Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Blogging for salon.com

Starting next week, I'll be writing about the Olympics for salon.com.
So blogs posts here on hold.
But please check it out...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Real Sports...for real?

This week I appeared in a piece on HBO’s “Real Sports” about injuries in women’s gymnastics. There was some coverage of the show in the LA Times. An excerpt:

There seems an element of sexism, though, when every four years, the Olympics come around -- and women's gymnastics and figure skating invariably are singled out as being particularly cruel sports.

Nose around youth baseball and check out the surgical scars on pitchers' elbows. Or women's high school and college basketball for the knee and shoulder surgical scars. Has Candace Parker, her coaches or family ever been criticized for letting her continue to play basketball after her knee injuries?

These girls may be tiny, but they also are driven athletes. Shawn Johnson would rather be in the gym than on the computer, would rather eat grilled fish than a Big Mac, and says "that's OK" if she ends up with aches and pain in 10 or 20 years. "So do football players," Johnson says. "Nobody stops them." -

Have you ever seen a professional football player 20 years after he’s stopped playing? Many can barely walk, some have premature senility due to brain pounding injuries. Maybe it isn’t a good thing that nobody stops these guys from bashing themselves to near death/brain damage. But, to refute the claim that anyone is stopping these girls, no one is. In point of fact, we hail them as heroes. They will be the most watched athletes in these Olympic Games. They will be our pint-sized idols, come this August, as they will likely garner piles and piles of medals. My intent is not to stop them, rather to point out that it is an incredibly dangerous sport in which devastating injuries can and do occur; that sometimes the cost for medals and for winning might be too high; that perhaps children aren’t equipped to determine whether or not that price is too high. Hard to conjure in our winning is everything culture. But let’s look beyond gymnastics or even sports for a moment. Look where ‘winning is everything’ has gotten the banks and lenders? They were so desperate to ‘win’, they issued sub-prime loans and won in the short term. And we all know what happened in the long run. They lost, as did we all.

I was injured quite often – a torn hamstring, broken ankle, another broken ankle, stress fractures in my shins and my wrists, bone chips in my ankle that required surgery and, my crowning achievement…a broken femur. I know more than a few that broke their backs, their necks, including my own brother. These former gymnasts are lucky they can walk today. And of course, I know a few that aren’t quite so lucky.

In this very dangerous sport, young girls are often taken advantage of by their coaches. These aren’t grown women. They are children. I began competing as an elite at 10 years old. I was in no position to tell a coach ‘no’ if something ludicrous was asked of me like returning to practices on a broken ankle after only ten day in an ‘air cast’, nothing more than a glorified bandage. This situation, the disparate power dynamic, creates the conditions whereby CHILDREN can – not always – but can be taken advantage of. These young ladies can serve as fodder for the Olympic dreams of coaches and parents. And parents claiming, “Its her decision. She wants this,” about a 9 year old is simply deflecting parental responsibility, in my opinion. A child has no concept of the potential future ramifications on her health and general well-being.

Regarding the oft hurled claim that it’s sexist to even call attention to the high injury rates and abusive coaching tactics in women’s gymnastics, what’s truly sexist is not pointing out that the sport eats its young. It would imply we believe our young girls are disposable and, secondly, not worthy of the financial windfalls their male counterparts are able to collect from being world-class athletes. Generally, these best in class gymnasts will not reap the financial benefits that their male counterparts in football, baseball, basketball will. Women’s athletics are largely unviable as commercial properties. And in every instance where female athletes do make money, it’s less than their male partners (NBA vs WNBA anyone?) I can probably count on one hand the number of female gymnasts who have made a killing in gymnastics. And that ‘killing’ likely can’t compare to a 2nd tier basketball player in the NBA. That’s sexist. Not pointing out that female gymnasts get hurt and sometimes their best interests aren’t looked out for by their coaches.

You want to know what else is sexist? That we like these girls because they are cute. They look pretty and perfectly petite therefore we watch. They aren’t threatening in their accomplishment because they are simply darling with their big smiles and springy ponytails. This is how we like our female stand-outs, whether they be politicians, business women or athletes. Other female athletes will demonstrate equal feats of physical incredible-ness at these Olympic Games. Female shot putters, basketball players, soft ballers. These athletes will defy expectations with their physical prowess but it is likely that none will garner the attention and love that our gymnasts do. Whether they win or not. There are exceptions. We fell in love with the Williams sisters and their tough, muscular physiques on the tennis court. Brandy Chastain was all power in her running bra and triumph. But it is my humble belief that these are the women we make exceptions for because they are so dynamic that they demand it. Liking little cute things comes much easier for us. That’s sexist.

