Saturday, January 31, 2009

Steeler Strip

So here it is, the day before the Super Bowl, and we decided we'd head up to Pittsburgh for a little visit to the strip district, where we wanted to go and buy some food from the Italian grocery stores they have there, and maybe get something nice for lunch.

For those of you not from around here, the strip district is just north of downtown, an old warehouse district where the rail lines came right downtown and offloaded fruit, fish, and everything else.

Now it's kind of a mixed use neighborhood: some warehouses still thriving, a couple of nightclubs, I think, and a sort of foodie center. Lidia Bastianich's restaurant is there, Primanti Brothers, where you get fries on your sandwich, all served on a square of waxed paper instead of a plate, and you can go to Wholey's Fish Market, or the Chinese, Mexican, or Italian grocery stores. Or a variety of more upscale food shops.

Usually when we've been there, we've seen a few street vendors hawking Pittsburgh Steelers merchandise, but when we got there today, a whole section of Penn Ave was blocked off, and the street vendors had practically taken over the whole place.

The atmosphere was festive and everyone was in black and gold, waiting in line to get into some of these places--especially the ones with Steelers stuff, like Mike Feinberg's. You could get a shirt that had a map of Slovenia and said "Slovenian Steelers Fan--Part of Steelers Nation." (Or similar ones for "Mexican," "Afro-American," and even "Hunky" Steelers Fans...that's Hungarians in the local parlance.)

So we went to the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, got our two bags of stuff: semolina flour, pesto, some cheap shallots; had a very nice lunch at Cafe Raymond; and got a bag of Dutch process cocoa.

And here it was twenty-five degrees outside, and the street was like a party, despite the slushy puddles (and trampled black and gold streamers) everyone was standing in. Everyone seemed happy, spending their money on Steelers hats, shirts, and everything else like there was no recession. There's something pleasingly unpretentious about a town where you can go to the gourmet district and buy all the football gear you could ever need.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On virtual communitas

This morning I came across a news story about the pope's message for the 43rd "World Day of Communications" (did you know there was such a thing?), in which he warns users of social-networking sites not to become so obsessive about connecting virtually that they forget to connect in real life. (Yawn: are we still stuck on that fear?)

This caution came as the Vatican announced the launch of its own YouTube channel, where you can listen to a translation of the Pope's message (I'd include it here, but the videos on the site don't allow embedding--huh!).

The Holy Father has a point, though, in that no matter how interactive the web might become, the poor, rural, and disadvantaged remain just as marginalized, if not more so, in a world increasingly reliant on computers and high-speed web access to connect with each other.


On Tuesday, I suddenly realized I was fully in the 21st century as I sat in my office with NPR audio streaming, watching the inauguration live on CNN through Facebook, which allowed me to chat in real time with friends (or, if I had so chosen, the entire Facebook community) in the same window as the video.

At the same time, I had another window updating tweets being sent from the National Mall on Twitter, with hundreds of new messages loading every time the page refreshed.

One of the most interesting tweets I read was from someone describing people's reactions as first Bush, then Cheney appeared on the JumboTrons. The folks around this tweeter booed loudly at Bush, and many joined in humming the "Imperial March" from Star Wars to accompany Cheney's entrance.

As a folklorist, this is the stuff that fascinated me: the accounts of what people were actually experiencing on the ground, the interactive, spontaneous, performative aspects of the otherwise official events. And they're the details that made me feel most hooked into the experience, far more so than the news coverage.

Other tweets noted that as the crowd gathered, people were making snarky comments about Bush, and one woman posted that her daughter asked her after the ceremony whether they could go to the White House next to watch the President working.

What I found most amazing about all these tweets, collectively, is the way they gave voice to the imposed silence of the last eight years. Ever since November 4th, I've been moved, saddened, and perplexed by the realization that all these years that I felt isolated and disenfranchised from the mainstream, the reality was that there were many others--apparently, a majority of others--who felt the same way.

James Taylor actually put my feelings into words best in an NPR interview before his performance at the "We Are One" concert last weekend. He said,
"I'm not used to feeling in step with everybody....I've felt alienated somewhat for about a decade now, and became set in a certain feeling about my country and my government and where we were headed, and I didn't realize how powerful that was until it was relieved."
Relief. Yes, that's the feeling, all right, and I felt it again on Tuesday as I connected virtually with others who clearly also felt relieved.

