Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Nervous Nationals

Lately, I feel like popping an antacid before I sit down to watch a gymnastics competition and it has nothing to do with anything I ate. These days, watching the sport is sort of like riding a rollercoaster, except that on an amusement park ride, you can be pretty sure that no one is going to fall off.

The 2007 Visa Gymnastics Championships featured more spills than I cared to count. And it wasn’t just the attempts at big acrobatics that made my heart leap up into my throat. The little ones- turns and jumps on the beam, kips and transitions on the uneven bars, even dancing into a corner on floor exercise- imperiled my poor stomach. Nearly everyone was struggling with the most basic movements.

Perhaps this is why I (and many others) have grown fond of Shawn Johnson, the fifteen year old gymnast who just a week ago routed the entire women’s field by more than three points to become the new national champion. Not only is she adorable (God forgive me for liking the Middle America little girl with the big smile and even bigger dream- it’s so unoriginal) but she’s consistent on even the most difficult skills. She feels like a throwback to a time when gymnasts could be counted on to hit more often than not.

No, I’m not in my sixties or seventies waxing nostalgic for a time when female gymnasts were little more than glorified ballerinas. The athletes I grew up watching were Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, Gina Gogean and Lilia Podkapayeva. These were gymnasts you could you set your watch by. I used to be able to sit back on the couch and let my eyes settle lazily on the screen and just not worry. They weren’t going to fall. And they usually didn’t.

In fact, their misses were so rare that I can recall the vivid horror that accompanied each one. I remember when Kimbo fell off compulsory balance beam during the 1992 Olympics. I was nine and ran into the kitchen. My mother had to retrieve me fifteen minutes later when NBC finally stopped showing the tragedy in slow motion. Similarly, Shannon Miller’s three fall beam set at the following year’s world championships was excruciating to sit through (I hid behind the couch pillows as it played) and though that competition was part of my tape collection and had been watched so often that it began to warp, I’ve still haven’t seen the routine not obscured by upholstery. (Thank God for the fast-forward button).

So, what has happened to today’s gymnasts? Why can’t most of them finish a routine without a fall or a significant wobble? Explanations abound, especially on the internet message boards where diehard gymnastics fans gather to discuss their rarely broadcast sport. The abolition of compulsory exercises, which until 1996 forced the gymnasts to perfect relatively simple (for them) basics, is frequently blamed for the problems the athletes have been having with easier elements. Also, the new scoring system, which has rid gymnastics of that pesky “10” that made the sport so famous, is unpopular with fans and coaches alike since it requires the gymnast to throw in the proverbial kitchen sink when it comes to difficulty. Routines have become a series of tricks and most of them sloppily chucked.

Amidst all of the outrage, a few devil’s advocate sort of questions have gone unasked. Namely, should I feel comfortable while watching gymnastics or any sporting event? After all, we’re talking about competitions, not theater or Broadway shows, where mistakes should be an anomaly and viewers generally get what they pay for. Gymnastics should thrilling, edge of your seat stuff and part of that excitement comes from wondering and worrying whether an athlete will hit. So what if they seem to be missing more than sticking? Should it matter that the margins of victory have grown wider and that falls, not wobbles separate gold from silver? And is this even bad for the future of the sport?

Obviously, the answers, like the judging, are subjective, and at least one person (Bruno Grandi, president of the International Gymnastics Federation) likes the new system. And maybe I am getting old (I’ve already crossed over the demographic line separating MTV and VH1), but I know what I want to watch- artistically composed, flawlessly executed routines, which are quickly becoming artifacts. I can see myself, twenty years from now, watching gymnastics with my own children and talking about the how things were back in my day in very much the same way that my own grandfather spoke about walking to school in inclement weather. I’ll ignore their eye rolling and grind a couple of Tums to chalk, hoping to calm the nerves that show no signs of abating.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Now, this is artistry!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Excerpt from "A Very Thin Line"

I did gymnastics for over a decade and from the very start, my favorite apparatus was the balance beam. Navigating this narrow piece of equipment felt normal from the first time I mounted. I was only eight but not new to walking a line. I had been raised as an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn and hell, it had required quite a bit of balancing to even enroll in a class. I had to find one that wasn’t held on the Jewish Sabbath, which was no easy feat since most gyms are closed on Sundays. Also, the class had to be gender segregated and the coach, female. Ideally, the whole place needed to be female but my mother was flexible on that point. And let’s not forget- it also had to be cheap, which had nothing to do with Orthodox Judaism and everything to do with the realities of being raised by a public school teaching single mother.

