succumbing to peer pressure

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Book update!


I finished The Tipping Point - as suspected, I'm not the right audience. It's ok, and has interesting moments, but I don't think it's the new key to understanding chaos theory or anything. Most troubling - I spotted some mathematical errors in one or two of his examples (nothing huge, but certain details that he fudged to make his analogies work a little more cleanly) that made me sort of suspect the research quality of the rest of the book.

Before departing for Ireland I hit up a used bookstore for some cheap paperbacks I could shed along my travels, thus freeing up space in my suitcase. Alas, I didn't read nearly as much as I planned, but between Dublin and Denver I did manage to polish off an old collection of Nonrequired Reading (a mixed bag, as I find most of those series to be, but still worth the investment), Contact (very enjoyable, and added bonus, the previous owner left a NOW convention nametag in the book. yay feminism!) and Acceptable Risk, which is both terrible and awesome (new drug synthesized in days! may cure depression and anxiety! oh, but it builds up in key parts of the brain and makes you revert back to your most animal instincts! Plus, witches!)


On impulse at Wordsmiths fundraiser last night I picked up Shut Up I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned In the Israeli Government by Gregory Levey. I'm only a chapter in, but already it's threatening to provide ample distraction from completing my course notes. Speaking of which...(four more lectures and I've outlined the entire semester!)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hey! That's my sport you're talking about!

I can't quite put my finger on what it is about the comments to this blog post that gets my panties all in wad, but I'm guessing it's something along the lines of that old bit about how I can make fun of my family, but you damn well better not. The post is generally about the alleged age of Chinese gymnasts, and the title references a book about how damaging (physically and emotionally) sports like gymnastics and ice skating are/can be. I was a gymnast from ages 4 to 17, started competing at 8 years old, and by high school I was spending about 20 hours a week training or traveling to/from the gym. I have a sort of mixed relationship with the sport, and have certainly done my fair share of criticizing the institution. But let me lay out the things that bother me about the aforementioned comments - 1) perhaps people are just keeping it to themselves, but none of the commenters have referenced a personal history with the sport, and yet all of them speak with this authoritative tone and imply that they know how to 'fix' gymnastics. 2) at least one of the commenters claims that gymnastics is the only Olympic sport that rewards pre-adolescence. I would argue that at the very least diving and ice skating suffer similar problems, though if I really went through a list of Olympic sports I could probably come up with more. I'm not saying this isn't a problem, just that it's unfair to single out gymnastics. 3) we saw articles just like this after Kerri Strug completed her (in)famous vault on an injured leg - it really pisses me off that our five second attention spans mean we only worry about the abuse of young women once every four years. 4) the whole Chinese gymnast age debacle drives me nuts simply because people are claiming they can tell her age by looking at her - while the particular gymnast in question may indeed be under 16, and she certainly does look young, one of the things that happens in any sport when you train at that level is that your body slows down or stops certain processes to allocate resources to your training regimen. Women in the military often stop getting their periods; young athletes often have a very delayed onset of puberty. So it's impossible to claim that by looking at someone you can tell she isn't 16 because she clearly hasn't gone through puberty, when it is equally possible that she is both 16 and has not gone through puberty. Again, I'm not saying that's a good thing, just that it's a nagging detail that bothers me about this whole argument. 5) another commenter worries about the long-term impact of arthritis, etc. from gymnastics. Although I joke that certain joints in my body are older than others, and certainly the daily impact of the sport is punishing, I would argue that being an athlete is a personality type, and if it's not one sport it's another, and doing anything at an intense level is going to leave a lasting mark on your body.

Now, for the sport itself. Yes, certainly, it has it's problems. Gymnastics, ice skating, swimming, diving, and dancing (just off the top of my head) all often involve young women, place pressure on those young women to be perfect, and are plagued by eating disorders and injuries. This is a serious problem and the infrastructure of these sports need to work on better ways to provide more forgiving environments for impressionable young women. But as someone who came through one of those sports relatively unscathed, I would be loathe to argue that we should do away with them entirely, or modify them in such a way that young women no longer compete in them.

I think many of the perfectionist/emotional problems that come along with these sports are a chicken/egg problem - I know that in my case, perfectionism was already a part of a my personality, and it was part of what drew me to more and more competitive gymnastics. Is it a good thing that my sport amplified this aspect of my personality? Probably not. Would I inevitably have ended up participating in some sport with equal intensity? Probably so. The key here is that we need to respect young developing minds and bodies. We don't need more rules/enforcement of arbitrary age cut points, we need better monitoring of coaches who force public weigh-ins and look the other way when athletes are clearly abusing their bodies. We need fewer public accolades for coaches like Bela Karolyi who have a well-documented history of emotional abuse (and who set the tone for any coach who hoped to produce a 'champion' throughout the 80s and 90s). We shouldn't be up in arms because one of the Chinese gymnasts might be 13, we should be upset about a culture that takes three year olds away from their families and devalues daughters so much that when one of these athletes wants to come home her parents tell her no, she is not welcome here, she must instead become an Olympic champion because that will bring honor to the family and elevate their social status.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


When I was in high school I had this visceral relationship with music. I blame it on all the hormones and my not-quite-fully-developed brain. It was a little like that Disney movie Fantasia, where music is represented by shapes and colors, but mostly for me music was about feel. Our house had hardwood floors and if I was in a particular mood I would come home and close my door and crank up my stereo (usually with a selection from Bush) and lie spread eagle on the floor so I could feel every note vibrate through the wood and into my body. Like I said - visceral. It's hard to put my finger on what the particular mood was that brought on this behavior - I wasn't quite depressed or angry or sad or anything else with a nice neat name. I was just in whatever mood that required this physical experience with music. It's kind of funny to think back on it, as an 'adult,' given all those stereotypes of teenagers slamming doors and turning up crappy music to drown out their parents' lectures. Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that I still have this, brought on by what I consider the 'sweet spot' with alcohol - I'm not drunk, but perhaps a bit tipsy, and I can't begin to figure out the physiological thing is happening, because hopefully my hormones are not still all totally out of whack the way they are during adolescence, but I still, from time to time, find myself pulling the car over on the drive home, throwing on the flashers, and risking blown out speakers while I revel in whatever happens to be on the radio vibrating through the entire car. Tonight's cover of Free Falling from John Mayer was particularly satisfying.

Monday, August 11, 2008

I was all distracted writing my previous post because I was watching the men's gymnastics team kick ass and take names. I've always sort of loved the men's team a bit more than the women's because they are always the underdogs. No matter how good they are, people rarely know their names, and always underestimate them. Watching our guys be truly jubilant over a bronze medal was lovely, and truly well deserved. And I love that our last three competitors were Kevin Tan, Raj Bhavsar, and Alexander Artemev. How much more American can you get? And after Artemev nailed his pommel horse routine he pointed into the crowd at David Durante, the last alternate, the one who didn't get to compete, and he's just weeping. I'm a sucker for that - the space that sports opens up for men to be emotional. It's why this moment from 1992 is one of my favorite Olympic moments ever - I love when Trent comes barreling off the podium and launches into his coach's arms. Beautiful!

I'm such a sucker for the Olympics. I have all these mixed feelings about having them in China and all sorts of social and political and human rights implications, but for now I'm just soaking in the sappy sports imagery. I could watch this over and over and over again (and only partially because Michael Phelps is one of the most perfect examples of the human body).