Friday, April 29, 2011

figure skaters and their countries

i love watching figure skating; i love it the way only a klutz can love visions of utter grace. i am fascinated by the range of political implications of this sport/art. 'the men and the ladies'--the phrase infuriates me. it's appallingly condescending: these 'ladies' are women.

the sport is on the one hand, about as equal opportunity as it gets: there are women skaters, men skaters, pairs and dancers who are combined in an image of absolute heterosexuality. it never allows its fans to forget or ignore gender. for many years, female ice dancers were required to wear skirts. eventually some of the rebelled by wearing bloomer-type short pants with a small scarf-like swath of material belted around them. eventually the rule changed. but the unwritten rule that women must show a lot of flesh has remained in place. as has the equally unwritten and complementary rule that they must appear to be wholesome and 'good.' so they have to have costumes that include a large amount of the material known as 'illusion,' with a french pronunciation but a universal implication. the 'ladies' must, like beauty-pageant contestants, exude an air of virgin-whore combined.

along with this is the implicit denial of homosexuality in the skating world. several years ago, when brian orser was outed by a vengeful ex-lover, a huge fuss was made about it. there was an air of wonderment in the coverage--you mean, a famous skater is gay? all this, while a number of well-known skaters were dying of AIDS, and videos of the funerals were shown. finally, rudy galindo came out publicly. still, the flamboyance of a coyly non-defining johnny weir is tolerated as a comically annoying aberrance. the overall image remains apple-pie gosh-darn straight. everywhere--not justin america but in the skating world internationally.

and, as inevitably as with most competitive sports, it has an aura of high patriotism. flags abound; the winners of each world or olympic event stand, usually teary-eyed, as their national anthem is played. we won; our country won.

but here is where it plays out in the most fascinatingly contradictory way. the top skaters have always led pretty international lives. you find the right coach, and you move to where that coach lives. you stay sometimes for years, a citizen of one country living in another.

and it gets more complicated. dual citizenship often exists. when it does, the skater might decide that the country she has lived in isn't the best country to skate for. sylvia fontano was an american born and bred, but one parent was italian, and that was enough for her and for italy. she skated in worlds as an italian. similarly, an israeli ice dance champion was an american.

this makes a lot of practical sense. if you're a skater from one of the big skating countries, like the US or russia, you have a lot of competition, and may have little chance of getting to the top. but if you skate for a country with a small skating community, you can end up a world or olympic champion.

but what if you don't have dual citizenship? and here is where it gets interesting. more and more we see skaters relocating and applying for citizenship in her new country. to some extent, this began during the cold war: communist country skaters who felt confined by the control the government had over their lives, and especially their mobility within and outside of the country, defected. not lots, but like other atheletes and dancers, those that did got big publicity. it was good for america and the other 'free countries' to project themselves as the patrons of artistic freedom.

then, especially with the downfall of the soviet bloc, more and more skaters moved from and to more and more countries. it was big news a few years ago when canadian ice dancer tanith belbin, who was partnered with american benjamin agosto, applied for US citizenship. much drama came out of the timing: would she get her citizenship in time to skate for america in the olympics? [she did.] there was no suggestion that she had been in any way restricted by her government or her skating association in canada. she was part of a good team and they could go far as a team.

i was thinking about this tonight, watching worlds. tonight featured pair teams' and men's long program. among the skaters getting a lot of attention kawagudi and smirnov, the russian competitors. they are terrific skaters, but that wasn't the only reason they got the attention. kavagudi is originally from japan, and was much affected, the commentators observed, by the tsunami in her birth country. she had left that country two years ago, because she was determined to train with the famous coach tamara moskovina. she kept applying to moskovina, and kept getting turned down. so she packed up and moved to russia and virtually camped out at moskovina's door. the coach finally accepted her, to train her as a russian skater. she is now a russian citizen.

the very top pairs team for the past couple of years (who won again tonight) is the german team of aliona savchenko and robin salkova. savchenko is from the ukraine. her coach, ingo stuer, wanted her to skate with the german salvkova. she moved to germany and became a citizen.