And finally, I know young gymnsats will say it's okay to end up with aches and pains in 10 or 20 years, as Shawn Johnson indicates. And I’m proof that that is likely true. I don’t mind the way my body creaks. The way my ankles swell, my hips pop, my hands stiffen to the point that it is hard to hold a cup of coffee in the morning. But Ms. Johnson can’t know what she will be okay with 20 years from now. She doesn't know what will matter at 29 or 39 or 59. And whether or not this life she’s participating in now will give her great joy and pride, or physical pain and regret (likely not…especially if she wins the Olympics) in a few decades. And what about the girls who train the same way, who will suffer from the same arthritis-y aches and pains or more as adults, but don’t have a gold medal to justify the “it was worth it!”? How will they feel?

Dominique Moceanu has a gold medal and has suggested she might not go through it all again. I don’t have one and I say I would, even if I didn’t get a gold medal again next time. Fifteen years ago I said it wasn’t worth it, that I missed having a childhood, that it splintered my relationship with my parents beyond repair. Now, with age and perspective, I dispute that, taking a more ambivalent view. I have nightmares about the traumas but I miss the good parts everyday. It just not that simple as to say: “I won’t mind if my body hurts when I’m an adult." The body scars are the least of the issue, afterall.

I wish Shawn Johnson the best; I hope she wins all the gold medals and never has a moment of struggle in her post-gymnastics life. She seems impossibly talented, buoyant, charismatic and joyful. I’m merely saying that children can’t know what will be good for them later. We protect children in our culture in many ways – we don’t’ let them play in traffic, we make them go to school, we have child labor laws. Why is it okay to put these children to work? Because they say they like it? Or because they win?

And why (I know I said ‘finally’ above, implying I was nearly done…but allow me one more point) when we hold communism in such disdain, do we want to ‘cut and paste’ the model deployed in China of finding the most talented athletes at a very young age, honing their talents while still under 10, and springing them on the world as proof that their system is superior, gold medals serving as evidence of a country’s dominance? We don’t want all the stuff we think is bad about communism – lack of individual freedom and choice – in fact we’ve been willing to go to war over it, but we want to adopt the stuff we like, that involves winning, even if it also entails curtailed freedoms, albeit for 6 and 8 year olds?

Herein lies the hypocrisies of women’s elite gymnastics. Which, I daresay, are merely microcosmic examples of the world at large. As long as winning is a part of the process, we’ll do anything – sacrifice our young, our values, the culture of democracy we pride ourselves in – to get it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ha Ha

A few things that I find laughable.

1. In movies, TV shows and commercials that feature upper middle class to well-to-do married women, these betrothed ladies generally wear understated wedding bands. I’ve tracked it. According to broad reach media, 9 out of 10 women who have lots of money don’t like big honkin’ diamonds.

Their gold bands are rarely topped off with boastful, eye-shielding, bordering-on-tasteless engagement diamonds (unless they are supposed to be somewhat unlikable). Even though we know that nice women like those portrayed in the fictional dramas aspire to – and generally have – the biggest possible diamond they can afford. Or not afford. The biggest possible diamond they can convince their at the time husbands-to-be to take on as debt. And then have shipped to another state – to a friends’ or a mother-in-law’s – to avoid paying sales tax. They do this with a “we pay our taxes!” indignation, to which I say, “Not your sales tax, apparently.”

But the women in these media spectacles wear subtle gold bands because:

-Producers wouldn’t want them to appear gauche – though I suppose that’s what all the women who live in NY, SF, LA and many other places would qualify as with their hand-dragging diamonds that at least one African must have lost a few fingers over. Is there some irony here?

-We want these women to be relatable. Most women – while aspiring to a real knuckle-dragger – can hardly afford the miniscule, barely visible chip their fianc├ęs spring for at the local Wal-Mart or Shane Company.

We aspire to appear tasteful and un-greedy while signaling that we have lots of money and gigantic jewels. Or cars. Or homes. We don’t NEED them to feel superior. We just like them. Yeah right.

How about we all stop wanting great big shiny rocks (or cars, or homes) that De Beers (or BMW, or mortgage brokers) has convinced us we need to lay down 3 months salary for (more for the car and/or homes) and be as low-key as the pretend wives we see in movies and television commercials?

I’m not saying I’m there yet. I’m working on it. I’m just pointing out the irony.

2. People are upset about Jesse Jackson using the N-word. Really? You think black people don’t talk about other black people, not to mention white people, all people that are just a little less like them? Of course they do! We all do. I have an inside track here being in a mixed race family and hearing black people talk about white people and Jewish people talk about black people and on and on.

