Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Experimenting"

There’s a brief mention in the epilogue of my book about my post college drug use. I ‘experimented’. That’s the term people use when they aren’t addicts, right? I don’t really think ‘experiment’ is the right word. It would imply some sort of tasting to see what would happen, recording the resultant details for scientific purposes. I guess this is what all those politicians have done who’ve been caught and were forced to admit to their dabbling.

I admit, that’s not what I did. I won’t bore you with the list of mind-altering substances that have graced my bloodstream. Suffice it to say, there was no heroin and no crack. No shooting of anything into the arm or the space between the toes. Nothing quite so lurid, though I suspect some people (parents?) reading this might find the implied list…well, gruesome. For me, the inferred list represents the usual litany of party drugs indulged in by a good portion of Gen X-ers. I’d say nearly ¾ of my friends (over ½ for sure) of my age have done the same things if not more. But perhaps birds of a feather stick together and the percentage amongst the broader population of X-ers is far lower. I can’t be sure. I do know, of those I cavorted with, they are all gainfully employed, if not outright successful (which many are); most have significant others and children; none have gone to rehab or even needed to; most don’t do any drugs anymore. Maybe the occasional indulgence, once a year at a party.

I would argue that none of us even ran up close to the edge of addiction, though I suppose by some 12-step descriptions we were all in need of some rehabilitation. There were a few outliers, not close friends, who ultimately 12-stepped it; but my close partying friends survived without scars or life interruptions. We had regular jobs, never missed a day of work, were honored with promotions and/or graduate degrees. We maintained relationships – romantic and friendly, we never stole, we never turned tricks, we never lived on the street and begged for money. We never indulged during work hours or even during weekdays. We took drugs with our cocktails and beers on weekends. We sometimes stayed up all night and danced at Raves. We had a lot of fun. It lasted for a few years and I don’t regret it. All of this is not to romanticize drug use. It’s just what happened.

I just finished reading a book called “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff, which lays bare a parent's survival of his son’s meth addiction. (The son, Nic Sheff, also wrote a book called “Tweak” about his travails.) The story takes place in the Bay Area. The father was liberal as a parent, more of a friend than a dad, some would say, those who are looking for a ‘reason’ for his son’s problems. He took his son to places I often take my kids. Haight Street for records, art houses for films, galleries and museums, sushi restaurants, caf├ęs in North Beach. They were a sophisticated pair traipsing through Russian Hill, the Mission, Haight Ashbury. He confided to his son that he’d experimented with drugs as a young man; he thought, I’m not going to lie to him. I’ll take the mystery out of this whole affair. He assumed his son would give things a whirl; try some pot in high school, maybe a little somethin' else in college.

David’s own drug use perhaps made the whole thing more acceptable when he found pot in Nic's room while his son was still in junior high. The father was alarmed for sure, but allowed himself to be convinced that it was no big deal. He himself had smoked pot regularly in high school and college, after all. So his son started a few years earlier. No harm in that, likely. Or so went the thinking.

And of course, that was the beginning. Nic went on to smoke pot everyday throughout high school. And try everything else. By the time he graduated from the twelfth grade, he was pretty far gone. When he went to college, his meth addiction blossomed. It’s a typical cautionary tale: a single use of crystal seduced him, he was shooting it in no time, he went on to steal and prostitute himself to get his fix.

I think that this is what people who have never done drugs think happens every time a person tries drugs. It is certainly what the "say no" people/ads etc, would have you believe. It must be why some people now want to know about my drug use. Perhaps they think there is some deep, dark addiction/rehab secret in my past that I haven’t shared. Or maybe they are confounded by the fact that I did drugs and didn’t fall into a black hole. Some suggest I could write a book about my experience with drugs. I explain that these drug years were boring. No one would want to read such a book. Nothing happened. Not compared to Nick Sheff, James Frey, Augusten Burroughs, Elizabeth Wurtzel. These folks DID drugs and suffered immensely because of it, as did their families. I dallied. Like David Paterson (Governor of New York), Barack Obama (you know who he is) and lets face it, Bill Clinton, I enjoyed drugs without doing anything completely outrageous, going to jail or becoming addicted.

I’ve always believed, because of my own experience, it was possible to try drugs, even do them with some regularity, and not have it become a problem. Not for everyone (some step off that cliff and just fall), but for some. I’ve even been sort of distrustful of some people who’ve never tried anything. "What squares!" I've thought. Are they afraid to delve into their subconscious minds, confront their demons? Afraid to lose control and have some fun?