all my examples are female, and one could argue that the old ideal of women leaving home to be with their husbands makes it a little easier for women to switch citizenship. but there are several men who have made similar choices over the years. anthony liu, born in china, repatriated and in 1996 became an australian citizen, representing his new country until his retirement in 2003. more recently, maxim shipov left russian to become israel's national champion.

the world of figure skating fans seems not to have any problems with this, for which i am glad on several levels. it says something to me about our much-vaulted virtue of patriotism. it says it's really not as fundamental as propagandists try to make it. whatever feelings these skaters have about their countries of origin, they have chosen their work over their countries. aside from the old iron curtain escapees, they have not done so for political reasons, but for practical ones. there is a love that can transcend love of country. i remember once the great russion defector rudolf nureyev being asked about his allegiance to his new country, america. his reply was: as a dancer, i have no country. as a dancer, my country is dance.

i doubt that any of these people would think of themselves as anarchists, or indeed as political actors of any sort. they are simply choosing their allegiances in different terms than that of patriotism. i'm certain that most of them feel gratitude toward the country that has allowed them to act on their talent and their passion. many must also feel nostalgia for the land they grew up in--though i would bet, if they were queried, the nostalgia would be more for a specific town, specific people, and familiar customs than for the capital-c Country. it is perhaps not much different than a wife following her husband into his world, except that it lacks the sexist premise of gender roles. 'forsaking all others' isn't limited to personal attachment to a spouse. and forsaking a country for a greater love when nothing in society demands that you do so is a brave and profound decision.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

worlds figure skating

a peculiar and comparatively minor side effect of the terrible tsunami in japan last month was the postponement of the world's figure skating championships, scheduled for tokyo. they are now occurring in moscow this week.

tonight universal sports television ran the first two events, the men's and pairs short programs. it's hard to be excited, given the backdrop of the event, yet hard not to be excited if you're a skating fan.

it seems to me that that same ambivalence pervaded the audience and commentators there.

it's one of the best groups of skaters i've ever seen. more and more pairs are displaying the grace once the province of ice dancers. and the men were amazing. only two of them failed to display the kind of artistry that used to apply to very few of them indeed. all 3 american men were wonderful dancers, and this in a post-johnny wier era. way ahead of everyone was the canadian patrich chan, who acheived a world-record-high mark for his perfect combo of dance and atheleticism.

inevitably, there was a poignancy to the skating of the japanese, who were far from home, where they had expected to skate, and weighed down with the awareness of the tragedy, or so it seemed to me. nobuko odo, usually fun to watch, whether he's on or off in his program, skated technically well but robotically. takahashi, the major japanese champion, had half his usualy charisma.

in the pairs, the japanese couple was elegant, but there was an air of poignancy in the program, skated with an almost cosmic irony, to "feelin' good,' with its central image of beautiful weather.

this is the first time something like this has happened with World's, and i think the ambivalence will continue to haunt the event. it's hard to imagine that i could have felt saddened by its absence last month, given the overwhelming horror of the suffering of the japanese. but i did feel sad. and sadly perhaps, i'm happy to see it now.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

PART 3, Athena, St. Therese, and faith

so here is something i just learned.  if you do 3 separate posts for one long article, it will show up as any 3 separate posts will, in reverse chronological order.  so if you're interested in reading this tome-ish piece, you should start on the 3rd post down, which is the first post.  ok? and this, you'll be glad to know, is the last one.....


all this has been a response to a facebook discussion by my friend and former student Jennifer, who may well regret her comment by the time she gets to part 3. she was curious about the relation to bunnies and eggs to the christian holiday of easter, and whether or not there was any biblical text in which these things are mentioned.  several of us were quick to point out what jen already knew quite well--the roots of easter in older religions, for whom spring was very logically associated with fertility.  but we had taken her innocent question away from scripture and into the underlying ideas of birth and rebirth that emerged whenever  dormant plant life began waking up and emerging onto the earth, and people were once more able to move out from their caves and huts and fireplaces into a newly warm, welcoming outdoors.  which triggered my thinking again about my own beliefs in life and death and immortality. not that i'm ever very far away from thinking about it, and even more, not that my conclusions are remotely original.  but they are where i come out, at least now, with both logic and emotion working together.