The gym my mother and I found was nothing like the cathedrals to the sport that I had seen on television. Those gyms were the size of airport hangars and carpeted from wall to wall with soft blue mats. They had rows of balance beams, several sets of uneven bars, trampolines, deep pits of loose foam blocks and a variety of primary colored training aids lying about. Located in the basement of the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center, the place that I went to religiously every Sunday morning for over seven years was more like a shtiebel. Like the small, cramped home basements across Brooklyn that host Orthodox Jewish services every Friday night and Saturday morning in honor of the Sabbath, the gym I practiced in was too small for its intended purpose. Instead of the standard seventy-foot vault runway, ours was roughly half the length. The post-flight area was also too small, which meant that if your block off the horse was at all powerful, you’d fly into the beige stone wall and exposed piping behind the apparatus. We usually lined that wall with a thick blue mat just in case, but this rarely happened. The vault springboard was missing a couple of coils, which kept us from flying too high or far.

I never witnessed any religious activity take place during my seven years at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center. The more than life-size brass menorah that stood in the center of a large outdoor balcony was never lit, not even during Chanukah. Next to the menorah, there was a huge sign urging congregants to "Buy your tickets for the High Holy Days NOW!" It was up year round. A much smaller, barely noticeable sign next to heavy wood doors told the real use of the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center. The International School for Music, Dance, Art & Sport was written in cursive on white poster board with an arrow directing you to the doors. The Russians who ran this enrichment program rented most of the building- nearly every room it seemed- from the Jewish center. Upon entering the dimly lit lobby, you heard the clank and clunk of the piano interrupted every few seconds so the ballet teacher could direct his pupils. The boardroom, which functioned as the headquarters of the operation, was draped in heavy maroon and smoke from the unfiltereds the Russian émigrés puffed away on despite the presence of several urgent “No Smoking” signs. It looked and smelled and felt like a gray afternoon at Brighton Beach.

Still, the first time I saw the place where I would be taking lessons, I was not at all disappointed. It felt comfortably old, sort of like stepping into a musty study crammed full of ancient Talmudic tomes with flaking bindings and the hum of Yiddish in the air. Except the gym vibrated not with Yiddish but with Russian, the language of gymnastics. A chalk residue clung to the decades-old pieces of gymnastics equipment. The suede coverings were peeling off the balance beams. The uneven bars hailed from Olga Korbut's heyday in the 1970s. It certainly was not what I had been expecting, but a gym, any gym was better than trying to learn new skills from the pictures and diagrams I had found in the only three gymnastics books the local public library carried. From them I learned how to do a straddle forward roll, a wobbly handstand, a front walkover and the rudiments of a back flip. The books also included instructional diagrams for cartwheels but I already knew how to do them. I can't remember my first cartwheel, though logically, I know there must have been one. I assume I wasn't born knowing how to do them. But it was kind of like walking- it felt too natural to have been learned at some point.

Out of the ten or so girls in my Sunday group, I befriended the two other Orthodox gymnasts, Elana Feldman and Evy Haas. They were a year older, nine to my eight, and they attended Prospect Park Yeshiva. I wrinkled my nose when they told me. "Don't you guys have to wear knee socks?" I asked. They nodded. I went to Shulamith School for Girls and although the school had instituted uniforms at the start of the third grade, we still could wear short socks and sneakers to class. The other girls' schools in Brooklyn weren't as lucky.

