption.

As a parent I struggle with how useless he seems to be when it comes to athletic pursuits. And I struggle even more with the fact that it actually bothers me. In this feel-good parenting age of Everyone gets a medal! You’re all winners! I should be happy that he just participates. The contemplative and highly rational parent I aim to be knows that I am supposed to believe that just being out there is beneficial for his developing body and simply participating builds self-esteem. But I don’t believe any of that. “Stop fake falling you little faker and get out there and score!” That’s what goes through my head when Virgil adopts this approach of sweeping, emphatic tumbles rather than daring to play the game. His pratfalls effectively generate camaraderie but he doesn’t improve his skills. He doesn’t get any closer to winning. And the silent little league parent/over-zealous pageant mom that lurks inside of me wants to scream “Winning and competence matter! Get out there and try! Don’t you want to win?” These desperate and uncivilized thoughts fly in the face of the gentle encouragement I hear so many parents whisper. “All that matters is having fun, so just go out there and do the best you can.” I can’t bring that lie to my lips.

I was an athlete. And not just a run-of-the-mill high school varsity athlete. I was once the most elite gymnast in the United States, the 1986 National Gymnastics Champion. I competed alongside famous names, Olympic champions like Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller. When women discover that I was a gymnast, they often say, "So was I!" Their me-too exuberance prompts an ugly condescension in me. Ashamed, I try to conceal my smug antipathy with a smile and an oh-really nod. No you weren't, I think. You loved Nadia and begged your mom to sign you up for gymnastics classes. You went two days a week until you were in junior high. But then your body developed and boys noticed and hanging out at the mall or trying out for the cheerleading squad seemed a lot more appealing than spending the afternoon in a chalky, musty gym scared out of your wits to do what the coach was demanding. I started gymnastics when I was six. By the time I was seven, I was practicing twelve hours a week, traveling up and down the New Jersey Turnpike each weekend for competitions. I moved away from home when I was fourteen, trained forty hours a week while attending high school, endured untold abuses by over-enthusiastic coaches who weighed me twice a day to make sure I didn’t inadvertently get fat during my seven hour practice. I broke my femur at the 1985 World Championships when I fell from the uneven bars on my last event of the competition. Subsequently, the rules of international competition were changed, allowing coaches close by their athletes, an intervening spotter transforming potentially disastrous injuries into unfortunate half point deductions. I came back to win Nationals less than one year later. My parents ignored my depression and starvation, assuming I was happy because I won medals.

But now I am the parent. And it bugs me that my son can't make it to the end of a forty-minute soccer game without sliding into third base, that to conceal his lack of skill he just stops trying. I shouldn’t care. He’s bright, funny, sociable, kind. Yet I worry that he’s a dallier, that he won’t understand the value of hard work if he doesn’t work hard as a young person. Really hard. Like I did. It’s a lesson I feel obligated to teach him: You must toil to get what you want. The perfect marriage of aptitude and labor will breed success. Isn’t childhood the time for him to learn this? Or is this a lesson better learned later in life without his mother ramming it down his throat?

I detest parents who push their kids too hard, forbidding them their childhoods. I am also irked by parents who collaborate with their children to ensure every moment of their lives is filled with pleasantness. No losing, no conflict. Just awards for everyone who participates and ‘use your words’ encouragement in the face of blood curdling temper tantrums. In my desire to be a good parent, I wax and wane between these two pillars. I strive to be patient and ever empathetic in the face dubious behavior, to talk it out and remain calm. But I sometimes hurl a hefty dose of reality at my son, unleashing frustrated demands with rancor. “How many times do I have to tell you?! Do your homework! Clean your room! Turn off the television! Read a book! Stop doing that!!” I want to raise a well-adjusted kid who feels listened to and loved but is also prepared for life in this competitive world. So what's a neurotic, compulsive over-achiever who doesn’t want to inflict her own drama on her children to do? How am I supposed to raise my children?

