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The Secret Language of Sport

Getty Images: The Victorious US Women's Soccer Team

 

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions?

 

                     George Eliot, "Daniel Deronda"

 

 

Think of yourself as an athlete. I guarantee you it will change the way you walk, the way you work, and the decisions you make about leadership, teamwork, and success.

 

               

         Mariah Burton Nelson, National Council of Women's Organizations

 

 

I have just returned from a post-Thanksgiving 50-lap swim where I out-swam and out-paced three men to either side of me, and then sat in the sauna and had to listen to an all male conversation about marathons, hiking and climbing prowess. I was the only woman in the sauna, which is unusual, but I think these men had arrived in a male-bonding clutch after a run in the mountains. They seemed oblivious to my presence; I was not oblivious to theirs. I did insist that someone make room for me on the crowded benches after no one moved. After a day of cooking and cleaning-up, my body was craving the swim and the sauna, and I was not to be turned away because they—the male bonders—were taking up all the space. Chit chat chit chat. Then one man said he'd run in the Boston Marathon, and please excuse him for being politically incorrect, but he'd be damned if he could accept that men and women were allowed to compete in the same race. No one said a blessed word to contradict or correct this misogynist. And, for once, I didn't either. A day of relaxation requires remaining silent, right? But I could not stop the words that came into my writer's brain: devolution and disinhibition. In the not so long ago past, we had evolved; now we are in a devolution trajectory it seems. Certainly, in the not so long ago past, there was an understanding that we keep private hatreds private. Earlier this week, I heard someone refer to an accomplished woman athlete as a "tomboy." I haven't heard that word since—when—the 16th century?


I am an athlete. In high school, I was on the basketball team; we were not allowed to dribble. We had to stand and shoot. On the softball field, playing with the local boy athletes, I was allowed to hit--I was a slugger-- but not to run the bases. In the lake at day camp, I only raced against the girls. I was bored. At NYU in the pool my junior year, I only competed against young women, though I was faster than all of them. Eventually I joined the modern dance club, which was less frustrating.


I wrote about my experiences as a pre-Title IX young woman athlete for an anthology of stories called Whatever It Takes; Women on Women's Sport published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


So let me be very clear: I—and every woman athlete, professional or amateur, are beneficiaries of Title IX, the 1972 Federal Civil Rights Law, a law that protects everyone, not only women, from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. The protections of the act extend beyond federal financing. With the #metoo revelations, court cases, accusations and resignations, the conversation with and about women --as well as LGBTQ men and women-- has changed and expanded.


Will the packed Supreme Court mess with Title IX? I certainly hope not. All women athletes expect equal opportunity, respectful conversation, and pay equity on every playing field.

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Welcome To My Village

Canal Street, Ellenville, NY, is picture postcard perfect. It still looks this way, more or less.

 

I taught a writing workshop in the Ellenville Library yesterday about an hour west of New Paltz into the mountains and then south on Route 209 towards Sullivan County. It was a cool-to-cold day and the air was fresh. Strobic light bouncing through the nearly leaf-bare trees disturbed my vision. I have to drive everywhere here, keep our old car in good shape, and brave all weathers, which I find both annoying and challenging. But I eventually relaxed into the mellow day. Past the turning in Kerhonkson, past Shop Rite and Walmart, "The Sound of Life," sermon on the radio, I flicked the search button and found a country music station. The evangelical stations play good music, too, and the bible readings are sometimes literary, but I am struck by the amount of repetition and the pounding—almost abusive—exhortations. How close is belief to obedience, I wonder? At election time, for example.


Just past Walmart the cars were rubber- necked, two tall guys in neon vests with empty plastic paint pails in the middle of the road. Cops? Volunteer firemen? Accident? Escaped prisoners from the state prison? The clunky castle-like structure loomed over us, casting its shadow.


My turn to roll down a window. How about a few dollars for the Ellenville Little League? Was this a question or a demand? These guys, who may well be volunteer firemen, were in the middle of the road stopping traffic, a bit coercive, I'd say. I popped a $5 bill into the pail and asked for $2 back. There's a limit to my generosity on a Saturday when I am trying to get somewhere, I thought. Isn't it enough that we have to endure lockdown drills nearly every week around here? Felled trees? Ice storms? Tail-gating? Gun shops?


Welcome to the Other America, not the urban, ghetto Other America that Michael Harrington wrote about in his iconic book, but the current, rural other America.


