Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bracing For a Whole New World

Playing for a school team, and winning the school's first-ever trophy for girls' basketball.

(This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Wisconsin State Journal.)

For those who care about women’s athletics, there has been much to celebrate about the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.

Luminaries and legends have gathered together throughout the U.S. Sports Illustrated and ESPN dedicated coverage to the events of June 1972. That’s when Congress passed a law mandating that institutions that received federal funding had to offer equal opportunities to males and females. That opened the door for interscholastic athletics for girls and women.

For me, the effects of it were monumental. I played sports and became a sports writer, traveling the U.S. covering many events that wouldn’t have even existed without Title IX. Dreams I didn’t even know I had came true because of Title IX.

I am far from alone in that regard; any woman who is over 40 and has played sports likely feels that way. Yet as Title IX has seeped into my consciousness again in recent months, I’ve come to realize how the timing of it could not have been any more perfect for who I was and how I would grow up to look at the world.

Title IX passed when I was finishing fifth grade; it more or less went into effect the following year. Somewhere between sixth and seventh grade came the news that there was going to be a girls’ basketball team at our local high school.

This news was beyond big for me. I inherited a love of basketball from my mother, who didn’t play for a school team but loved the sport nonetheless. My friends and I, in the dresses we were required to wear to school back then, shot baskets at recess. I’m proud that the first activism in my life was to pass around a petition in about third or fourth grade to ask that the girls get the gym before school, too, because the boys would never let us play. We got Tuesdays.

So the news that one day my friends and I would be able to be on a school basketball team was the most joyous thing we could imagine.

Unfortunately, at about the same time, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. The curvature of my spine was severe enough that surgery was a possibility, but a brace was another option. Even this lesser option, this clunky brace, would clearly impact my life.

“Can I still play basketball?” I asked the doctor. He said I could be out of the brace an hour a day, so that would work for a basketball game. There was really nothing stopping me from playing with it on, either, except hurting someone else who might ram into me. This amazing opportunity to play basketball was out there in my future and by god, I was not going to miss out.

So in the weeks leading up to seventh grade I was fitted for the brace – a leather ‘girdle’ with two metal bars in the back and one metal bar in the front that all screwed together with a piece that went around my neck. The day I got the brace was the day Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match; the two will always be merged in my mind.

In seventh grade, when you’re just starting your tortuous teen years, going to school wearing something like that should have been horrific, and believe me it was no picnic.

But I could play basketball. I might have been encased in metal from hips to chin, but I could still play basketball. As awful as this was, it didn’t take away the thing I loved most back then, and that was basketball and sports.

I continued to wear that brace in high school when I got to finally be on a team. Sometimes I practiced with it on, I always took it off for games. I could whip in and out of the thing like Houdini escaping his chains, maybe even quicker. Doctors said I couldn't do gymnastics so I spent that portion of gym class off in a corner shooting baskets instead.

I don’t think much about my brace when I think of my teenage years; in fact when I see pictures from back then they are kind of jarring to me.

But I’ve come to realize that by being able to play sports at a time when I needed them, I gained not just opportunity but a way to look at life. Wearing that brace stunk, but it didn’t take away what I loved most. It was a wonderful lesson to carry with me into adulthood, through a crippling bout of the neurological illness Guillain-Barre Syndrome, through an adventure with breast cancer, through family trauma. These weren’t fun, but I knew they didn’t take away everything.

So I thank Title IX for the chance it gave me to play sports. But it also gave me the chance to learn how to recognize and cling to what is good. And that has been the gift of a lifetime.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Turning Into Dad, and That's Not So Bad

A happy man, even with his daughter trying to crush him.

The funky cowlick that makes a center part look like a hockey stick has always been there. The clomping rhythm of my feet going up the stairs came a little later. The desire to never have to leave my town, though, is pretty much the thing that cinched it.

At an age when most women worry about turning into their mother, I have turned into my father.

It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a strange thing to realize. For starters, my dad wasn’t what you would call a regular guy. While most dads might yell at their kids for not going to sleep at night, my dad had his own way of taking care of the problem. He’d sneak around the back of the house, go onto the deck, quietly open a screen, pop his head into the bedroom I shared with my two sisters, growl and make his dentures go in and out. That pretty much scared us into submission.

My dad was also someone who noticed the little things around him; it’s what made him a superb photographer, which was his profession. He’d make us stop what we were doing to look at a particularly beautiful sunset or listen to a chirp that made it clear a certain bird was back for the spring.

And it was the little things in which my dad took the greatest joy. Like the little town in which he was born and the little town where he and my mom settled and where I was raised, the same town I live in today. He knew everyone and they knew him, a facet of his personality but also the nature of his business of shooting weddings, families, babies and high school seniors.  He had his morning coffee crew at the local diner and his Lions Club bingo tent to man.

He never wanted to leave this place. After he served his time in Korea, he rarely crossed the state line of Wisconsin ever again. “I already saw the world,” he told me once, and he was just happy to be home. Still, I lived in Iowa for 21 years and maybe one visit would have been nice. But, I’d tell my friends, my dad’s head might explode if he crossed the Wisconsin border.

His reticence to leave home became a joke in the family. My mom wisely gave up after a while and just started going places without him. When my sister got married in Atlanta, he had no choice but to go. One of my siblings was there with a camera to snap a picture of my dad in the car the moment the family crossed the border from Wisconsin into Illinois.

Years ago, it was a joke. Now, I get it. What a wonderful thing to feel that where you are is the best place in the world. For years, my head could never get around that because it’s a big old world out there and I wanted to see it. But in a world where people are constantly on the go and always thinking the grass is greener somewhere else, my dad was utterly content with where he was. What a lucky man.

I’m starting to get that, and this is where I’m becoming my dad: I never want to leave this place. I’m having a hard time planning a summer vacation because I just kind of like hanging around here. I have a well-stamped passport and I wonder if it’s ever going to get stamped again. I’m content; I love where I live.

I was somewhat helped in this regard by having two consecutive summers of health issues that kept me home from work a lot. It’s during that time I discovered that my little town is a completely different place during the day than it is at night. Where the streets are relatively quiet after 6 p.m., they bustle during the day. Because I was home so much I began spending time at a local coffee shop. Now I have my own coffee crew and rarely get to read my newspaper there because I see so many people I know.

Where in the evenings the businesses are closed and Main Street is quiet, during the day I can walk down the street and wave at all the business owners through their shop windows – to Mary Jane, to Karla, to Peg, to Donna, to Henri, to Mo, to Rebecca, to Julie, to John.

Once I had to go back to work five days a week, I suddenly did not want to. I realized, like my dad had so many years ago, that this was the place that brought me comfort and I didn’t want to leave it.
But you have to make a living, so I make the 25-mile trek each day, down Main Street in my car instead of on foot, through the five roundabouts that make up the eastern exit out of this town. When I work a regular day shift, it’s a trek where sneezes mark my departure and my arrival. I’m one of those people who sneezes at the sun, and to leave town facing east in the morning and to return facing west in the evening creates an interesting driving challenge in a town with five roundabouts.

I see the sneezes as the bookmarks to note when I leave and when I return, but they’re not really necessary. Because all I need to know to make me smile is that I am home, and I have my dad to thank for that.

A beautiful place. Who would ever want to leave?