Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Vocabulosity of Winslow

My husband Winslow has a colorful and highly refined vocabulary. He talks like he’s writing or lecturing at a university, without a care for whether or not anyone will know the units of language he uses. He often uses the words Schadenfreude, comeuppance, meme, memetic, fractal and metaphysical in casual conversation . Doesn’t matter who he is talking to - junior high schoolers, cab drivers, homeless people, telemarketers. He gives everyone equal credit in terms of their vocabulosity.

He also turns some clever phrases. Some of my favorites…

“Doesn’t matter a dead minister’s dick”. This one he uses a lot in a self-deprecating fashion. As in: "God that woman is pissing me off – demanding website changes at every hour of the day. But doesn’t matter how I feel. No no. Doesn’t matter a dead minister’s dick. I might as well get to it.” He often resigns himself to his place in the world with this calming phrase.

“I’ll show you!” This one always comes with fist in the air in mock defiance. He uses this utterance quite a bit of late, at least twice a day. He is knowingly and ironically portraying himself as a Ted Kazinski/Timothy McVey type; a crazy but misunderstood misanthrope with a genius streak and no qualms about blowing shit up in order to prove to people that they should have taken notice before things got ugly. But Winslow does it with a laugh – not of the psychopathic variety – rather of the ‘isn’t it funny I have some of the same inklings and characteristics as a crazy pyschopath but I’ll never follow through' sort.

“Sad-tastic”. I love this one. He applies it to situations that are painfully humiliating but wildly entertaining. Most of reality television. The women on Flavor of Love are sad-tastic. The Biggest Loser is sad-tastic. Fat people sweating and crying and puking as they stairmaster their way to not-so-fatness. Winslow is convinced the viewership is derived from those of us who are grateful to watch VERY fat people on TV because it makes us feel thin and beautiful. He sees it as NBC and 24 hour Fitness and Ziploc Bags and Jennie-O Turkey making money off the back fat of obese people and the Schadenfreude in the rest of us. Hence it’s sad-tasticism.

I enjoy the inspirational ‘anyone can do it with a little hard work’ message. I cry every season when the formerly and soon-to-be fat again top 3 finishers bust through the paper barrier on the stage with toothy grins slashing their faces which house heretofore unseen cheek bones. These newly thin contestants wear glamorous size 4 dresses and 32-inch waist pants. They pause as they stand next to cardboard cut outs nearly two times the width of their present frames, disturbing and unrecognizable apparitions from only five months earlier. They are weepy as they talk of changed lives and newly found health. The next season when they return to honor the new winners and have already let more than a few pounds creep back on, the viewer can see that within a year they could easily become contestants again. Sad-tastic!

“Les-b-friends”. This is the counter point to “frenemies”, now often used in the mainstream press. This makes Winslow crazy as he feels he invented not just the word but the concept of dueling female friend archetypes. About seven years ago, he began broadly espousing a theory that all women’s friends are either frenemies or les-b-friends. This was based on my small coterie of female compadres. Today, ‘frenemy’ is common parlance. It is a game on facebook, an entry in Wikipedia, has been used in the New York Times and on Oprah. Les-b-friends hasn’t caught on in the same way so I think he still has a shot at owning this one. The meaning is obvious. Women who are friends but in love with each other in a more romantic way. He’s convinced I have two and that when he passes, assuming he goes first, I’ll just move right in with one of them and finish out my life as an old gay lady in Dockers and Doc Martens. Les-b-friends.

“Fack-in’ and Crack-in’ ”. The first part is ebonics for ‘telling the truth’. Fact-ing. The “t” is conveniently left off so that rhyming with the second word is possible. The second word is old black lady lingo for joking, making a funny. When I reply to his “I’ll show you!” rant with a “I’d be scared but you’d never follow through” dismissal, he shakes his head with a “fack-in’ and crackin’” whisper and dejected resignation.

“It smells like a brontosaurus pooped in your mouth”. This is what he tells our kids before they’ve brushed their teeth in the morning. This kills with five year olds. My husband has a future career as a comedian for the under ten-year-old set.

