Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fantasy Football Fraud

There are numerous forms of sexism which irk me: the assumption on the part of some that we are mentally and physically the weaker gender, the presumption that women should be overruled when it comes to decision-making power over their reproductive cycles, the corporate glass ceilings that still exist which often permit women to do the same work for less pay, with fewer opportunities for advancement. These are among the more obvious examples and there are plenty more from which to choose. But as a lifelong sports fan about to welcome the official start of the football season, I am reminded again of the generally-accepted prejudice when it comes to women and sports. And I am not talking about small-minded attitudes about our individual athletic ability, although that rankles as well. My personal tale for the week revolves around a male-dominated office environment and a 2012 NFL Fantasy Football League.

I was born into this cruel world a Chicago Cubs fan and an ardent student of professional baseball, mentored by a statistic-loving father. Baseball will always be my first love in the sporting world, but several years ago, my enthusiasm for that particular game met its match when I gave football a serious look. Up to that time, I had written off the occupation as unnecessarily violent and complicated, code for "It makes me feel dumb." I could sing-rap every verse to the 1985 Chicago Bears' playoff anthem, "The Super Bowl Shuffle," but I didn't understand the roles of the men on the field that weren't quarterbacking or field goal kicking, nor did I care to try. It seemed like too much  investment.

But decades of disappointment experienced at the hands of The Loveable Losers (Where were you during "The Bartman Incident?" Every Cubs fan has a memory.) and some initiation into the world of office sports pools turned this woman into a hyper-competitive gridiron addict. I have written about my up-and-down emotional journey with a Pick-a-Winner (PAW) contest in which I have participated for the past six years. I join New York Jets fans the world over in detesting Brett Favre. Long story short, after a deep immersion in the NFL for more than a half-decade, I know my shit.

This season in addition to regular participation in PAW, I am branching out my sports wagering empire to include a Fantasy League Football team through my current workplace, via Yahoo! Sports. Last year, my company was a little less ambitious, containing efforts to a weekly, straightforward pool, during the course of which I CLEANED UP! I won far more money than any other male participant, and it would be positively indecent to discuss the can of whoop ass I opened up during the special Super Bowl edition. But do you think this success buys any respect or even an admission that I might just be a real football fan? Nope, instead I was treated to the requisite, unimaginative jokes about women selecting winners based on the attractiveness of a club's uniform color.

On Tuesday nights, I attend a kickboxing class, my favorite release of physical aggression, and the Commissioner of the company's league scheduled the draft to begin right around the time I'm jumping rope with my fellow students. I understand that not everyone's itinerary can be accommodated so rather than just rely on the chancy auto pick function, which makes team selections in the event of absenteeism, I asked my boyfriend to stand in for me. Regardless of the lamentable fact that he is an Indianapolis Colts fan, I trust him completely. He understands the seriousness with which I take this and we have been discussing the draft, the order in which I'd like my positions selected and who I would ideally like to fill them, for weeks. It must be mentioned that JC takes his assignment so ardently, he is logging on before the start of the madness to do some additional research. Perhaps a training injury took place this week of which we're not aware. It's really gratifying to have such a partner.

But instead of congratulating me for capable delegation and the investment in a relationship of equals, I am dealing with predictable accusations that I have secured "a ringer." Sigh. Sometimes the chauvinistic ignorance is nearly too much to bear.

I realize that some of the "teasing" is a legitimate attempt to drive me from the League, to turn it into the non-threatening boys' club it was intended to be. Sadly it really stings a certain section of the male populace to lose to a girl, as if that somehow inverts their masculinity. I'm hardly Susan B. Anthony or anything, but I feel I'd be doing a disservice to myself as well as my gender to run from these attitudes simply because they're unpleasant. So once the draft concludes, I suppose I'll have to keep making my point with understated, superior management skills. The "Woman's Curse" is not menstruation. It is dogged, multi-tasking competence and willful patriarchal arrogance.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Cry in the Dark

On a late summer's eve I sat at my kitchen table typing away, the sounds of chirping crickets my sole companion. I am not an individual who works well against a backdrop of white noise: no music wafting from Pandora, no CNN anchors relaying the day's events. Just me, my work and the open balcony door in my studio apartment, where the fresh water air from Lake Michigan wafts in pleasantly.