But reading Mr. Sheff’s book makes me worried for my youngest son who is only five, but seems to take things very hard. Like Nic, he’s a sensitive kid, loves to draw. He’s an introvert. He’s at risk for never feeling quite like he fits in because he very well may not. Could be a recipe for disaster, as it was with Nic. And we live in San Francisco, less than a half-mile from Haight Street. Scoring is less than a ten-minute walk away.

His saving grace might be that he won’t care whether or not people like him. He seems fairly satisfied with his internal life. He’s the kid at the playground who plays by himself for hours, never needing to engage the other kids in a game.

But I wonder: should I be dishonest with him about my own dabbling with drugs if I want to steer him away from experimenting? If he knows I partook and came out just fine, will that make it easier for him to say yes, when offered pot, acid, booze in the sixth or seventh grade? If he can see that it has had no obvious adverse affect on me, might it seem more acceptable, less dangerous? I really don’t want him starting that early, if at all. I’d always thought: he’ll drink in high school, maybe try pot; he’ll try whatever he wants to try in college (especially if he goes to Berkeley); maybe have a bit more fun after college; but by his late twenties, he’ll have gotten it out of his system. He’ll be a serious and proper adult. Maybe not. Maybe he’ll be like poor Nic. He’ll try something once – who knows what: coke, meth, heroin – and never look back. Perhaps it really is best if he never even gets a taste.

I’ve made a habit of being honest in my life, with my kids, in my writing. But I’m considering lying about this one fact. Maybe I’ll tell my kids: Nope never did it. And don’t you do it either!

Doesn’t really roll off the tongue. It’s too late, I suppose. It’s in my book. It’s right here in this stupid blog entry which will somehow live on forever in cached heaven, cut and pasted from here to eternity. I’ll have to do my best to instill good judgment and a passion for other things requiring sobriety and take comfort in the fact that my kids are not descendants of addicts, so hopefully they don’t have the gene. But things happen. Dangers are everywhere for my children to encounter.

Parenting, as with life, is a harrowing ordeal. While I don’t plan on lighting up with my kids, I will probably admit I tried some stuff ‘back in the day’, once I was old enough to exercise some judgment about its affects. I’ll warn them about the dangers of drugs. And I’ll gauge their moods, their reactions, their general states of mind without any reluctance in asking, “Are you okay?

If I’ve learned anything from David Sheff’s book it is that there is often no one to blame for a child’s drug use. Teen drug addicts are kids of divorce, kids of married parents; kids who were loners and kids who were popular; kids who were engaged in every activity under the sun and kids who had too much free time. The world is a minefield and our kids are their own people. Just as I’ve learned that my gymnastics was my own choice – no one could have made me starve myself and work on half healed bones – my kids will make their own choices. All I can do is equip them to survive those choices.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Do you remember...?

I’ve recently reconnected with some old friends from The Philadelphia School, my progressive hippie dippy elementary educational school.

It started with Jacob (now Jake) Tapper. He found me on, where else, Facebook. Apparently we had our first date in junior high. We went to see “Jaws II” and he put his hand in my Coke; not like the movie “Diner” where, well, something else markedly un-hand like went in the popcorn. I believe his hand in my Coke was accidental. Though I can’t be sure because I don’t remember this so-called date that turned into a non-date because we were somehow joined by several other kids from TPS, as we called our beloved school. Today, he’s mock heartbroken that I don’t recall this monumental date of ours. After much prodding I do remember him in his Philadelphia Fliers jersey doing Richard Nixon impressions. His political astuteness has served him well; he's a national correspondent for ABC News. I'm sure he was quite a kid - smart, interesting, funny, kind - as he's quite an adult. I wish I remembered more.

Jake re-introduced me to Liz Cohen. Now Elisabeth LaMotte. I nearly choked to death on a butterscotch candy at her house in seventh grade. Someone - her mother? - performed the Heimlich and the candy was gently and un-dramatically brought forth, allowing me to breathe again. My throat was bruised for days after, a reminder of my near-death experience in her oh-so-swanky center city townhouse. We both remember this incident with fondness, despite the scariness of it back then. Liz, however, also quite impressively remembers every word of a student-scribed song we used to sing at TPS about our favorite Phillie baseball player, Steve Carlton. I have no recollection of this ditty though I do remember our city’s famous lefty pitcher.


