Thursday, January 31, 2013

Politics, Sports, and Vera Caslavska

I just returned from a taping of W. Kamau Bell's FX show, Totally Biased (if you haven't heard of him, look up the show and his standup--he's hilarious), where his guest was Dave Zirin, a sports writer who focuses on the intersection of athletics, culture and politics. Zirin cited past figures such as Mohammed Ali, who famously dodged the Vietnam draft, and Billie Jean King who played in "The Battle of the Sexes," as sports icons who played a part in the cultural/political landscape.

As I watched this interview, I thought back to Faster, Higher, Stronger the BBC documentary about Olympic gymnastics that I watched last week and the story of Vera Caslavska.

As many gym fans know, Caslavska was a star from Czechoslovakia in the 60s who deposed the Soviets. But as the documentary shows, she was an adult (this was four years before Olga Korbut forever changed the age and stature of female gymnasts) who was not easily pushed around. She had supported a reformer that the Soviets opposed and had to go into hiding after the USSR invaded her country. And at the 1968 Olympic Games, the Soviets used its influence to keep Caslavska from winning the gold outright. Instead, she "tied" with a Soviet gymnast.

As the Soviet national anthem played, Caslavska looked down and away as a protest.

(The protest happens around 17:07.)

As I watched this documentary, I was moved. Typically, gymnasts are pawns, not agents and actors in global political dramas. Olga Korbut was flown around the globe as part of the Soviet propaganda machine. Chinese gymnasts have their ages falsified so they can compete younger and I doubt it is their idea to do so. But in Caslvaska, you have an adult with political beliefs who stands up for them in a public (albeit subtle) way, and unfortunately pays a hefty price for this.

And that is one of the potential benefits to having gymnasts compete older. I don't necessarily believe an older gymnast is more artistic. But I would like to see what grown ups with their own beliefs are able to accomplish using the cultural platform that sports affords them.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Aly Raisman--YouTube Web Series Host

Now that the second post-Olympic tour has been cancelled, Aly Raisman has time to host her own YouTube show, "Flippin' Awesome with Aly Raisman." In these short, approximately four minutes, videos, Raisman (presumably) selects videos and discusses them.

Most of the videos shown are of gymnasts and it's nice to see some lower level high school athletes get their due. But I gotta quibble with the first clip shown as an example of a stuck landing, which it clearly wasn't. Raisman has to know this. There must've been a hundred other routines on the web this week with better sticks than that. (Unless the videos are only selected from the pool of those submitted.)

It'll be interesting to see how this develops--I would like to see a bit more personality and levity in the presentation. (And judging from the tour bus video, we know that this girl has a lot of personality.)

(h/t Gymnastics Coaching)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Author of my teenage angst turns 45

Today Sarah McLachlan turned 45 today, which makes feel really old. The troubadour of all my teenage misery is middle aged (but still pretty hot). Her CDs were basically all I listened to age 13-17. I used to lay down in the dark in the basement and play them in my discman (!), a single tear rolling down my cheek. Sometimes when I was in a more optimistic mood, I'd run on the treadmill, listening to "Building a Mystery."

Today, when I learned about her McLachlan's birthday, I did a little math. I realized that she was 30 (!) when she was singing directly to my angsty 15-year old self. This means that despite being 30 now, I can still write and act out all of adolescent angst, hopefully for the enjoyment of other teens (and adults who think like teens).

Happy Birthday Sarah!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Orthodoxy, Divorce, and Children

Yesterday over at Jewcy, my latest installment of my "Ballabuster" column discussed the possible religious fallout for Jewish kids who've gone through a divorce. I wrote this in response to a recently published study of Christian kids that suggested that after a divorce, they experienced decreased levels of religious engagement and church attendance.

I have given my parents own divorce and its impact on my own Judaism a lot of thought over the years. I wondered if my religious trajectory had any impact at all on my experience of Orthodoxy. The short answer--yes, it did.

This wouldn't surprise the countless teachers who talked about kids damaged by divorce and their resultant "rebellious" behavior. Though as I sat in class, listening to them to describe "me" (though I was by no means transgressive), I became progressively angrier. What I heard, between the lines, is that far from being a salve for hurt, Orthodoxy was only useful for people with undisturbed childhoods.

But as I got older, I saw it as the other way around. Divorce, broken relationships, hurt--they're all part of the human condition. They're not going to disappear anytime soon no matter how strenuously we tell people to behave. A religious tradition that can't withstand very human events and help people endure and thrive is the problem. Furthermore, I credit my parents divorce for being able to see the damage, not just within myself, but in the community in general:

I think of divorce as a storm that not only causes its own damage but also reveals other problems lurking beneath the surface. It’s sort of like what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (and before that, Katrina), when the existing poverty of the hardest hit, most underserved areas is exposed. The storms didn’t cause poverty; they simply highlighted the problem. In Judaism, divorce definitely isn’t the cause of gender inequality—but in my experience, it made its existence all the more glaring. 