i think that cultures and the people who comprise them have always known on some level that they are simultaneously mortal and immortal, and they have tried to understand how those 2 things play out.  something not us, individually or even, as we  understand the concept, collectively; something larger than our brains can encompass, got us here and takes us away from here.  i think we instinctively understand that the 'i' is and always was and always will be, in whatever form that may take, even as we experience 'i' as rooted in time.  i think also that the confusion of brain with mind, and the rejection of the mind/body differentiation as well as the mind/soul differentiation, are at best flawed.  the mind and soul are the same thing.  the brain isn't the mind; it is the physical organ through which the mind [the self] conveys understanding.  the physical organ in a physical body is essential, but also inherently limited. we have 5 senses [6, if you believe in psychic phenomena], and everything the mind channels through the brain is  confined to the limits of that organ.  the organ can do marvelous things, about which scientists are learning more every day.  growing understanding of the physical world shows the apparent illogic of even physical reality: if the earth turns around we should be falling off it every 24 hours.  things we can't see or touch or smell, like germs, control our health.  but all that we have learned and continue to learn is expansion of physical senses, as explorers and scientists see things that seem to contradict the immediate evidence of the senses.

so every culture in every era takes what it knows, and with it attempts to understand what it can never  understand through the senses, and shapes  its own story around it. the stories, all with their pieces of truth, burrow into and borrow from other stories,  and the story grows richer and sometimes crazier with each growth.

 many of us, maybe most of us, and maybe on some untapped level all of us, have moments now and again in which more of the mind inhabits the brain, and we know a sliver of the incomprehensible whole.  you stare at a snowflake, and in the very fact of its instant disappearance you see its immortality: you know that that snowflake is, that it has never not been and never will cease to be.  a snowflake is a very poetic image; let me use a more mundane one.  this is something i've tried to explain and never can, but i keep trying....

i'm 20, it's saturday night, and i'm just getting off work. i'm in the elevator going down to meet my boyfriend.  suddenly i know that this instant is forever,  even as the light shows the descending floor numbers, and i look forward to seeing my boyfriend in a few seconds. claustrophobic as i am, the idea is neither upsetting nor pleasing, but simply as real as the numbers passing by. it's only later that it seems at all odd to me, and it never feels odd;  i just know it should feel odd.  ten years pass; i am visiting friends in that building, and once more i get into that very familiar elevator.  standing next to me is the me from ten years earlier.  again i am not surprised, and it feels totally normal, not even especially interesting.  it just is.

i have never had that specific experience since, which is probably just as well;  one doesn't want to keep running into oneself in elevators.  but that utter knowledge of eternity in the midst of finity returns now and then, though usually unexpected.  maybe what we call deja vu is simply a fraction of that sort of experience, and we put it backwards in time because time is what we know.  i think this may be what blake means when he writes of 'eternity's sunrise.'

i think also that this is what happens with the 'near-death' experience.  the mind, closer to leaving the brain, experiences what the sense-world can't.  but it still experiences it through the brain.  you may appear dead by all the tools of judgement that exist, but you're not dead, or you wouldn't come back. 'near death' is a close cousin to 'partly pregnant.'  you see what your brain permits and expects you to see: jesus, your mother, a white light, an angel.    you see closer to that infinite truth than you ever have before, but it comes shaped in a way comprehensible to a mind still enclosed in a brain.  or if you experience something more, it translates into brain comprehension when your body reasserts itself and you 'come back to life.'

ever since i learned  how science was beginning to understand more about the way the brain functioned--that not only did it affect your actions but your actions affected it--i assumed that one day they would discover something different in the brains of people who had near-death experiences.  it seemed obvious that either the brain of such a person was different in a way that allowed them to see what others presumably didn't see [surely there are apparently-dead people who come back to life without reports of unusual occurrances,] or that the very process of seeing the phenomenon changed the brain in some fashion.