His number's thirty two and he makes the batters boo; He always strikes them out with never any doubt; He comes to every game and he's gained a lot of fame; He doesn't hesitate to close the gate and win the game; Steve Carlton, always doin fine Steve Carlton, fastest of his kind Steve Carlton, will never be outdone Steve Carlton, always -- number one!

Liz re-introduced me to Susan Levine, Zahavah or “Z” today. Susan was impossibly cool and sophisticated. She was in the KISS club (Ace Frehley), had a boyfriend, took public transportation and taught me the ways of crank phone calls. We spent an afternoon in “Is your refrigerator running” hysterics after school one day when, I apparently did not have gymnastics practice. I recently got in touch with Zahavah through Liz. She lives in San Francisco, about 2 miles from me. She is impressively accomplished as legal counsel for YouTube and just as cool as ever.

And finally, they all brought me to Liz Spikol. Another TPS-er, Liz was recently featured in the New York Times for her writing, video blogging and general outspoken-ness on bipolar disorder. She fondly remembers my favorite teacher from back then, Lisa. I recall Lisa being worldly and enthusiastic, a curly-haired hippie in flowy skirts. Liz remembers her outfits differently, though we agree on her general appearance.

"She had brown wavy hair. She was really nice and was quick to laugh. She used to wear an off-white sweater and brown pants."

I guess Lisa had brown pants and hippie skirts. Or maybe not.

Liz Lamotte seems to recall that I, along with Zahavah, killed our class bird Chico, the Spanish-speaking parrot. Z and I let him out of the cage, allowing him to walk atop the lattice, where he fell between the bars and hurt his little bird legs. He died soon thereafter, I’m told. Liz felt left out, not having been bonded for life with Z and me in this tragedy. I don’t remember any of this. Not the faintest, “Yeah, that sounds familiar.” Nothing. In fact, I am likely getting the details of this avian murder all wrong because I don’t remember there even being a linguistically gifted Latino "pajaro" in our classroom. Still, I have no doubt this poor flapper died because of my carelessness.

Apparently, I don't remember every detail of my youth. I killed a bird, went on a date with the now famous Jake Tapper and had a whole bunch of teachers that I have only the fuzziest, if any, recollection of. They include: John the mountain man, Betsy somebody with red hair, Nancy someone with who knows what color hair, Tossi the music teacher (remember the name but not her – how could you forget that name?!) and Ellen the principal. There were also disco skating parties, spin the bottle sessions, ice skating at the Farm (our urban school’s way of getting us in touch with nature) and dramatic performances of Antigone. Nope. No memory. Perhaps I just wasn’t invited which jibes more with my recollection of not feeling like I fit in with all these cool city kids. Though I now know they didn't see me as I saw myself (nerdy suburban doofus with no idea who KISS was); to them I was some sort of flipping golden girl with loads of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and a mom who drove a white Camaro (still not sure if kids thought this was cool or pathetic) to haul me off to gymnastics practice before class was officially dismissed.

Funny thing, memory. Perspective driven, it is strange and slippery and prismatic. What is indelible to some, is non-existent to others. Two people can stand side by side and experience an event completely differently. Or one may not remember it at all. But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. May Chico rest in peace.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Am I a liar?

While the bulk of the responses that I’ve gotten to the book have been positive, ranging from empathetic to outright cheers (You’re brave. Thank goodness, finally!), there have been those that claim my depiction of the sport is not accurate. That it is filled with lies. There are even those who go so far as to assert that because I wasn’t a very good National Champ - perhaps even the worst ever (in the words of a few bloggers) – I am vengeful and antagonistic. They argue that my incompetence as a gymnast is evidence that the book is a retaliation, proof of my bitterness. I’ll concede, I wasn’t the best ever. Not sure that mediocre child champion = adult prevaricator. Seems like a tenuous connection.

I suppose I’ll just carry on saying what I’ve been saying: this is my story. Not an indictment of the sport. This was my personal experience, 20 years ago. Not drawing any conclusions that this is what everyone who participates in the sport experiences, now or back then.

What I find most distressing is people saying: releasing it now, before the Olympics, is bad for the sport. They don’t take issue with the content, per se, rather the timing. Vehement dissenters offer that the “marketing” of CHALKED UP – timing its release before the Olympics – is a ploy to optimize sales.