One thing that 45—or his oligarch handlers—got right: there is more than one America and that Other America is right outside the borders of our cities. Unexpectedly, I am living in it. Thankfully there are good schools, the roads are kept well, and everyone cares about the environment. Equally important for this writer is the interconnected library system; I can get any book I want quickly.


The new librarian at the Ellenville Library, Kristin Fowler, is wry, warm and energetic. When I first went out to meet her a few months ago, she booked me for two workshops and a reading of "Say Nothing," which is set in these mountains. Miraculously, the library has a budget beyond book purchase, and Kristin, a woman who cares about her job and her constituency, has made sure she uses it to develop free programs, services, workshops, and more. People are smiling when they walk into the library, and smiling when they walk out.


Six aspiring writers signed up for my workshop, four turned up. Three are avid readers, two have fascinating life stories they are eager to write, the fourth was there to listen and explore, a mom with three kids who still works night-shift to support her family and never made it to college, or at least not yet. I could not help but encourage her. "Your turn," I said. She is a John Grisham fan for the same reasons I am: He writes page turners and he has a social conscience. Who would have thought we have so much in common?


I still expect huge crowds at my workshops and readings and am surprised, even disappointed, when only a handful of people turn up. Entitlement syndrome: Am I not a well-known professor with a sterling reputation, reams of publications, and a CV five pages long? But Ellenville, like other hamlets and towns in Ulster County, is just a small village—population 4,000 and change—with a long, rich history and complex culture all its own and I am an outsider, a stranger, a traveler, passing through, not yet of the community. I am often met with skeptical expressions, even hostility, until I've got the room in my grip. It's a good thing I am experienced because it's not always easy. As I have written here in a recent post entitled, "Lockdown," I've even encountered anti-Semitism and shunning in Ulster County. I try not to take any reactions to my gentrified, educated persona personally, if that makes sense, and to meet everyone I encounter with curiosity and an open heart. After all, I'm still a free-thinking city girl. 

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Departures

Edmund de Waal's vitrines in the West Gallery of the Frick Museum.

 

I went to the Frick Museum before my NYU class last week to see the Edmund de Waal site-specific installation, "Elective Affinities." De Waal is best known in the United States as the author of "The Hare With Amber Eyes," a memoir about his maternal Viennese (Jewish) family, the Ephrussis, whose mansion on The Ring was ransacked when the Germans invaded Vienna in March of 1938. De Waal was born in England and still lives there.


I was working on "Searching for Fritzi," the story of my Viennese family, at about the same time as de Waal was researching "The Hare With Amber Eyes," and we had some email correspondence. He was already a world-renowned ceramicist; the book enhanced his reputation. I didn't know him when I lived in London as a journalist, a missed opportunity.


That's the backstory of our six degrees of connection. I've kept track of de Waal over the years, his career, as well as his family's decision to take the Austrians up on their offer of citizenship, which I refused. The Ephrussi mansion has also been restored to them and they recently celebrated a family reunion there. So when I heard about the exhibition at the Frick, I knew I had to get there before it closed at the end of November.


I don't know what my expectations were exactly. Perhaps to feel de Waal's presence, his heightened sensitivity as an artist with Austrian ancestry, his narrative about art and its purpose. De Waal considers himself a European which, as an American, I do not, so what would his commentary consist of?


The Frick's rooms and collection mimic European hauteur. They are monumental in size with carpeted floors, damask curtains and skylights. De Waal's work is small, and mostly white. He rarely strays from white, he has often said. And though the vitrines containing his delicate porcelain pots gave me pause, "the pause of space," as one label suggested, I began to question this somewhat trendy curatorial commission—contemporary artists in dialogue with old master works. What does "in dialogue" mean exactly? Does it mean departure, inspiration, something more, or less? What did Charlotte Vignon, the Frick's curator of decorative arts, have in mind? She and de Waal are friends; they worked on a book together. What she has said, in interviews, is that she hopes visitors will reconsider the collection through de Waal's modern prism.


It wouldn't be the first time that a curator or editor had a different vision than the artist (or writer) they have commissioned. That might have happened here. Certainly the result is perplexing, even unsatisfying. Rather than reconsider the Frick's collection in the light of current events and new ideas about Western art, I found de Waal's vitrines intrusive, even humorous at times. Wee vitrines with wee porcelain pots, beautifully glazed, set at different angles. End of story, or absence of story. Alternatively, the scale of the vitrines may simply be swallowed up by the grandeur of the once lived-in mansion that is now a museum.