jennifer started me on this rant, so it is fitting to end it by moving back to her original question about what the bible really says.  once again, i am no believer in the exclusive divinity of jesus.  but one line that i have read in the king james bible has always struck me as capturing a bit of that truth.  'before abraham came to be, i am,' says jesus.  that present tense is wonderful.  i am convinced that each of us separately and all of us together 'are.'  not just people, or mammals, or animals, but every leaf and blade of grass and rock and flea.  one of my friends wonders if each cell of our bodies is individually eternal as well as contributing to our selves' eternity.  i am. we are. it is.

or so i think....... 

athena, saint therese, and the question of faith, part 2

after my parents' deaths, both in 1994, i talked about this to a wonderful, truly holistic therapist.  i explained the dreams in which i thought they came to me, as well as the dreams that i knew were produced by my own mind.  i was unable to keep myself from worrying about the reality of death. the circle was whirring around now: if death is permanent, why do we bother living as if it mattered?  i've never accepted the idea of immortality through children or influence or the work you've done: you're not immortal if you don't know it, regardless of how other mortals experience what you've done. but if life is eternal, why do we live this existence so thoroughly when our deepest finite experiences must pale in the face of eternity? these were not, and are not, philosophical speculations to me.  maybe that's all they are to some people, thought i doubt it.

my therapist had the sense and the humanity not to try and dismiss all this with a what-do-you-feel-about-having-these-thoughts?  instead, she posed a question.  if i could prove to you, with absolute certainty, that there was life after death, she asked, how do you think you would live your life?  i thought--or rather, felt-- about it a moment, and said, i'd live pretty much the way i do now, only more happily.  there was nothing in particular i could envision changing in my daily activities.  okay, she said.  now, if i could prove to you, with absolute certainty, that there was nothing after death, how do you think you would live your life? and i thought/felt,  i suppose i would go on eating when my body demanded it, and pissing, and doing what my body said i should do, but i doubt i'd do much beyond that.  so now, think about those answers she said.  now, what do you actually believe?  and i knew.  i was living my life the way i would if i believed in forever.  i believed in forever.

i believe in forever.

enter yet another element.  for the past 10 years or so, i have been teaching a great-literature type class, beginning with homer and ending with shakespeare.  how much this has been in my life altogether is a different story for a different post.  but it has, among other things, thrown me into the world of the ancient gods.  i've gotten to know these gods fairly intimately--perhaps as intimately as i once knew the god of the catholic schools,  as intimately as i once knew little therese.

then one semester, i traveled in france with a friend.  we ended up in a town called nimes, close to avignon, where i came across the partial ruin of an ancient altar to athena.  i stood there, transfixed, feeling the energy of the thousands of worshippers who had once stood was precisely the energy i'd been feeling in church.  i was engulfed in their hopes, prayers, fears, faith.

i knew that there was never really a goddess athena.  and i knew that there had always been a goddess athena.  this was bone-deep knowledge, soul-deep knowledge.  athena, consciously, knowingly existed.  whether she had been en-souled by all those worshippers; whether she was, like saint therese, a real person interpreted as sacred (and teaching Christine de Pisan's City of Ladies helped me with this one) and thus appearing to humans in a sacred guise, i had no idea.  i should say i have no  idea; at the time the experience was all-encompassing, and i didn't have any idea of anything at all.  the questions came later. the questions remain.  so does the truth of that experience.

athena, saint therese, and the question of faith

i was raised catholic, as a result of which i deeply dislike the church.  i don't like its distortions of the ideas of its founder, i don't like its expression in the petty rules that attempt to define, contain, possess, and warp that infinitely malleable business of sexuality; i don't like its institutional effort to control people's lives and choices; i don't like either of its gods--the old-testament petty tyrant or the more textured, compassionate but smug hero of the new testament.  the third party, the blessedly invisible holy ghost, has some possibility, and if he'd detach himself from the trio he might be closer to the always incomprehensible Truth than the rest of the band.