I wrote the book when it spilled forth, back in 2006. It’s just when it came out of me, after ‘cooking’ for over twenty years. There was no intent to time it for the Olympics which are every four years after all, so any book is pre or post Olympics, if you think about it. The fact is my kids were finally old enough that I was getting enough sleep to concentrate for extended periods of time. I wrote it when I wrote it; and I sold it when it sold. No control there. There is a standard delay of 12-18 months between when a book sells to a publisher and when it is released. That time allows for editing, typesetting, etc. That meant the release was going to be early 2008.

Thus, I take issue with the accusatory, finger-pointy “marketing!” claims.

And, it prompts me to ask: So you think marketing is opportunistic, huh, presenting facts in a manner intended to seduce the consumer? Sounds to me kind of like how gymnastics is marketed on television to secure ad revenue and attract new children to the sport. How only the cutest pixies bouncing happily and seemingly without effort are showcased. Viewers rarely, if ever, get to feast their eyes on those who ‘lose’, falling outside the top ranks; girls who plunge to the ground on their heads, faces, backs, bottoms, sometimes incurring unwatchable injuries. Eye-shielding falls are standard operating procedure in gymnastics as it is an incredibly dangerous sport. In football, we are exposed to the bone bashing, as it is somewhat palatable when it happens to big, scary, fully grown adult men. And because it is part of that sport's appeal, it is celebrated to an extent. But no one wants to see a broken-hearted, broken boned sprite sobbing in devastating disappointment or being removed from the competition floor on a stretcher.

Do objectors mean to suggest that my book is ‘marketed’ like gymnastics itself?

Rest assured, marketing or no marketing of this book, the sport will survive as it did after Kristy Heinrich’s death (and the attendant ‘bad PR’) and Joan Ryan’s LITTLE GIRLS IN PRETTY BOXES. Because most people that participate in the sport have positive experiences and most coaches have the best intentions. Just because that is so, does that mean I am ‘not allowed’ to share what wasn’t carefree and unspoiled about my personal experience? Just because most teachers are kind and giving and committed to providing an education to children, does that imply that if a teacher sexually abuses a student that that student shouldn’t speak up? Because it would hurt the education system? Prevent people from going to school?

The sport has a vast and enthusiastic fan base; they are passionate about gymnastics and offended by my story. But it doesn’t mean I made it up or falsely marketed it. And it doesn’t mean the sport will be irreparably harmed. Other sports have come under harsh criticism and flourished just the same. Football and baseball and ice skating. Each of these sports has been thrown into the spotlight for bad behavior (illegal dog fighting, steroid use, knee bashing) and has thrived. Blights on a sport often cause the community to turn introspective, to say, is there something here we need to examine?

When I broke my leg at World Championships, the rules changed soon thereafter, with the intent of keeping the girls safer. When a young gymnast by the name of Julissa Gomez fell on vault in warm up for competition and was rendered paralyzed (and later died from complications), the equipment was modified to accommodate new skills and protect the athletes from unnecessary injuries. These are good things. I’d hope that the community would ask themselves upon reading the book, do any of these conditions still exist and if so, what can we do about it?

Was I obligated to present both sides in a memoir? I don’t believe so. If I was writing a journalistic piece, then yes. But this is a story of personal experience. To suggest that I was morally obliged to illustrate that there are also good coaches with good intentions (which I do include, note: Lolo) would be to suggest that anyone who writes a book about growing up in middle class suburbia and becoming a drug addict must also present the case that some people from the ‘burbs don’t become drug addicts. Isn’t that obvious?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Houston!

I was in Houston a few days ago for a reading. It was a great little independent bookstore, my favorite kind. I was not insignificantly concerned that no one would show up except my escort, the lovely man hired to drive me around, to and from media appointments. On the other hand, I harbored anxiety that a bevy of ex-Karolyi gymnasts (his gym is located in Houston) would show up and pelt me with rotten tomatoes and epithets. I’d prefer the no one-showing-up scenario.

As I entered, a few women lingered near the stack of my books. It was quite a stack. Could they possibly sell all of these? One introduced herself as Nicky. She was instructed to be there by my aunt Jill. Whew. At least there was one. Another had heard about the book on TV and thought she’d pop in. Nice. Ok. Two friendly faces. No empty bookstore. No rotten vegetables.