And surprisingly, I felt it more potently in front of my computer than I did when I went over to the campus center to watch the actual oath and address on the big-screen TV there. Though there was a fairly large crowd gathered there, the mood seemed muted; people didn't seem to know whether it was OK to applaud or cheer, though a few did after both the oath and speech.

It was odd. Given the collective outpouring of relief and joy in the last two months, I figured people would be more excited--and at that moment, I wanted to be where the excited people were! Instead, I sensed that people were keeping a lid on their feelings, and I've been trying ever since to figure out why. Of course, West Virginia went for McCain in the election, so it might just be a matter of geography--did your results vary?

In some ways, I wonder if we aren't all like moles back out in the light after being underground--blinking, dazed, unsure what the rules are in this strange, open new place we find ourselves.

The more cynical part of me feels like it's vestigal fear: for eight years we were told that dissent was unpatriotic, and that if we knew what was good for us, we'd keep quiet. It takes a long time to overcome that kind of conditioning and return to a normal kind of affect.

So, I have to respectfully disagree with the Pope on this one: on Tuesday, my sense of communitas was online. And I relished every byte of it.

[For some amazing photos of virtual inaugural communitas around the world, click here.]

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and love the gym (or, Exercising Demons, part II)

First, I just want to thank everyone for their comments--you all have really honed in on the question I was trying to get at, but wasn't articulating as clearly as I'd have liked to:
At what point in your life did you realize that just because you were a dorky, uncoordinated kid, that did not mean that you had no interest in or affinity for movement?
I didn't have that epiphany until my early 30s, when I started going to an aerobics class in Greeley and discovered that I loved it and was OK at it (well, most of the time, anyway).

And it was a revelation to see many women there far older than me who were still active. Granted, Colorado is somewhat of an anomaly--it routinely has the nation's lowest obesity rate--but I can't tell you how many 60- and 70-year-old women I met in that class for whom this was just one of many activities they enjoyed: several were also avid cross-country skiiers, hikers, snow-shoers, and kayakers. Suddenly I could see a "fitness future" for myself that didn't involve team sports, competition, or an unhealthy fixation on how many calories I'd burned.

Is it any wonder the country at large has a weight problem when so many kids (especially girls, the "pleasantly plump," and those labeled as nerds) aren't encouraged to pursue physical activities that feel comfortable and fun for them?

In her open letter to her own high-school gym teacher, Jane mentions that they did square-dancing in gym. One of my fondest memories of gym (and yes, I do have a few!) was when we had a student teacher for our ninth-grade phys ed class who did a whole unit on dance: not just square dancing, but also line dancing, and (this was the early 80s, remember) some disco dancing. We learned The Hustle. In gym class!

I was in heaven. And then her stint was over and she left. And we were back to the old volleyball-basketball-softball routine until that cycling class I mentioned taking for my last PE credit.

In her comment, Christy mentioned one of our high-school gym teachers; I never had the, uh, "pleasure" of having him for class, but I do have a particularly dark place in my soul for another member of the phys-ed faculty. Let's call him "Mr. Special," since that is, believe it or not, the anglicized version of his real name.

Among the many things Mr. Special did to make me a gym-hater were the following:

  • Once, when we were working on basketball skills, he tried to teach me the proper form for making a layup. I followed his instructions and put the ball through the hoop. He looked at me and said, cynically, "Well, whaddaya know: she's trainable."
  • The second thing he did was to split the boys and the girls up, although it was a co-ed class. In and of itself this doesn't necessarily bother me, since it prevented girls from literally being muscled out of games by overly-zealous boys. But Mr. Special would take this a step further by closing the partition that separated the two halves of the gym, putting the girls on one side, shutting the door, and leaving the girls to our own devices while he worked with the boys. Apparently, we weren't worth his time, even a decade after Title 9.
  • But most unforgivably, one day he flung open the door between the two sides, shoved my friend Jay through, and told him to play with the girls. Jay, by the way, later came out as gay. I guess Mr. Special decided that his ostracization should start early. Or maybe he was trying to demonstrate for us the corrosive link between sexism and homophobia. Regardless, we all got the message.
I say all of this not to continue the long and well-worn tirade against gym teachers or gym class. As Jane (and I, above) have noted, some of them are amazing and inspirational.