“Night pooper”. This is the term of endearment for our oldest son, Virgil, at whom Winslow points an accusatory finger each evening at 7pm when he (Virgil, not Winslow) ceremoniously begins farting. (Winslow's farts start later - at the approximate time we climb into bed). Virgil refuses to admit he has to take a dump even though he’s surrounded by nearly visible clouds of feces vapor. At some point, Virgil usually slips out of sight and the putrid and powerful smell of man shit wafts into the living room. Still, Virgil won’t admit that the farting was linked to the poop he’s left clogging the bowl. “Night pooper” we all mutter as Virgil wedges himself between the pillows on the couch, digging his bony knees into my shoulder blade as we settle in for an hour of Iron Chef. The secret ingredient transformed into delicious artistry in Kitchen Stadium always smells like crap from the vantage point of our living room.

There are more. I’m not calling them to mind at the present moment. But Winslow's vocabulosity reigns supreme. It's part of the reason why I love him so.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


My former gymnastics team, The Parkettes, is having a 40-year reunion this weekend. Very few of my friends from back then will attend, not due to any particular grievance. Life just gets in the way of reuniting sometimes; and I suppose a weekend in the ever cosmopolitan, always picturesque Allentown, Pennsylvania isn’t always first on everyone’s list of summer vacation hot spots.

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t invited. Despite my now well-documented issues with the years I spent there, I am very curious about how all the girls have fared, what interesting lives they have built for themselves. How child athletes turn inchoate drive into fully formed adult determination (or don’t) is a subject of unlimited fascination for me. Successful athletes have a moxie and tenacity uncommon amongst the general population. I am always curious how it morphs or grows or simply dies in the pursuit of non-athletic endeavors. I plan on getting a full report on my generation of teammates from those I know who are attending.

Even if I hadn’t written the book and become an official foe to my former coaches and a couple of teammates, I wouldn’t have attended the reunion. I left on not – so – good terms and haven’t been in touch since about 1992 when I returned for a mini-reunion just so that I could be a grumpy, rebellious Gen X style pain in the butt. I had just graduated from college and I was puffed up with Stanford liberalism and bulimic ice cream binges; I wanted to rub my I am part of a much bigger world than you are pride in their faces.

I was trying to prove to myself that I had moved on by showing up with a tattoo, a nose ring, a pack of Marlboros and a tough chick on my arm (not my lesbian girlfriend – I’ve never had one of those – but if they wanted to think so, fine). Ironic that to prove to myself I’d moved on I went back seeking the opposite of the approval I’d sought for so long; in desiring their disdain, or at the very least shocked dismay, I was just as entrenched in the morass of dependence as I’d been five years earlier. I needed them to hate me so I could be released from the need to have them love me. If I repulsed them, affirmation would be out of the question. I could give up and move on.

This must be some form of individuation, the means by which a child separates from the ‘parent’. Seems silly and immature and overly dramatic. But I was only 22. I couldn’t think of a better way to define myself than simply defining myself as DIFFERENT from everyone I’d ever known. I didn’t articulate who I was. I just shouted, “I’M NOT YOU.”

When Chalked Up was nearing release, an old coach called a friend and fellow 1980s gymnast to ask if we were in touch, if she knew about the book. “You don’t talk to her do you? I mean, you guys weren’t even here at the same time!”

Said friend reminded her that we indeed were there at the same time, with a smidgeon of disbelief that a coach who’d played such a formative role in her upbringing didn’t recall such an obvious fact.

The few years that each of us trained there – for some of us, over a decade; for me, less than five years - are etched into our memories. Less lively with age, the memories have a scribbled/scrawled quality rather than an ardent, incisive chisel. We have weigh-in dreams when feeling anxious and tend to be a tad too self-critical. We all remember the physical suffering from smashed up bones and torn ligaments but when we talk about it now we laugh, as in: “They insisted there was nothing wrong with that ankle! It was twice the size of the other one! Can you believe? Ha ha ha!” We also remember the good stuff – the medals, friendships and satisfaction.

Despite the muted current day impact of these 20-year old recollections, we remember all of it with astonishing precision and emotional clarity. We remember what it felt like then – the good and the bad; it just doesn’t carry weight today with two decades between those events and our adult selves.

But the coaches don’t really remember us with the same specificity. Each of us was one of many determined sprites with hair sprayed bangs, a ponytail and a limp. The lifespan of a college student has passed since any of my generation stepped foot in that gym. And there were twenty years of Parkettes before we’d ever graduated. Decades crammed with girls – some promising, some forgettable, some feisty, some acquiescent. Some champions. Some also-rans. If a ‘generation’ in gymnastics is 5 years, at least eight generations of gymnasts have floated, flown and fallen through those warehouse doors.