The manager of the bookstore had moved a few chairs into a circle, a couch centering the arrangement. Just as we all meandered towards the sitting area, a woman about my age wandered in. She eyed me. I felt compelled to introduce myself. With an outstretched hand, I said, “Jen.”

“Jen! It’s Stacey!” No fucking way. Stacey trained with me in New Jersey before I made the move to Allentown. I remember her being very small, talented, fast, acrobatic; she had a father that hovered, monitoring her every move. And more importantly he watched the coaches with eagle eyes, to ensure they gave her enough attention and paid the respect for her talent that he believed she deserved. She left Will-Moor about the time I went to Parkettes. She chose Karolyi’s. When I was competing as a senior, she was still a junior. She came into her own when I was downward spiraling; she went to the ’88 Olympic Trials but failed to make the team. It was good to see her.

She came with her brother. They were glad I’d written this story, they said. Someone needed to and they’d been waiting for it for some time. Stacey and her dad had even talked about writing a book, from both perspectives. Parent and child, on the same path, viewing it from different sides.

We all sat down. I told everyone a little bit about why I wrote the book, about who I was and why I had some authority to speak about the world of nationally and internationally competitive gymnastics in the 1980s. And then another woman entered. Her face was so familiar, I stopped mid-sentence.

“I know you,” I said.

“Robin --” I got up and hugged her. I remember her as a little girl. All skinny legs and grace. She had also trained at Karolyi’s and then later, SCATs, though only briefly. She was a few years younger than me as well. When she failed to make the ’88 Olympics, she quit. Before finishing high school, she walked away. Good move.

I read an excerpt about moving away from my parents into a coach’s house. Stacey seemed saddened by it. She must have felt the same way, when she left her New Jersey home for Texas.

The non-gymnasts asked lots of questions. The three of us answered them together. Our experiences had been remarkably similar. Injuries, loneliness, physical pain, emotional struggle, some triumph and pride. Yet, our relationship to the sport while doing it was a bit different.

I was driven and competitive. I wanted to be in it, up until the final 18 months. Stacey never had her heart in it, but it was important to her father and it came easily to her (she was SO talented), so she went along. Robin was on the fence. And after too many injuries, she gave it up and her dad cheered the decision. Remarkably, she went on to compete nationally in both rhythmic gymnastics and diving. Talented girl.

We had dinner after – Stacey, Robin, Stacey’s brother, and I. We talked about all the people we knew from back then. The names! Sabrina, Marie, Julissa, Denise, Rhonda, Kristy, Phoebe, Scott, Mary, Heather. These girls and coaches from a lifetime ago! We talked about how we sort of ran away from each other when it was over, needing to define who we were without the sport and without any connection to it or those who did it. Stacey had tried to maintain ties, to extract some good from the friendships tainted by competitiveness. She was hurt when she found girls – now women – not interested. But she understood. We agreed it was nice to find each other again, the hurt of it all having faded.

We talked heavy-heartedly about how lonely and scared we all were; but how, as self involved teens, all riddled with guilt in feeling we were less able to endure the rigors than our training mates, we never reached out to each other. To each of us, the other had seemed stoic. And, ironically, we were all losing it to some extent. How, as mere children, were we able to mask such devastation with poise? I’ll never know.

We marveled that as important as the Olympics seemed back then, having gone or not gone seemed to have very little impact on our adult lives. While the three of us did not go, we certainly know many who did. They don’t seem better or worse off than any of us. Other than Mary Lou whose fame from the ’84 Olympics has, in some ways, defined her career path. Not her life, certainly. But her vocation. Even Olympians go on to get regular jobs, get married, have kids. Normal stuff. I doubt they wear their Olympic medals around the house but I’m sure they take pride in peeking at them from time to time, as they should.

But, that thing, those fabled noble Olympics, that we were all willing to practically kill ourselves over - to starve, and work on near broken bones, popping pain killers like Skittles, to endure screaming, angry coaches and/or parents – it didn’t matter in the long run. These two women seemed happy, accomplished, impressive. Stacey is a mom of two with a graduate degree in pyschology; Robin runs her own business after securing her MBA and learning the ropes at the Coca Cola Corporation. These two have it together. I suppose I'm doing ok as well. Great job, lovely kids, happy marriage. Things are all A-OK for the three of us. No bitterness looking back. Just pride and a touch of wistfullness over having wished we'd known we had each other.