I perched while working contentedly, attempting to ignore the familiar rumbles in my stomach, a reminder that I had once again labored through mealtime in the pursuit of written perfection. Just then a heart-rending wail went up from the alley behind my urban abode.

The source of the cries was a woman in the throes of grief, so caught in its clutches, reeking of a recent pierce, that she had not the self-awareness to withhold the details of its genesis. The familiarity of her ejaculations immediately produced a stabbing aftershock of pain. It is not so long ago that my former neighbors tacked a note to the rented condo door which read: "We are sorry about your domestic disharmony, but your yelling and crying disturbs us. Please keep it down."

This woman's private struggle suddenly made very public, I was drawn to the open balcony door, feeling much like an intruder stumbling upon an intimate moment not meant for my ears, but literally unable to shut out the intensity, the forceful strength of her misery. It seems that only that day, the lady learned from her four year-old child that "Daddy has a new girlfriend," a woman of dubious immigration status who has been seeing her husband for some time. The victim wept and bellowed on her cell phone, and as much as I pitied her predicament, I wondered about the auditor at the other end of the line. Who was it? Were they equipped to withstand this torrent of anguish? Could they be the rock against which she broke herself?

I stopped typing and listened knowingly yet helplessly as the woman wondered about the prospects for her future: how would she provide for her kids, how would she live through such betrayal, what had she done wrong? And though she never wanted to see her tormentor again, how would she survive without him?

I wanted to go to her, put my arms around her and smooth her hair. I wanted to do for her what so many had been unable or unwilling to do for me, in part because I didn't know how to ask. "This too shall pass." Trite, overused platitude though it is, it's repeated so oft for a reason. I wanted to reassure her that 18 months from now, she could very well be working contentedly, alone in her own space with more to keep her company than the feeling of lack.

But I understand from experience that out-of-body sensation that befalls the lost and bereft. So isolated from the normal continuum of human emotion, you forget where you are and what you're doing. An outside reminder from a disinterested party can be jarring and shameful to the point of complete collapse. It's a delicate balance at that stage of grief just to keep taking breaths. Instead I watched the woman retreat back into her apartment. I knew what awaited her: so many complicated decisions over days, months, even years, her life changed forever, every certainty overturned.

I am not a woman of prayer, but I am a human of empathy. Her tears have only begun but may they be granted a reprieve for rest. She's going to need it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Enamored With Enamel

When I was six years old, I was involved in a controversial radiator accident that remains the stuff of family legend. While engaging in a spirited Sesame Street dance routine with my younger sister Jenny, was I pushed into my grandmother's low-rising living room metal unit or did I accidentally trip and fall? I am sure you can guess who stands on which side of the issue and it is unlikely to be definitively settled. This was 1984 and my Italian granny's Chicago apartment was not wired with surveillance equipment. Regardless of the impetus the immediate result was that my mouth was destroyed.

Over the next 18 months, I lost nearly all of my baby teeth, dislodged as they were by the blunt force trauma of the accident. As the adult teeth took their time growing, there was very little in my gums to anchor them. The end result was a hot, discombobulated mess that left me ashamed to smile for the rest of my maturation. This was compounded by lax parenting and a certain level of poverty that left orthodontic care out of reach.

I have many complaints about my former marriage but one kudo I will grant my ex-husband is that he understood the source of misery that was my smile, or lack thereof, the awful taunting I had endured at the hands of peers. For the better part of 25 years, you could label any display of pleasure more of a wry grimace. I developed a habit of placing my right hand over my mouth when I giggled that stubbornly persists to this day. Nearly every photo, except for the rare snap that caught me unawares, found my chompers firmly hidden behind frozen lips. My upper canines were particularly unsightly and there is a snap in my wedding album, one that otherwise conveys bliss, that brings stinging tears of shame to my eyes whenever viewed. It embodies everything ugly and unsightly that greeted me in the mirror from the second grade until I was a grown woman of 31 years old.