Even a docent I talked to was unsure what to say when I asked her what she thought of de Waal's work. We could both see that the dark gray glaze might have been a commentary on Frick himself—a steel magnate—or on the El Greco soldier in armor in the West Gallery, that was more or less obvious. But there didn't seem to be much else to explain, and we both went silent.


"There's no there there," I said, quoting Gertrude Stein.


"The Emperor's New Clothes," the docent said sotto voce.


"How much did you say Frick paid for that Rembrandt?" asked a visitor from China, not exactly a non sequitur.

 

At a moment of "total crisis in Europe," as de Waal has expounded to many reporters—referring to the migrant crisis and the retreat to insularity and Fascism—he has sold off 79 of his family's precious Japanese netsuke figures, hidden in a mattress by the family's maid during the war. The sale raised £79,590 for the Refugee Council. The rest of the collection has now gone on long-term loan to the Jewish Museum in Vienna.


There is not a whisper of de Waal's philanthropic preoccupations anywhere in the exhibition, nor was he able to convey them even tangentially to an eager American audience in this installation.

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An Inspiring Free-Wheeling Free-Thinking Writer Friend

Mykel in Fedora and trenchcoat

 

I don't agree with much of what my free-thinking, free-wheeling, writer friend, Mykel Board, says, politically speaking, nor can I stomach the scatalogical and anti-feminist riffs and humor in his blog, but there is something about this guy—a former Yippie, a musician, a punkster, a jokester—I find both endearing and inspiring. Underneath the costume—and sometimes outrageous assertions—is a big-hearted man who loves talking to people all over the world, a true internationalist.


He has a unique lifestyle. A linguist by training, he teaches English at a Japanese language school in mid-town Manhattan, which is where I met him many years ago. In between his teaching gigs, he'd travel somewhere he'd never been before for a month at least, couch surf, build his FB coterie of friends, take voluminous notes, and write. Only someone single and child-free can do this, I said to myself. I used to feel amused, annoyed and ever-so-slightly envious as he put the language school job on hiatus for a month and disappear. Or sometimes he'd go off for a year. He has taught English in Mongolia and written a book about that experience. He has taught in Japan. To this day, my first question when we meet for lunch or a coffee is, "So where to next, Mykel?" And he'll usually tell me with the excitement of a little kid. He's already found new friends online, often people who read his blog, has places to stay, is reading books by local writers, and can't wait to set out.


Last time, however, was different. His destination was under wraps; he refused to tell me. I asked if he thought that was a good idea. Shouldn't someone know where he was headed? But he said, no, not this time. Then he was back.


We met for a coffee before my NYU class last week. "So where have you been, Mykel?"


"In Pennsylvania," he said, deadpan.


"You stayed Stateside? What gives?"


"A whole month in a Punxsutawney, the groundhog town," he explained. "I put an ad in the local paper asking for a rental and had the top floor of a house. The landlady didn't want my budgeted $1000; she'd only take $600. I couldn't believe the generosity. I've had an idea for a novel for a long time and needed to research it in situ. I wrote 40,000 words while I was there."


I tried to imagine city punk Mykel in Fedora, trench coat, and big black boots nearly up to his knees, in this little town, population 5,788. On the other hand, I thought, what an admirable thing to do. It was typical of him to follow his curiosity into a writing project. Total immersion, he hung out, got to know people, the local library, the bars. He even was invited to a writer's group and read a few of his pages.


"I had to catch myself," he said. I assumed that because I was in a rural area, the writing wouldn't be any good. What a prejudice. It was sophisticated, terrific. The group liked my pages, too, except for the vulgarity."


"No suprise," I said. "I don't either."


He's going for 90,000 words, he told me, a huge book, because he's read that's what publishers are looking for these days.


"Have you made progress beyond that initial 40,000 word spurt since your return?" I wanted to know.


"Not much," he said.


The writer/teacher's lament. I can relate. If I am not already in the midst of a project, I try to get one started before term begins. Otherwise I begin to feel resentful of my productive students.


Mykel is still single, has no obligations other than to his authentic self and the words he puts in his books or in his columns. But even that statement requires explanation. He's been a devoted, constant friend to many, including Josephine, also a former teacher at the language school, who is now in a nursing home. He visits her at least once a month when he's in town. Who else that I know would do that?

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