If only to have had visibility to the fact that gymnastics - as important as it felt - was child's play. Olympics or no Olympics our real lives would happen as adults. What sadness and shame would have been averted if we'd understood this then.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Player Haters

I always get myself in trouble when I worry too much about what people think of me. When I strive to please EVERYBODY. That’s what I did back when I was doing gymnastics and it turned on me. I tried so hard to continue extracting approval from my coaches and parents that I denied my own best interest. The tension between wanting or believing something different than what others do and also desiring to have these people ‘like me’, creates havoc on my body and brain. I internalize their displeasure and it rots inside my gut.

I find myself struggling with this now but I am fighting to have learned from past experiences. I’m really trying to just be okay with some folks thinking that I suck. It’s impossible to have EVERYONE approve of you, right? What progress I will have made if I can shrug disapproval off with a smile and an ‘Oh well! You can’t win ‘em all!” avowal.

Recently, I was promoted at work. I now carry the hefty burden of the title, “Vice President, Worldwide Marketing, Levi Strauss & Co.”. Yikes. I fought hard for this position. I know that I can do it and do it well. I interviewed for months on end, took tests - psychological, IQ, leadership – to validate my worthiness. And after being poked and prodded for almost 4 months, I was handed the position the same week that my book came out. What a week! (As I left on book tour, I thought to myself as I boarded the plane, “I’m going to crash. I’ve had too much good fortune of late.” Neurotic? Yes.)

The first week in my new job and I’m on a vacation that I’ve planned for many months. Not much of a vacation really; I’ve been on a plane every day for 5 days, on book tour. Going from city to city doing readings and local press. This is a well-earned ‘vacation’, as I’ve ‘banked’ at least 7 weeks of time off at Levi’s, not having taken a break in the past year, in my effort to prove myself worthy of this new job. Yet, I am riddled with guilt at taking time off the first week of my new job. Thus, I’ve made myself available in every possible way – blackberry, email, phone, etc. I ring and vibrate from every pocket as I walk through the airport. I’m going to need a vacation from this vacation, for sure.

Despite my best efforts to stay connected to things at work, to push things forward - things like TV commercial shoots and such - there’s been a bit of a dust up over some issues not worth getting into. Some of my colleagues aren’t very happy with me. And so it goes, I feel more guilt. I feel practically buried by it at times as I sit on the runway waiting for my plane to take off for Houston or Cincinnati or home. One week into this job and I have convinced myself that people will be clamoring for my resignation in no time. Oh the humiliation. I am sure they are going to rescind this promotion. To say, “We’re sorry. You aren’t right for this after all. We’ve found another, more worthy. And, we can’t offer you your old job back either. Bye-bye. Best of luck to you and those children you’re responsible for!”

And then there’s the book hoo-ha. The nay-sayers (and it seems there are just a very vocal few) regarding the book are adding fuel to my self-destructive fire. The ‘you’re a liar!’, ‘you’re a pathetic loser and you’re just bitter because you never made the Olympics!’, and 'you must really need money!' types of comments can’t help but sting a girl.

But I’m in a new phase of my life. I’m nearly 40 years old. I’ve had therapy. Not truckloads of it, but enough to question my usual response to things; to suggest to myself there may be another way to handle disapproval; to steer myself clear of self-loathing. I’m attempting to have learned from my mistakes. I’m fighting to accept that sometimes people just don’t like me or what I have to say. I won’t cow to people at work that say I’ve not done my job well. Are there things I could do better? Sure! But overall, we disagree on this fact that I’ve really mucked things up irreparably. We don’t have to always agree. We don’t have to like each other, we just have to work together. In past years, I would have practically gotten on bended knee, bowing in apology and shame over having pissed some folks off. Not gonna happen this time. I’m going to stand my ground.

And so it is with the book. Not everyone will like it. Or me for having written it. But that doesn’t make it untrue and it certainly doesn’t make me a charlatan, cheater, liar, desperate-for-money loser, as I’ve been called. If I’d lied and been called on it, I’d feel shame. I don’t.

This is not easy for me, accepting that there are those who kind of dislike me right now. But I will live with it. I have to. Otherwise, I go back to being a 16-year old so desperate to please that she nearly self-destructs in a muddy jumbled mess of anxiety and depression and desperation and shame.