That day on the soccer field, I began to understand how I might tackle this challenge. Seated on the sidelines, I experienced a moment of unadulterated love. He was wild-haired and insanely happy while he took a turn as goalie. He paid no attention to the action on the field but he savored the sunshine of San Francisco’s Indian summer. He turned away from the game to chat with a little girl on the team who was too fearful to assume her place in the lineup; he encouraged her to take his spot as goalie when there was a break in the action. His kindness and knobby knees were more than enough for me. In that moment, I resolved to worry less, enjoy him more, be in the moment and not fret so much about his future. I willfully ignored my nagging and unhealthy parental inclination to feel disappointment and frustration with his athletic incompetence. “Go Virgil!” I screamed as the ball flew past him. He waved at me when I called his name. All gappy-toothed grin, he still hadn’t noticed that the ball he failed to stop was inside the goal.

He was utterly enamored of simply participating, enjoying the day and the joys of having his family close by. When he finally noticed the ball resting at his feet, he cheerfully kicked it back to his teammates, triumphant that he’d finally made contact. With the ball in play down field, he once again urged his friend to take his place. Though she declined, his support brought a smile to her face as he returned to his post, albeit facing the wrong way. He was grinning and upright, generous and good-hearted; he was just plain old delighted to be alive.

I realized: if I pay attention, my second grader is going to teach me how to raise him.

© 2008 Jennifer Sey

A New Nightmare

Ever since I wrote CHALKED UP, I’ve had fantasies about being on talk shows like Larry King, talking about the sport (“I don’t follow it”), how I came to write the book (“it was a story I felt compelled to write, my coming of age story”) and what I’ll write next to transition from memoirist to legitimate novelist (“I’ve got a few things in the works, Larry”). I talk about how my true aspiration in life is to become a real writer, someone who can invent stories, pen prose that are more than just personal experience, ultimately proving my literary mettle. The fantasy quickly transitions into a nightmare when my former coaches and current gymnasts are brought out for a he-said / she-said style confrontation. The civilized Larry King tête-à-tête transforms into a Jerry Springer fashioned brawl, replete with chair throwing and name-calling. It goes something like this:

Coach: How can you believe her when she says she was anorexic? Look at this picture? She was fat! A fat pig!
Me: --- (sad face)
Gymnast: And she sucked! I mean look at the film! Now look at me! She was awful compared to me!
Me: ---- (tears while a chair whizzes past my head.)

All my teenage insecurities about never having been good enough, never having been thin enough to actually have deserved the kudos I received as a gymnast, have been brought to the fore once again with this horrific vision. Oh the irony! Those unresolved feelings prompted me to write the book in the first place. The mere writing of the tale was supposed to be just the antidote to cure me of these haunting ailments – self-doubt bordering on self-loathing, anxiety over not being good enough, unconcluded past relationships. What a cruel twist of fate that these things are only brought to the surface once again, completely raw, more complex and nuanced with age.

When I actually managed to get myself an agent and then sell the book, these anxiety dreams became more frequent, interviews a potential reality, however unlikely. My former anxiety dreams – having to get weighed in, trying to go back to gymnastics as a late 30-something, 130 pound marketing executive with two kids – were replaced with this talk show fiasco. Any time I experienced any conflict or unease at work, I dreamed the dream, waking in a panic, sweaty and fretful, pulse-racing preventing the rest of the night’s sleep.

Now that the book is near release, I am preparing with my own grass roots marketing efforts. As a marketer for Levi’s - one of the world’s best-known brands - I am well equipped to sell something I REALLY care about. Me. I’ve got a youtube channel, facebook page, email list and a web site under construction, all thanks to my tech savvy, software developer husband. I keep these digital assets updated and ready for the book’s launch, hopefully prepared for the onslaught of interest and compliments. Imagine my despair when, one early Monday morning before work, upon perusing my youtube channel, I found a mean-spirited slam in response to my fictional short film entitled, The Gymnast. (The film is not based on the book. I made it three years prior as an experiment, bringing to life my endeavors in screenplay writing. It is a made-up story about a young woman struggling with her past life as a champion; while it echoes my book in feeling, the heroine in the film is far worse off than I’ve ever been. Deadbeat, abusive boyfriend, addiction, going nowhere job in a nowhere town. Her life is quite different than mine.) But young ambermarie0x3, shielded by her self-perceived anonymity, wrote: “I think that this was horrible. Why do you need to blam others for your life? Can’t take responsibility?” Yes, ambermarie0x3, I’m “blam-ing” others because I can’t take responsibility. So much so that I taught myself how to make a little movie, taught myself how to write a book, support a family of four and take care of my sick mom who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. I hate taking responsibility. I wrote something to that effect in response, realized it was defensive and childish and promptly removed it.