You can read the rest here.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Gymnastics and Abortion

Erin Gloria Ryan over at Jezebel (who did a fantastic job editing my "Russian diva" piece over the summer) is clearly trying to woo me. Today, she published this paragraph about a Catholic hospital's attempt to have it both ways--and by that I mean continue to assert that fetuses are subhuman for the purposes of a lawsuit while denying emergency contraception and range of abortion services to female patients. She writes:

The Catholic Church has long been the Nadia Comaneci of mental gymnastics, but a new lawsuit where a Catholic-run hospital claims that fetuses aren't people with any legal rights sets a new standard for a triple twisting double-WTF logical dismount. Even Elfie Schlegel would be forced to abandon her perpetual stinkface and applaud.

I love this paragraph so much I want, to use a Tracy Jordan-ism, to take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant. (And then possibly abort the baby. I mean, fetus. Catholic healthcare system--which is it???) 

A note about a triple twisting double dismount. During our Gymcastic interview, we asked Jonathan Horton about his famed triple twisting double flyaway off of high bar and he said that he no longer has the endurance to do it at the end of a release-heavy routine. It seems that it takes the hypocrisy of Catholic healthcare system to muster the right amount of endurance for this sort of maneuver.

You can read the rest of the post here

My Pork Memoir

Today over at Jeff Yoskowitz's site Pork Memoirs, I have a short personal story that mixes sex and food. In tales of rebellion, it's about what I will do (have sex) and what I won't do (eat porcine products). So it's not really "food porn" strictly speaking, but it's in the ballpark.

It also contains perhaps my favorite first sentence that I have ever written for an essay. It goes something like this:

We were walking down the street on our way to the pharmacy to pick up condoms when the whiff of spicy Los Angeles street meat hit us.

It gets goes in a predictable yet fun direction after that point. Read the rest here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Older Mothers, Younger Daughters

Today at Slate, I published an essay that I had been writing in my head for at least a year. It's about my relationship with my mother and my experiences of being a twentysomething and dealing with my aging mother's declining health and ability to care for herself. She had me at 42, which is still relatively advanced for childbearing (though without the aid of any drugs or fertility treatments), which makes her a lot older than my peers' parents. Throughout most of my childhood, her was nothin' but a number (as Aaliyah sang). She seemed as energetic and "with it" as my friends' parents if a little more wrinkled.

I'm very close to my mother, having been raised solely by her since the age of 6. We have a fairly intense relationship and have each relied heavily on one another over the years, especially after my sister married. We became each other's support network. This fact has made her aging process all the more difficult. She relies heavily on me and I fill ill-equipped to deal with it all. For the longest time, she has been "it" for me, the one person who has always had my back and even though she is still there for me, it's not quite the same.

I recognize (and worry) that this sort of story might be used in the "having it all" anti-feminist discussion. The reason my piece is about my mother and not my father is because he left when I was seven. Though he is even older than my mother, I don't feel the same sort of affection and responsibility to him. This would never be a story I could ever write about him.

In an earlier draft of the essay, I wrote the following, which got cut due to word count concerns:

I don’t want to add to the women blaming literature on the subject. And this topic really shouldn’t be gendered at all. In considering the decline of older parents, we actually find ourselves in egalitarian terrain. This is not about age of eggs or the ticking of the biological clock, but about the mortality clock, which runs out on both fathers and mothers at roughly the same time, if a couple years sooner for men.

Anyway, while most of my stories contain some humor or snark, I really don't find any part of this experience to be amusing. It has been quietly and deeply devastating. But writing this story has definitely helped me feel better and put things in perspective.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Public Freak Out At Turning 30

Today over at Jewcy, my second official "BallaBuster" column revolves my upcoming 30th birthday. I was never fearful of the Mayan apocalypse--I never thought that was the end. The 18th will be the end.

Okay, I'm mostly kidding and being over-dramatic, which shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me or reads this blog with any sort of regularity. But this birthday has been looming in my mind for at least four months. So much so that I decided to make my Jewcy column about it. (If you've got a public platform, use it project your irrationality onto the masses, right?)

But the story isn't about how I'm getting wrinkles (not too bad on that front) or how I'm single or any of that ish. It's about one of the things that actually pleases me about turning 30--namely, that I can't really be called a "rebel" anymore. Not that I ever really thought of myself that way unless the term has been redefined to mean "carefully thinking out all of the options and making slow, considered decisions before taking any sort of action." You know, that sort of rebellion.

Anyway, so I'll very shortly turn 30 whether I like it or not. And if the coming years will mean arthritis (already got a little of that--thanks scoliosis, spinal fusion, and years of gymnastics!) at least it will mean the end of "My So-Called Rebellion." (TV development execs--call me!)

Read the column here.

"Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" author Joan Ryan on Gymcastic

Waking up early on a Saturday can be difficult at times but this weekend, I sprang out of bed (or mattress, really, since I'm crashing at a friend's place while I bum around LA). I was pretty excited to interview Joan Ryan, author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, a journalistic account of abusive training methods

For you young ones who weren't around when Little Girls was originally published, this book was a big deal back in the mid-90s. It spawned countless articles, an episode of Oprah and even a made-for-TV movie. It also incited the wrath of gymnastics fans, coaches, gymnastics, officials, etc. who all felt that the accounts were one sided, untrue, unfair. But the thread running throughout the critiques was this--the book made gymnastics look bad.