for years after defying the church in a double act of rebellion [in the same weekend i ate meat on friday and got rid of my virginity, knowing i wasn't ever going to confession  again] i refused to go into a church.  i hated the Church, so i hated the church.  eventually i drifted back.  never, never into the Church, but into an occasional church.  i stopped being repelled by the buildings, inside or out, and began reclaiming the parts that had been healthy for me.  it began with saint therese--'little' therese, not 'big teresa.'  rebel though i had inherently been in my  catholic schoolgirl life, i shared that odd passion that so many catholic schoolgirls have for the Saint of the Little Way.  she was a pretty dull creature, but i suppose we all knew we could be as dreary as she was, while few of us were able to embrace that flamboyant rebel Teresa of Avila, with her erotic visions of christ and her hearty defiance of every authority.  or maybe it's that the nuns wouldn't teach us about big teresa, who, canonized or not, was a role model for defiance, as her namesake was a role model for perfect submission.

a digression--or maybe not.  but here are 2 archetypal stories of the t's that i learned in adulthood:

Big T--she was eating with someone while trying to get her new convent approved. her guest was appalled at the zest with which she stuffed her mouth and licked her lips, and he reproved her for her open enjoyment of physical appetite.  She looked at him as she tore off another hunk of meat, and replied: 'when i pray, i pray. when i partridge, i partridge!'

Little t--she was washing clothes outside the convent with a group of other nuns.  one nun, unknowingly, repeatedly splashed soapy water in therese's eye.  instead of pointing it out to the nun, therese remained quiet,  preferring to risk blindness over making the other nun feel bad.

when i thought about it at all, i regretted that i had put my energy into the quiet masochist rather than the demanding and self-rejoicing visionary.  today, of course, if i were picking a patron saint, Big T would be way up on the list and little t wouldn't make the list at all.

but history is history, one's own as well as the world's.  it was to little therese i had  turned in all the agonies of my young life, throwing myself on my knees in front of the little altar i'd made for her, sobbing, begging her to help me.

and she did.  the solace those prayers brought me was real, and had nothing to do with the rote prayers we had rammed down our minds in school.  for a long time, i didn't want to acknowledge this.  if it was true, it might have made the nuns right.  i was very proud of having grown into a young woman the nuns, and therese herself, would be appalled by.

but after i'd had other mystical experiences, and no longer needed the nuns' disapproval, i found myself going into a church once in a while, to see if there was a statue of therese.  i no longer knelt to her, and no longer expected her help.  but she was a dear old friend, who had never betrayed me, even if i'd grown apart from her.  i became able to see the holiness within her, even some of the holiness within the church itself.  for therese, i reclaimed the custom of lighting candles to a saint--and as time went by and i began traveling to europe [try to avoid churches in europe!] i would sometimes light candles to her in absentia.  if there was no statue to therese, i found another saint--joan of arc was obvious, but if need required it, i could turn to joseph or mary or whoever else was around.  it was harder to turn to jesus, but if he was the only one there, even that was okay.  in each case, i'd greet the saint, explain that the candle was for therese, and request that my greetings be passed on to their comrade.  and i'd ask them all to please help my folks here, and bring my love to those who had died.  more often than not, i'd feel the holiness and helpfulness of the saint--not, i am convinced, because the pope had canonized them, but because they were there and i had turned to them.

my own 'theology' , meanwhile, had developed  beyond the fervent attempt to be a perfect agnostic [atheism even then felt too absolute for me, and as the victim of one form of absolutist belief, i was never attracted to another].  new age ideas appealed to me, but they quickly seemed too facile, and very often seemed to be linked to capitalism.  shirley maclaine's first new-agey memoir turned me off as much as the old baltimore catechism had.  and yet some of their ideas, often watered-down buddhism, made sense.  i embraced the feminist spirituality movement, but it had its own pitfalls, one of which was a too-frequent rejection of activism.  and how different was the great mother goddess, after all, from the blessed virgin, or even from the great father god?

not an unusual odyssey for a woman of my generation and my inclinations.  add a few spiritual/psychic experiences with dead but uncanonized figures from history, as i threw myself into whatever i could find of the minds and souls of the women in tudor england, and i was able to understand more deeply [or maybe more psychotically] my attachment to saint therese.  i no longer saw her help as a purely self-created response to my own needs.  i began to think that therese, like 'bloody' mary and some others, had indeed come to me, because i had asked her to, had opened my own mind/heart/soul to hers.  very duh, i suppose.  but it took me awhile to get there.