Just like religious people talk about how non-believers are heathens, liberal white people talk about “African Americans” (they say this with a barely audible hesitation, not sure what the appropriate terminology is these days; they want to use the respectful term when slandering…have we not yet realized that it doesn’t matter what you call ‘em, so long as you don’t say it with disdain?), gays talk about straights (‘breeders!’) and Jews talk about everyone including Schvartzes, Goyim and Shiksas. Please, white people – don’t act so ‘can you believe it?’ horrified because a black dude talks about the one black guy you like (because he ‘transcends race’ and ‘speaks so well!’) with a bit of antipathy. Not all black folks agree and like each other. Is that so shocking?

Really what we should all be asking ourselves is: why was Jesse on Fox News anyway? Is he so desperate for media attention after years left in the wings of American politics, that he was willing to sell his soul to Fox for a little air time? Apparently so.

3. Speaking of race, folks are also really upset about this New Yorker cover with Obama and his wife, Michelle, ‘fist bumping’; she sports a black pride afro the size of a beach ball in the style of what is intended to depict a ‘black militant’, he is depicted as a Muslim. I’m still trying to understand why people are upset with a magazine known for satirical cartoons for putting a satirical cartoon on its cover. It’s their stock in trade.

I suppose it’s anger inducing because these fancy over educated New Yorker editors are making fun of people who view this couple that way, who probably don’t read the magazine anyway so they wouldn’t have even known about it if it wasn’t telecast on every news channel known to mankind. Liberals are peeved because, they argue, regular old folks are gonna take this seriously. While they sip their over-priced lattes and carry their groceries in re-usable Whole Foods bags, these liberals say: We get it, of course, but all those poor under-educated Pentacostals…well, they won’t understand! Imagine this: when said Pentacostal is reading his New Yorker in the powder room, he’ll jam an index finger at the cover with “I knew it!” satisfaction. Oh wait a minute…he doesn’t get the New Yorker. He’ll be reading Field and Stream or Guns and Ammo or I love Jesus! on the can. So there’s nothing to worry about after all.

Are we really going to take up not very precious air-time, but time nonetheless, asking Barack about his thoughts and feelings on this cartoon? Yes, apparently we are. At least Barack put it all into perspective on Larry King:

“But you know what, it's a cartoon, Larry, and that's why we've got the First Amendment. And I think the American people are probably spending a little more time worrying about what's happening with the banking system and the housing market, and what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, than a cartoon. So I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it."

Let me be clear. I voted for Hilary. I am one of these latte-sipping liberals (I don’t actually drink lattes, because I hate milk. But I do carry my own reusable grocery bags and I am left of left of center) but I happened to prefer Hils. But, thanks to this man for calling a spade a spade. Bad analogy in this particular instance. My apologies. Thanks Barack, for telling it like it is, in this instance anyway. I’m comin’ around to your mojo.

4. Are people seriously opposed to gay marriage? How on earth is the fact that some guy in San Francisco (we’ll call him Bruce) who works as a casual pants merchant at Gap deciding to spend the rest of his life with his long time partner (we’ll call him Dan) who owns his own interior design firm and they together own a small ‘ranch’ in Petaluma where they grow organic vegetables (well, the local Mexican help does) and style the ‘barn’ to look like a page out of a Ralph Lauren store display…I lost track. Oh yes, how is the fact that these two lovely lads can tie the knot going to put an Oklahoma, Jesus-ordained, highly traditional ball and chain style marriage at risk? These two gents are committed to making the world a prettier place. Their ‘taste level’ beautifies Northern California, their commitment to each other rivals that of Hollywood’s latest ‘it’ couple. And they want what regular old folks have. The ability to commit to each other before their family and friends. And slink away in humiliation ten years later when it all falls apart.

Isn’t it more likely that a husband’s affair with his secretary or the fact that many hetero couples have sexless marriages (officially a ‘sexless’ marriage is sex 10 or fewer times per year) more likely to wreck the traditional union? I just don’t see how Bruce and Dan in Petaluma riding on matching miniature ponies is going to affect Doris and Bob in Tulsa. But then again, I never understood how the fact that Dan prefers to sex up people with parts that match his own was going to impact Doris.

In a few short years it will seem as ridiculous that gay people couldn’t get married once upon a time as it seems now that mixed race couples couldn’t get married just a few years ago. Of this, I’m sure.

Whew. I’ve gotten all my social/political/economic issues on the table.
I’m now going to go read the New Yorker, while wearing only a tasteful gold wedding band, before calling my gay newly married friends to congratulate them and see if they got my wedding gift of a top of the line espresso machine, before tuning in to Fox News for a little heart-pumping ‘know thine enemy’ before bedtime edutainment.