After discovering her comment, I trolled for more. Hers appeared on my channel, permitting me the liberty of removing it if I cared to (I didn’t; the purpose of these types of sites is free and open debate no matter how inane). What I found off-channel, was far more ugly and malicious. Beneath a video of me from some meet when I was well past my prime, deep in the throes of injuries that were beyond repair and depression beyond easy abatement, were the following comments by hard hearted strangers:

No1zmeskalfan: “…this girl is probably the worst US champ ever. She’s terrible.”
WHATTHEBUCKSHOW: “it was an off year!”
Metsdudenj: “Someone pls explain to me how this girl managed to win the 86 US title. Did everyone else have a broken leg?”

It goes on. And on. It brought me to tears. They are right, I am certain. I wasn’t any good. And it’s too late to fix it now. I’m nearly 40. I can’t go back and prove I was good enough. A heavy sadness sunk in, deep and abiding. I carried it with me through my busy day at work, my harried evening of preparing the next day’s lunches and studying spelling words with my son. Throughout the week, it rested heavy on my back; I dragged it through my days, plagued with the feeling that people hated me and that I deserved it for being pathetic and unworthy. Unable to effectively carry on my demanding day job with this unwieldy burden dragging behind me, I vowed not to look on youtube anymore. I recognized that I wouldn’t even have known that these vindictive comments existed if I simply hadn’t encountered them. They would have had no impact on my head, my heart, my soul because they would simply never have been.

But I was addicted. The damage was done and I was rubbing salt in the 22 year old, putrid wound. I couldn’t stop looking. There were occasionally new posts, but I obsessed over those cited above. I figured ambermarie0x3 was a gymnast who felt I was trying to demean her beloved sport with what she perceives to be an exposé type book. (Not so! CHALKED UP is my personal story, not an indictment of the sport. If you read it ambermarie0x3, you’d see. I loved the sport and miss it all the time.) This insight helped, but not a lot.

I wanted to respond with aliases. “She was great! What are you guys talkin’ about!” But I resisted. I didn’t delete or respond to any of them, after that first impulse. Instead, I got to the work of readying myself for the intensity of the potential backlash. People are unkind, especially when shielded with anonymity, when it’s easy. On the internet, you don’t have to face the person, you don’t have to look them in the eye when you are attempting to bring them down, make them cry, pierce their spirit.

I hope the book prompts forthright debate rather than petty derision. Because really, what does it matter if I was any good as a gymnast at this late date? I turned some cartwheels twenty years ago. I make no claims to having been the best; I simply won one meet on one night that would shape the way I feel about myself forever in good and not so good ways. But my life is here and now – a professional, a nascent writer, a wife, a mom, a daughter. If there’s talk about gymnastics instigated by the book, it should be about whether or not the conditions I recount still exist. Are girls emotionally abused? Do adults put the needs of children aside to accomplish their own aspirations? Do eating disorders run rampant? Do the athletes put their physical and emotional health and well being aside to win? Does our culture put everything else aside in prioritizing winning? Ultimately, though, I hope the discussion is about the book’s merits. Is it well-written? Compelling? Emotionally resonant? Does it have relevance beyond gymnastics? This book is not an exposé. I intend for it to be my first endeavor towards becoming a writer that constantly strives to tell the truth, whether factually through non-fiction or emotionally through fiction. And I’m unflagging in my belief that through writing about my tribulations, I can someday resolve these issues of exacting self-doubt, transforming them into self-belief tempered with a healthy dose of humility and poise. In the face of cowardly, mean-spirited aspersions, this will be required, as I choose to put myself out there and open myself up to criticism. Thank you ambermarie0x3 and metsdudenj. Because of you both, I’ve realized, I am not yet there. I am not yet over this. Though hindered by a persistent need for approval, and easily knocked off my game when desired validation is withheld, I am armed with courage and confident that I can prevail.

© 2008 Jennifer Sey