What I'm saying is that in hindsight, I think I would've found gym class vastly more enjoyable and relevant and affirming if it had succeeded in showing me that movement can be expressive and fun, and does not have to be about competition with anyone but yourself. Perhaps then I wouldn't have had to have that realization on my own decades after taking my last gym class.

And as for the fallacious idea that gym has nothing to do with "real" learning, check out this article about gym-class poetry at an elementary school in North Carolina!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Exercising (sic) demons

I was a fat kid.

It's hard to explain the difficulty I have in saying that, since I think I'm also a fat adult, and still have an intense fear that if I call attention to it, I'll be inviting scorn from, well, everyone. A psychologist friend once told me I had the most screwed-up body image of anyone he'd ever known, since I imagine I'm a whale even though, rationally, I know that I'm within the normal weight range for my height, I work out regularly, and don't suffer from any eating disorders, thank god.

Still, in my heart of hearts I worry that if I confess that Greg H. used to call me "Hungry Hippo" in 7th grade, you'll all wonder why you didn't think of that nickname yourself, and will never address me in any other way again.

Weight's on my mind these days since I'm feeling like a slug, post-holiday and in the midst of these dark, gloomy January days that make me want to eat a diet composed exclusively of carbs, nap, and move as little as possible until spring, when I fear I'll be too large to squeeze through the door to enjoy it.

I feel grateful that at least I genuinely enjoy exercise. Like, I kind of get nutso if I can't at least go for a long walk every couple of days...and even that doesn't really do it for me most of the time--I need the elliptical machine, or an aerobics class, or something more strenuous.

It almost feels like a betrayal to say that, since I grew up in a household where athleticism was positioned as the opposite of intellect, and the received message was that smart people don't sweat, and they sure don't enjoy sweating. Where does that idea come from? It's a peculiar kind of snobbery, one that ultimately is quite literally self-defeating. I'm glad that some rebellious part of myself insisted on raging against that belief, though I wish I'd done it earlier and more often.

In hindsight, there are so many things I would have loved to do--taking more dance classes, for example--for the sheer love of movement. But when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, being "active" meant being an athlete--i.e., participating in competitive sports, which I have always loathed. Until I took a cycling class for my last high-school phys ed requirement, it never occurred to me that gym could be anything other than a trial to be endured.

Even now, I cringe at memories of trying to memorize the difference between man-to-man and zone defense in basketball, and being pissed off at aggressive boys who'd charge halfway across the volleyball court to hit a ball they figured some girl would miss.

Fortunately, it seems that physical education and educators have wised up to this problem, and many school gym programs (if they haven't been cut entirely) focus on wellness and finding activities that every student can enjoy. What took so damn long?

As gym-teacher Phil Lawler says in the article linked above, "After age 24 less than 3 percent of the population uses a team sport as part of their normal physical activity....So we mastered all these skills, for what?" I'd be interested to know what percentage of people participate in a team sport before age 24, since I suspect that figure is still fairly small.

What gym teachers--and the rest of us--need to tap into are the activities that reconnect us with our seven-year-old selves...running 'til you were winded in a game of hide-and-seek, or swimming all afternoon on a summer day, without even thinking that what you were doing was "exercise."

And increasingly I'm adopting my mom's view, that instead of waking up and dreading something I have to do that day, to be glad that I still can do it.

[Post script: An ex-boyfriend (emphasis on "ex") took one look at the above photo and said, "You look like an English schoolboy!" Did I mention he's an ex-boyfriend?]

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Now we don't have to listen to *jazz* all day long!"

'Cause that would be the worst, you know. (Apparently, my enjoyment of jazz makes me a traitor to my gender, the working class, and corporate America.)

I promise a more original post soon, but in the meantime, this is one of the funnier things I've run across lately. I especially enjoy the skewering of those awful Evista commercials.