We were fleeting projects; if any of us didn’t work out, there were new projects just outside the rainbow colored walls on MLK drive.

Those coaches were everything to us. And we were cogs in the factory wheel, fodder for their dreams of coaching winners. We thought it was all about us. Until we quit or left or graduated and there were twelve others there, much younger and less tired, to take our places.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

On sharing

I have two friends who have lost a parent in the last year. We are that age, after all. One of them was a friend prior to her dad’s illness, the other was merely an acquaintance, prior to her mom’s.

Liat’s dad had stomach cancer. When he found out, the doctor’s said: “We’ve caught it early. We’ll go in, take it out, you should be fine.” Upon ‘going in’, they discovered they were mistaken. He lived less than a year. She’s in her mid-twenties, unmarried, too young to lose her dad. Not a child, but her children won’t have a grandfather, her dad won’t walk her down the aisle. She’s athletic, a bright eyed optimist, a bit of a Berkeley hippie-chick in the very best sense of the word. She worked for me at Levi’s and taught yoga on the side.

Meredith’s mom passed away from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This rare illness overtook her swiftly, faster than many sufferers. Meredith was with her the entire time, from diagnosis to her passing. Meredith is sensitive, beautiful, thoughtful, a striver, a bit of a compulsive; she is forever changed by this experience. She is at once grateful for her friendships, her family and surprised by people’s inability to be ‘there’, to be in this with her. We are not a culture that handles death very openly. Forthright and understanding strangers can become our friends when faced with death.

My mom was also sick this year, from lung cancer (no, she never smoked). This is what brought the three of us together. Each had a parent suffering from a serious illness. My mother is the lone survivor, just one year later. She is the lucky one. She is not better, more worthy, more loved. Just luckier, if length of life can be equated to luck. I’m not sure I believe that it should be. Other things seem more profound – life experience and appreciation, for instance. Alas, I believe my mom to be lucky because she has another chance to develop an appreciation for her life, something at which she has not always thrived.

When I found out my mom was possibly ill (she was in the hospital with fluid in her lung), I hopped a plane to Philadelphia. I thought, “this is likely nothing, a bit of pneumonia, maybe TB.” By the time my plane landed, my brother called me to say, “It’s cancer.” It felt like a rock was dropped on my chest. And my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I was flattened. Lung cancer. She would die. People don’t live from that. When I was a teenager, I had a close adult friend – my hairdresser during my competing days – who died of lung cancer at the age of 39, the same age as I am now. Lung cancer is a death sentence. My mother is going to die, I thought. I didn’t think, I knew. I knew I’d have to make the most of the year or so we had left. I’d move to Philly, spend every waking moment with her, enjoying, repairing past grievances.

By the time I got to the hospital, the doctor said it was a late stage cancer. They likely wouldn’t treat it, other than to ease her pain. What? How could this be? Our year wasn’t even going to happen, the year I’d come to treasure in the short car ride from the airport to the hospital. It must be my fault. I’ve been a horrible person. I’ve been so caught up with work – obsessed – in the past year, that I am being taught a lesson about what really matters. I’ve given this horrible disease to my mother because I am an awful, disgusting person. I was short of breath with this realization that I shared with my husband as my mom slept fitfully, knocked sideways by truckloads of meds.

“This isn’t about you,” he said. I laid with her the rest of the night, in her hospital bed. Head on her shoulder, while tears streamed down her face, my face, soaking the pillow.

Liat was one of the first people I called for advice. Her dad was in the throes of his disease, very near death. They’d given up hope that he might live, had moved through that phase into making peace with dying. She gave me advice about cancer centers, homeopathic treatments, yoga. Another friend - a doctor - whose dad had had cancer five years earlier offered advice on books (Bernie Siegel) and alternative treatments if chemo wasn’t prescribed.

And there were others: Karen K, the mother of a friend who’d survived cancer years earlier, offered weekly emails of love and support. Total strangers, on-line, shared their stories, treatment approaches, feelings about losing a loved one. It all helped.