Hell yeah it did and deservedly so if you ask me, especially since the accounts in the book were true.

While it is true that the book was one sided--it didn't talk about the benefits of the sport or the thousands of happy experiences young girls have with it--all of the stories were true. Ryan was not hired to do PR for the sport or make it look good. Her angle was the abusive excesses of the system (and as our Gymcastic interview indicates, she didn't begin the project with that sort of agenda--the evidence sort of mounted as she went along.) While it may not have been representative of everyone's elite experience, she focused on the top group and on the most famous coaches and athletes. She didn't exactly have to look too hard for subjects or stories.

So why did the gymnastics community react so vehemently and negatively against this book and Ms. Ryan if she was being truthful and doing what a thousand journalists before her have done?

I think it has to do with how small, insular communities handle criticism that comes from without. I come from the Orthodox community and I witnessed firsthand how criticism of Orthodox Jews was handled when it was made from the outside--it was immediately delegitimized. And the primary concern was never addressing the critique but worrying about how it made us look to others. We're presently seeing it as the ultra-Orthodox are grappling with their child molestation scandals. You don't hear much concern about the victims or acknowledgement of the problem. And even if the problem is acknowledged, it's with the caveat that it's not as bad as they're making it seem.  I've even read complaints from Hasidim who wonder why the media can't write articles about the nice things they do. They're also upset about a "one sided" portrayal of their community.

I'm not equating the child molestation in Orthodox communities with extreme coaching techniques and eating disorders in gymnastics. My comments pertain to how small, relatively insular groups handle their scandals. Both groups are especially sensitive to how they're portrayed because they are so rarely given major press attention. They react to very real, very necessary, very legitimate criticism by turning away from the substance of the critique and making it about image. But PR isn't the problem in either case. Even if they are making you look bad, that's not your biggest problem. The fact that there is abuse, eating disorders, and injuries is the real problem.

Anyway, we didn't discuss any of that with Ms. Ryan. I didn't want to drag yet another person into my discussion of how Judaism and gymnastics share common ground. Even I'm starting to get bored of this.

Regardless of how you felt about the book at the time, you should listen to our interview with her. (And by the way--I hated it as a kid cause it constituted a direct assault on the thing I loved most. But then I grew up.) Ryan was really great to talk to. One of my favorite moments was when Ryan said that Bela Karolyi denied ever being interviewed. Of course, Ryan had notes and recordings from that session so it was a ludicrous assertion for him to make. As a journalist, I've had that experience too. A subject calls or emails me to either tell me that he/she didn't say it or that it had been off the record. I record the vast majority of my interviews and I do my very best to be fair and accurate. In these situations, I merely invite the complaining subject to listen to the recording if he/she chooses to see if I went wrong or had included something I said would be off the record. It generally never gets to that point.

Also an interesting point to come out in the after-interview discussion was the impact of the 2000 Olympic team on USA Gymnastics. 1999-2000 and the Sydney Games marked the end of Bela Karolyi's relevance on the gymnastics scene. (Now he's trotted out by NBC and Bob Costas once every four years to be exuberant and incomprehensible.) And that group was one of the first to complain about unfairness while still being in the system rather than waiting till they were years past it, especially someone like Jamie Dantzscher who called out Karolyi on his treatment of the team in the media. I'm impressed than an 18-year-old was able to stand up to him when so many coaches and other adults in the past were unable to do so.

Check out the whole episode here.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Gymcastic in 2013

So it's the first Gymcastic episode of 2013, which was actually recorded in 2013--not that this matters. I'm sure were all so drunk on New Year's that the two years sort of bled together as the transition took place.

This week we're guest free but handing out the all important end of the year awards, which are more prestigious than Worlds and Olympics combined.

Also be sure to fill out the listener survey so we do more of what you want and like and less of what you don't want in the coming year.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's ID

Last night, I was at New Year's party in Los Angeles, making my way to the door for some air when a girl stopped me. "Do I know you?" she asked. I looked at her for a moment and though she looked vaguely familiar, it could've been due to her Semitic feature (because don't we all  look alike?). "Are you from Maryland" she continued. I shook my head, but something about Maryland seemed to ring a bell. "What's your name?"

"Dvora," I said. And as I responded, it all clicked. This girl is the younger sister of one of my good friends from college.

"You're U.'s little sister, right?" I asked, feeling increasingly confident that I had correctly placed her.

"Yes! You were my fake ID!"

After I got my driver's license, I gave my college buddy my old learner's permit for his younger sister, not yet 21, which she used until she could legally get into bars on her own. And she dutifully memorized all of the info on my permit. Apparently, her friends even jokingly called her "Deb" after my legal name, Debra.

"Your birthday is in January, right?" she asked.

"Yes," I said sadly. "A big one is coming up. We're turning 30 this year."

Happy 2013 to everyone! May the year be filled with happiness, success, and a bunch of amazing unexpected little encounters!