Hate me if you will. I’ll be just fine with it. I’ll try to be anyway. Given that there are people I don’t like a whole lot either, it seems only fair that I should have to endure being disliked too. I’m aiming for empathy – rather than disdain - towards those who are angry with me. I try for understanding. For calm.

In the words of my husband and some rapper I don’t know, I’m striving to not hate the player, rather, hate the game. (Best when pronounced “playah”, of course.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My Escort

I just got back from Ohio. A book tour stop in Dayton and Cincinnati led me there. Apparently, when you go to a market for a book stop, you get an “escort”. Not THAT kind of an escort. Not Eliot Spitzer style. The traditional kind: a single person accompanying another or others for protection, guidance, or courtesy.

Her name was Barbara. She was probably in her early 70’s. But she could have been anywhere from mid-60’s to late 70’s I’m guessing. She was, by far, one of the most interesting people I have ever met. I felt like Ira Glass, sans tape recorder. She drove me back and forth from Cincinnati to Dayton to Cincinnati to Dayton and back to Cincinnati within the span of about 10 hours. We probably covered a good 250 miles, at least. She did all of this with a knee that was recently replaced.

Here’s just a tad of what made her interesting... no…not interesting. She was more than that. She was insightful, opinionated, outspoken, resillient, tough. She was cool.

1) She shared some of the most personal moments of her life with me; and we’d only just met.


2) She married her husband at 21, mere months after meeting him. While perhaps it began as a marriage of convenience (when he was told he was being transferred, he told his boss he couldn’t be, he was getting married. And then she married him so he wouldn’t have to move), she grew to love him.


3) In the early 70s, while dining in a restaurant, a car came through the window and ran over her legs. She got less than $1000 in the settlement. And she's not bitter.


4) She has two daughters. One left Ohio and lived in Europe for ten years working for the UN.


5) She has one granddaughter. And she lost one grandchild. And she's not bitter.


6) Her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer at 59. He died three years later.


7) After mourning his death, she decided she needed some "new experiences." She went to work at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. She was disgusted by all the ‘do – gooders’ who came once a year to help the homeless so she decided to become a regular.


8) While working there, it was the first time she experienced being the only white person in the room. She developed some serious empathy for black folks.


9) She befriended a black man who volunteered there as well. When he took ill and had a leg amputated (he was diabetic), she volunteered to ‘help’ him. She became his caretaker. She brought him food, took him to the doctor, was his friend for many years.


10) They went to Niagara Falls together on a whim and he suffered a heart attack. She took care of him after that as well.


11) She received a letter from the man’s son, thanking her for taking care of his father. The son was in prison for shooting two people. They didn't die. But he shot 'em just the same.


12) She corresponded with the son and visited him often. When he got out on parole after 14 years (2 years early), she invited him to live with her. She got him a job operating a forklift. He held it for a while. But then he tested positive for drugs. Lost the job. She doesn't regret helping him, but it was time for him to go.


13) He moved away to Atlanta – didn’t go back to prison – to look for work with a friend. She talks to him regularly. On the phone and through letters.


14) She has worked as a dancer, chef, food stylist, writer–escort and Lord knows what else.

15) She loves Barack Obama. She does not like Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly.


16) Each time we drove past this totally bizarre church - it had a giant Jesus waist deep in the grass in front of a sprawling, modern evangelical house of God that resembled a stadium more than a place of worship - she said: “Look, there’s butter Jesus! Doesn’t he look like he was carved from butter? Up the road there's a church with a Starbucks and a soccer field! Can you believe that?”


17) She’s driven Suze Ormann, Nora Roberts, Denis Lahane and many other people I’d never heard of. And seemed thoroughly unimpressed.

18) She's been to China, Hong Kong, Belgium, France. The list goes on. Paris and Florence are her favorite places on earth.

Damn, people are interesting! What a woman. Her openness prompted me to share some stuff too. We talked about the book, gymnastics, my work, my family. But I kept the fact that I voted for Hillary to myself. I feared she might pull over and ask me to get out if I were to convey that little tid bit. She really really doesn't like Hillary.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Thanks

I'm overwhelmed by all of the positive letters, emails and blog posts in response to the book. Glad to have touched so many of you, who claim to have had similar experiences. Have even gotten notes from people who were never gymnasts who say the story resonates with them. The feelings of inadequacy turned inward and self-destructive.
Thank you all for your support. I feel I've made many new 'friends'.
Jen