Meredith and I became friendly when I returned to work, after seeing my mother through her surgery. The cancer turned out to be not quite as far along as they’d assumed; it hadn’t yet spread to her other lung, making her a viable candidate for surgery and chemo and radiation. Meredith reached out to me about a job, but we bonded over having a sick mom. Over having felt to blame, having felt the shameful need to maintain some sort of life outside a parent’s illness, over how to best care for our moms whom we love deeply, over our compulsive over-achieving natures. Many months later, we are still friends. Building a tentative closeness based on the horror of losing someone (in my case contemplating losing someone) that we love.

I am so grateful that people are willing to share their stories. Whether on-line or with me in person. They are generous givers, willing to reveal their darkest and, at times, most selfish moments. I felt less alone in my parents’ basement, unable to sleep, for the two months I stayed in Philly nursing my mom back to physical and emotional stability, when I trolled the cancer bulletin boards, blogs and support groups. I felt I should’ve been handling this better, but I wasn’t. As a nearly 40 year old woman, shouldn’t I have known this was coming? Shouldn’t I have been prepared? And yet, I had not predicted this nor was I prepared to deal with the imminent loss of a parent, one who I’d had a contentious relationship with throughout my teens and twenties, wasted years now shaded with unbearable guilt. I was grown, old, some might say, and had enjoyed a lifetime with my mom. How greedy and selfish was I to be rendered helplessly catatonic with four decades of mom-time under my belt? What, did I think I should have a mom AND a dad forever? And, with my mom in such emotional distress, how could I even contemplate leaving, going home to my family because I missed my children. I was torn up with contradictions.

Through others sharing their stories, I realized it is never easy to lose a parent. It’s a cliché, I know. But talking with others in my situation made me feel so much less alone. I didn’t feel less unique or sad, I felt more understood, more loved. More a part of the human race.

Sharing personal experience of any kind can serve this purpose. I gobble up memoirs about addiction, though I’m not and never have been an addict. But these former addicts share horrific truths about themselves – self-loathing that leads them down unimaginable paths. I read them not with ‘There but for the grace of God…” gratefulness, rather with heartfelt empathy. They hurt too. We are the same.

I am especially moved when people share ugly, vile stories about themselves or things that cause them shame. When they are unkind, selfish, mean or weak. We all are sometimes, I’d venture. The guilt that can take over upon realizing we’ve behaved badly or without the strength expected of us, can be all consuming. Prompting even more self-indulgent behavior (what is guilt, if not self-indulgence?). But hearing from others, sharing in experience, helps one to move on with it. It happened, I did it, I feel it. But so did she. Or he. I can keep going. I will keep going. In fact, I will share my experience without shame or embarrassment or guilt or fear. I will share. The good, the bad, the humiliating, the shameful. I will share.

Thanks Meredith. Thanks Liat. For sharing with me.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

From the peanut gallery

I wanted to share some of the letters and emails I’ve received from total strangers both in support of and against the book (or me, or my films, as the case may be). I’ve been so moved by the endorsements and, of course, hurt by those more negative. Truthfully, some notes have brought forth tears. And I don't say this seeking sympathy. It's just true.

But I am learning to have a thick skin. Thicker, anyway. I need to get over being an approval seeker. Don't I? It's hard! It's who I am, how I've always been. 39 years!! It kind of works for me. Alas, the fact that all the supportive notes – which outweigh the negatives by about 10 to 1 - have been enough to pull me from the self-flagellation and melancholy and panic inevitable when being verbally assaulted is proof I'm not really over needing approval afterall.

Perhaps I have to live with being an approval-seeking, pathetic, needy, competitive wife/mom/professional/ex-gymnast/daughter and all around neurotic. And, in addition to these afflictions, apparently I have a disease called trichotillomania. I got a letter about this after describing the finger picking on NPR. My "nervous habit" isn't a straight up nervous habit afterall. It's a disease. Excellent.

Here goes:

1) Jen~ I found your book to be a total page-turner. Couldn't put it down. I am your age (or close enough) and have always been a fan of gymnastics. My younger daughter competes now. I found myself checking myself quite a bit while reading your book. I think it would be very easy to get sucked in.

2) You have so many people having your have NO idea how many people are supporting you. Don't let those dicklicks from youtube get you down.