But on Sunday mornings, none of us wore knee socks. Sundays were our own private Sabbath, an hour and a half of physical exertion that felt more like a break than anything we experienced during the week. Nearly every school day, we sat in class from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. where we were taught a dual curriculum that included both Judaic and secular subjects. But on Sundays, we got to run and jump without being told to behave like a proper Daughter of Israel. Outside of the gym, we had to worry about covering our knees, collarbones and elbows. In the gym, we could wear anything we wanted as long as it permitted us to move safely and aggressively. I usually wore a black short sleeve leotard with leggings. Evy, a roundish girl, also dressed in muted tones. Elana, the star of our group, always stood out with her effortless execution and her fluorescent attire. Her favorite was a black unitard with large bright pink, blue and yellow polka dots.

Unlike our clothing, the rest of practice followed a strict regimen. All three of us were in Lisi Gonzales' group. She was a former New York State gymnastics champion and the scariest coach in the gym. The other coaches wore sweats. Lisi dressed in baseball caps, combat boots and fatigues. She didn't walk. She stomped. If we fell from an apparatus, she made us do pushups. If we complained that it was painful to sit in horizontal splits for five minutes, she made us do pushups. Saying the four lettered "can't" led to a pushup punishment for the entire group. Lisi expected us to be strong, tough, athletic and daring. For a yeshiva girl, this was unexpected, to say the least. We worshipped for her it.

But unlike the inscrutable God I learned about in school, Lisi gave clear and immediate feedback. Every time I completed a skill, I glanced at her. A nod or smile would make my day and sometimes she dispensed those. More often than not, she coupled her praise with a suggestion. "That was good," she'd say after a back handspring. "But you forgot to point your toes. Ten push ups."

Forgot. It's not like I forgot. I had pulled a back flip around to my feet, an act that required me to do the following: 1.Start with my arms raised above my head. 2. Swing my arms straight down as I bent my knees. 3. Explode backwards and upwards reaching for the mats. 4. Snap my legs around to the mats once they hit an upside down vertical. 5. Lift my chest and salute. So no, I hadn't forgotten. I was just preoccupied with other things. But I never brought this up to Lisi. I simply nodded and knelt down to the mats to complete my punishment.

I was not actually upset that I was forced to do additional upper body conditioning as penance for a seemingly minor infraction. I had watched enough gymnastics on television to understand how important the little stuff is- a bent knee, a slight balance check, a step back on landing. These little hiccups signaled a bigger problem- lack of control. It was not enough to squeak around a back flip. You couldn't just close your eyes and pray that your hands found the mat. Like a prophet, you were supposed to know the outcome before you even saluted.

So I went beyond my once a week practices and taped every single televised gymnastics event, which amounted to about two a year. I hoped that if I watched Olympic caliber gymnasts perform intricate and death defying moves, I would learn something I could apply to the simpler ones. I examined the routines on my gym tapes as closely as the international judges scrutinized a gymnast's pirouetting skills on the uneven bars. And it did help a little bit as I did my best to emulate Shannon Miller, an American gymnast renowned for her precise, clean form. But I also learned that there are formal rules and more than just the ones that Lisi had told us about. The Code of Points, updated at the start of every new Olympic cycle, is several hundred pages long and addresses everything from difficulty ratings of various skills to earring size and nail polish (small is the word for jewelry and though polish is not permitted, there is no limit placed on the amount of eye glitter a gymnast can wear). Nothing is too minor miss a mention. The judges (in this instance, the uneven bar judges), in addition to noting the obvious- major form breaks and falls from the apparatus- must decide if an athlete completed the 360 degree turn on her hands that she had planned within 10 degrees of a vertical handstand. If she finishes the spin outside of allowable range, she receives a deduction, which increases incrementally as the distance from the handstand widens. Understandably, it can be difficult to discern whether a pirouette was completed at 8 or 13 degrees (especially in the days before video replay), and so a judge's conference is held. They huddle around a table in their double-breasted blue blazers and badges to debate the finer distinctions of verticalness.