I started a tremendously painful, time consuming and expensive assortment of dental work that involved oral surgery, deep cleaning, cavity filling, and partial tooth replacement, culminating in three years of brace wearing, orthodontic adjustment and permanent retainers. Six years and $14,000 later, I was quite literally a new woman. As I found myself glued to the looking glass, in love with the replacement image like the Narcissus of legend, I wondered if maybe I ought to be ashamed of the price I paid for pride. Ultimately I decided that the time and money spent was not in the quest of self-love but a reprieve from self-hate, funds that had to be well-spent if the production of a camera at friend and family events no longer had me fleeing the scene. So many recorded, shared memories from which I had been formerly absent in mind and body....

But there's been a repercussion I never anticipated. I am addicted to over the counter whitening products, jonesing like a heroin addict for the ultimate pearly grin. I can't stop using them. I have sampled every brand, every sub-variety and am now a one-woman Consumer Reports listing of the merits, demerits, strengths and weaknesses of strips, trays, drops, pastes and powders. Unless I have a scheduled dental cleaning in sight, I am rarely without my aesthetic weapon of choice and I figure like any other good habit done in overkill, I am going to pay an eventual price.

My enamel is in great shape as are my gums, so say the professionals. It's rather ironic however that the pendulum swung from absolute disregard for the state of my teeth, appalled as I was by their appearance for so long, to an obsessive compulsion for their pristine good looks.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Desert Rose

I am not a botanist. I possess the opposite of a green thumb. I can kill the most resilient of houseplants like cacti and bamboo while meaning them no harm. This woman just doesn't speak their language.

I am also the proud resident of a concrete jungle. On a 4:30 am run yesterday morning, I made a semi-serious game of jogging a wide berth around scurrying creatures of the night that I could only hope were rabbits and squirrels foraging for pre-dawn meals. I can't imagine a vacation less relaxing than camping.

I am generally indifferent toward the natural world, yet I can't help but foster a begrudging admiration for this purple flowering plant in my apartment building's courtyard, species unknown. It's been an evil summer in the Midwest - sweltering daytime highs, precious little rain. Yet it seems like the less nourishment it receives the stronger and more beautiful it grows. Each evening when I return home, its colorful buds are just a little taller and fuller, just a little brighter, the stalk reaching ever so slightly higher even as surrounding weeds and dry brush would have it strangled.

This persevering little beauty reminds me of my own journey as a writer, an expedition far from complete. It's a grueling campaign that began with a loud internal thumping, a warning that I was on the wrong path, a crash course with unhappiness predicated upon a willful disregard of personal truth.

This voice was in charge: "You can't be a scribbler. There's no future in it. Climb the corporate ladder. Make that money and your husband and family proud. Writing is selfish, maybe even destructive." That was the sand added to the cement mix provided by my immediate support system at the time. This foundation was almost, but not quite enough to choke the sapling, the murmur that countered, "But you have ideas and thoughts you have to share, even if no one reads them. You are growing weaker and sicker from the effort of pretending to be that which you are not."

Inevitably, an ingrained need to please and maintain the status quo lost to a force much more powerful but there was oh so much collateral damage: a foundered marriage, a splintered family, isolation, depression, fear, regret, cruel words and actions that can never be recanted. So many times I wondered if perhaps writing was too damned selfish and costly. When he said, "I never should have let you," I bristled at the presumption but wondered if I had secretly logged my name amongst the misguided with a "big idea" that proved too expensive.

Marooned, thirsty and malnourished, this plant looked for sunlight and a healthy place to grow with the support of sundry friends and family who believed in the effort no matter how foolish and risky it appeared. And with every little nibble of success - a published piece here, an award there, a reinforcing compliment from a fellow writer - the roots of certainty dug themselves in the sand a little more stubbornly. I am not Gail Collins, David Sedaris or Garrison Keillor yet. I may never have the career of those esteemed wordsmiths and I can live that with it. But I have a career nonetheless. I gave up almost everything I knew to strive for it too - and it didn't kill me.

Like my friend the little purple shoot, I will keep growing and changing, with or without the common elements of growth too often taken for granted. Thankfully as I evolve and learn to believe, the love and sustenance craved is organically materializing. The purple plant, my own desert rose, clearly doesn't need my help, but I seek to pay tribute to her inspiration with a prosaic rain dance.