3) Hi, Jennifer. I just finished reading your book and I wanted to THANK YOU so much for writing it. As a former elite gymnast, I could pretty much relate 100% to every single feeling you described...even though I finally quit gymnastics almost three years ago, I can remember everything like it was yesterday. Your story made me cry, especially because it reminds me of mine in a lot of ways. Again, thanks a million. You were a beautiful gymnast, BTW =)

4) You are such an inspiration and NOT a pathetic liar. It was and IS no secret what assholes your coaches were … screw the people who are giving you crap. Like I said before, You are a great mom. That's all that matters! :)

5) I just finished your book this morning while riding the 24 to Levi’s Plaza from Marin. I sat there crying on the bus – true, I’m 12 weeks pregnant so my hormones are playing a role, but I was really moved by your story. I only competed at the Class III level, but even I endured weigh-ins, many hours a week in practice, and lasting body-image stuff as a result of gymnastics. I also know that I have an incredible work ethic and self confidence because of the sport. I too dream of gymnastics often. I went to competitive diving after injury but it never filled the hole. Then marathon running, which my body is just not made for. I still look for something to take its place and yoga is as close as I’ve come (although, of course, I bring ego and competition to the studio, which is kind of beside the point...).

6) I just finished your book. I was a gymnast in the 80’s, early 90’s. I finished as a low level 10. I experienced a lot of what you did. I’ve been reading your blog and seeing the people attack you for your experience and wonder where these people are. This stuff even happens at the lower levels. My mom took me to weight watchers at 14 when I was 5-7 and 110. I think her real problem was that I’d gotten too tall for gymnastics. Unfortunately you can’t lose height!
Thank you for writing it. I’ve been struggling most of my life with aspects of my personality and never understood where they came from and what to do with them. Upon reading your book I understood. I accept nothing but the best and beat myself up if things aren’t perfect.

7) Just wanted to take the time to tell you how much I enjoyed your book. I'm old gymnast who never quite stood out but just always loved gymnastics. I think most negative reactions are from those who haven't yet read it.

8) Reading your book brought back so many memories. I felt like I lived through so many of the exact situations that you experienced… Again, thanks for being so truthful about the sport and all of the “players” that surround it. (this one was from a former Olympian via email. That helped.)

And now for the other side of the story. And some of these were in response to my short film The Gymnast on youtube. But I’d hazard a guess that many critical of the film, are upset by the book and blurring the line between the two (one was fictional, one is memoir). I'm giving equal play to the critical and the non-critical. For fairness' sake.

1) sounds like it was written by someone who has no idea about gymnastics, and then I look and it's by a formal national champion. Talking about how the girl still "survived" gymnastics. I'm sorry but I think you're overdramatic along with your first blog post on your blog. oh PS: a lot of kids do know what they want when they are young, don't generalize because you were nieve

2) Jennifer Sey lies in her book shes nothing but a big fat lier

3) Oh believe me her book bassically makes her look like a spoiled brat who acts like her parents forced her to do all this stuff in which they didnt she wanted to

4) that was the dumbest thing I've ever seen. I hope her book isn't as stupid as this crap, I just bought it.

5) I think that this was horrible. Why do you need to blam others for your life? Can't take responsibility?

6) This book is gymnastics' version of "A Million Little Pieces."

7) Jennifer Sey is a liar by any definition of the word. Even if every word in her book is true as she remembers it. (And that’s been contested by some of her teammates from the time.) If you disagree with me, buy her book. If not, encourage everyone you know to boycott Chalked Up. You can read it, but don’t purchase even one more copy. If Jennifer Sey wanted to exorcise demons from over 20-years-ago as a memoir, she could have done it on her blog. That she chose to release an inflammatory book in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics smacks of opportunism.

8) … it is ironic that Sey was probably the winner of the worst USA Championships ever. Then she drifted into obscurity.I still remember watching 86 USAs, wondering how US gymnastics got that bad since the 84 Olympics. Everyone was awful. The commentators couldn't even get excited about Sey's performance.I don't think USAG even posts the results in their archives.And now she's back...with a book. It's right before the Olympics and right in the middle of USAG being thrust into the media spotlight for allegedly harboring child abusers. I may read the book...just to give her a chance...but the first thing I thought of when I heard that a new dramatic gymnastics biography was coming out, I thought, "Oh...HER??? How dramatic can that be?"

So that’s a short summary of the good and the bad. No analysis required.