I always felt bad for that gymnast, looking up to her coach as she twitched nervously in her seat awaiting judgment. She had done her best. But I understood the judges' position and like the elite athletes that I studied on TV, I was also used to a system of rules that emphasized the details as much as the "big picture.” You see, to me that gathering of men and women in blazers could have just as easily been a bunch of black and yarmulke clad rabbis, who instead of dissecting the kosherness of a handstand, would be trying to ascertain the kosherness of a kitchen utensil. Instead of a gymnast in a Day Glo leotard, it would be a man in a black fedora under investigation, specifically his 10 quart soup pot. "My wife was making chicken soup," he'd say, "and trying to feed our three month old son at the same time."

"Mazel tov," the rabbis would interrupt.

"Thank you. So, she was giving the baby a bottle of formula when he pushed it out of her hand and the milk dripped into this pot." He'd set it before them and each of the three rabbis would examine it and pass it on, checking its size, its weight, its material makeup. They would have to decide if the pot, which had been used for cooking meat and poultry products was contaminated by the drops of dairy formula and therefore no longer kosher due to the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy.

"Was the pot hot at the time?" one of the rabbis would wonder aloud. The man would nod. The rabbis would murmur.

"How much formula fell in?" another would ask.

"A quarter of a cup maybe," he'd respond.

"Is this formula dairy?" the third would query.

"It's soy-based but I think that it has dairy particles in it." Some more nodding and murmuring and then finally a decision.

"We don’t think this is a case of batel b'shishim so you will have to immerse the pot in boiling water before you can use it again." Since the amount of milk that fell into in the scalding pot was more than a sixtieth of its total volume, it was no longer kosher and required purification. A few drops of milk, a few degrees- that's all it takes to make something imperfect.

Still, I usually regarded the gymnastics judges' strict scoring decisions as correct (unless applied to a beloved athlete). After all, the judges were the ones who doled out the first ten to Nadia Comaneci in ‘76 and were responsible for maintaining the sport's tradition of perfection. But the rabbis? I guess their task was actually similar- they were also trying to perpetuate a tradition of scrupulous, detailed adherence to Jewish law but I always felt they were being nitpicky. I mean, who cares if a little milk splashes in a meat pot? What difference does that make to God? I couldn’t think of a one. So though I generally followed the rabbis’ decisions, I didn’t really care, at least not as much as much as I cared about changes to the Code of Points. I had chosen gymnastics and so accepted the regimen and rules with pleasure. I wanted nothing more than to obey Lisi. I wanted to stay on the balance beam. I may have gone to synagogue every Shabbos but I just wanted to worship in the gym.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

My First Reading...



Writers from the critically acclaimed, Webby Award-nominated website Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood are reading every month at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction. The next event is Sunday, August 19.

Author and Open City Founding Editor Thomas Beller founded mrbellersneighborhood.com in 2000. The site publishes stories about New York City life that follow in the tradition of Joseph Mitchell and E.B. White—slices of life, portraits of memorable characters, scandalous encounters with public decadence and heartwarming displays of civil courage. Contributors are either famous, work in a variety of jobs and write out of a passion to express themselves, or both.

Readers on August 19 are Rebecca Chace, Saki Knafo, and Dvora Meyers. The host is Patrick Gallagher. The reading begins at 8:00 pm.

Rebecca Chace is the author of the books Capture the Flag: A Novel and Chautauqua Summer: Adventures of a Late-Twentieth-Century Vaudevillian and a Visiting Lecturer at Bard College.

Saki Knafo was born and raised in Brooklyn and is a staff writer for the New York Times City Section. He is working on a book about a flophouse in the near vicinity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dvora Meyers is an aficionado of gymnastics, and her writings on the topic have appeared in International Gymnastics. She is currently studying for her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at The New School.

Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction is located at 34 Avenue A between Second and Third Streets. The event is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

In the Company of Women

My home. My school. The gym. What these three places had in common (aside from being frequently visited by yours truly) was that they were all almost entirely single gender, all-female environments. At home, there was just me, my mother and my sister. And at the school and gym, with the exception of a few men in supervisorial and authoritative roles, the students/athletes and the teachers/coaches were all women.

It wasn’t always that way. Before I enrolled in kindergarten at an all-girls’ yeshiva in Brooklyn, I attended coed playgroups, day camps and nurseries. During those years, I had more than one boyfriend. First, there was Scotty Ginsberg, a gap-toothed redheaded little boy with a lisp. His mother used to pick us up from nursery and we’d spend all afternoon playing with Transformers (I never really enjoyed this particular toy or game but Scotty always insisted so I gave in. Thinking back, I suspect that I liked him more than he liked me. A very early start to an upsetting trend.) The other lucky guy was Adam, a quiet boy whose tongue was always hanging out of his mouth as though there wasn’t enough room for it to fit behind his teeth and lips. This led to a persistent drool. Adam followed me around, never once wavering in his affection for me so I hit him (and often) with a plastic bat. But after nursery, my mother enrolled me in the same school my older sister was then attending, a girls’ school in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, which effectively cut off my contact with the opposite sex. (Of course, I didn’t realize this at the time but the memory of Adam and Scotty was going to have to last me through the end of high school.)

Once ensconced in skirts and girls, I didn’t really miss the boys nor did I view my seclusion from men as anything out of the ordinary, at least not when it came to school. (The absence of my father was an entirely different matter- I was one of only two students in my class at an all-girls Brooklyn yeshiva whose parents were divorced.) It was actually quite liberating. My classmates and I were able to swing upside down from the monkey bars, our green and plaid pleated uniform skirts obscuring our faces (but not our underwear) from view without fear of taunting. We roughhoused through the narrow corridors, pulling on each other’s ponytails like little schoolboys with a crush. We engaged in ferocious games of dodgeball, lobbing balls to decapitate digits and other more significant body parts. We played in the unmerciful manner of the boys that in our religious law classes, we were continually reminded that we weren’t.

It was in those classes, which increased in both number and duration as we got older that we learned how at least part of our future would look. We were destined to be wives and mothers of Jewish children and though we had several years until we would be ready for either, the preparation had already begun. We were instructed to dress modestly both in school and out. Of the 613 commandments and their countless derivatives, we learned that we were not obligated to perform the time bound commandments, mitzvoth aseh sh’hazman gramah. “Can you tell a screaming baby, ‘Sorry, but I can’t feed you now. I’ve got to go daven minchah before it gets dark.’?” one teacher asked. We all shook our heads. That sounded absolutely ridiculous. Another rabbi queried, “If Hashem wanted men and women to do the same things then why did He create two different sexes?” That last question was the discussion killer. None of us could successfully argue why God would create two genders and not distinguish between them by making one aggressive and one nurturing, one public and one private, one superior and one subordinate.

The “girls only/girls are different” message was partially reinforced in the gym. Gymnastics lessons, which I had begun at the age of eight (at my insistence, not my mother’s) were segregated for a more straightforwardly practical reason- men and women perform on different apparatuses. The men have six events- the floor exercise, rings, pommel horse, vault, parallel bars and high bar- to the women’s four- just the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. (For the reason why men do not perform on the balance, see an earlier blog post). Just like with the freedom from positive commandments, I never really complained that I didn’t have to learn how to swing the pommels or grit out planches and iron crosses on the rings. But the basis for this distinction- that men possess more upper body strength then women- never sat comfortably with me, probably because I felt that it was true as much as it was untrue. I knew that elite male gymnasts performed more difficult tumbling skills than the women on the floor exercise. They competed more spectular and strenuous release moves on the bars. But I also knew that I could do chin-ups with perfect form. I ran faster than my downstairs neighbor, Chris Pomerico, though he was a year older and several inches taller. And during conditioning, me and my fellow females sweated through long sets of pushups- and not the so-called "girly" kind. We were girls but tougher. And when we were segregated, we could be the boys, too.