Monday, August 27, 2018

Tales of a Junior High Gym Class, or What Fresh Hell is This?

While skimming through the New York Times trying to maintain my sanity by avoiding anything vaguely political (a hard thing to do these days, maintaining sanity and avoiding the political), I came across an article that made me wish I'd stuck with venom and politics. The article, "How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today," opened a zombie-memory I'd thought was buried for good.

And like any good zombie, it burst forth with a vengeance.

The article had some kind of point, I'm sure, but "gym class" stopped me cold, and I do mean cold. I froze at the very thought of junior high physical education and those walking-dead memories of the teacher, the uniforms, the sound of tennis shoes squeaking on the gym floor, and the smell of Right Guard, Shalimar, Aqua Net, and sweat in the locker room.

We had a tyrant of a gym teacher, Miss Willie Jones. Broadminded, forgiving adult that I am, I'm willing to accept that Willie Jones had many fine qualities, it's just that none were even remotely evident to junior high me. As the school king/queen-maker, she held sway over who was in and who was out for class officers, cheerleaders, and all those other things that adolescents deem so important. Alas, I got off on the wrong foot with her simply by being my brother David's little sister. She never made it clear exactly what he'd done to her that was traumatic enough to impose guilt by relation on little me, but I was junior high-doomed once she found out. And I was at her mercy every day in the gym.

Then there was the rush and hurry of dressing out, changing out of whatever cute little outfit you'd so carefully chosen for the day and slipping into lovely black bloomer shorts and a white top. Yeah, that gym uniform that you might take home every couple of weeks to wash. Maybe. I mean, who had time to take dirty gym clothes to your locker after class, when your time was better spent trying to salvage that perfect flip hairdo gone limp from 45 minutes of so-called exercise?

And don't get me started on the team sports mentality of phys ed classes. I could climb anything like a monkey. I could roller and ice skate with the best of them. But volleyball, basketball, and softball? Nope nope-ity nope nope. Oh, sure, we had a few minutes of jumping jacks and the like at the first of class, and occasionally we learned some kind of little dance to "Alley Cat," but most of the time was spent popping blood vessels in our thumbs serving volleyballs, missing countless baskets in basketball, or wasting our precious youth in the outfield of a softball game. And for those of us chosen last for teams, well, you know the drill: the dreaded humiliation as you and some other poor shlub stood waiting to learn which of you would be the bigger disappointment to one of the teams.

After class, the locker room was a cloud of aerosol - Right Guard, Shalimar, Ambush, AquaNet, Adorn - all of which did more damage to our young lungs than smoking ever did, I'm sure. Thank goodness, I never smoked or my lungs would be well and truly shot by now. Those clouds of fragrance combined with some good old teenage sweat remains one of my most traumatic olfactory memories.

Funny thing, memories. All of my gym tales of the zombie persuasion seem to be of the junior high variety. I don't remember much about phys ed in high school, though I know I had to take it my sophomore and junior years. Maybe those memories are so deeply repressed that they're not surfacing in my dotage. Or maybe it's because nothing could top the shudder-inducing thoughts of Willie Jones, the last-chosen humiliations, and the fog of Right Guard and cheap cologne.

Now, excuse me while I head off for the best workout I know: settling in with a good book.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

How Musical Theater Restores My Faith in Everything

Years ago, I told a friend that someday I was going to write a book called Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals. For instance, did you know that the rain in Spain does NOT fall mainly in the plain? Now see, I wouldn't care one way or another except for loving My Fair Lady (the Julie Andrews/Rex Harrison soundtrack) and being a curious 14-year-old wanting to know if that song lyric was, indeed, factual. The point being that many a song from a musical has led me to further research on a variety of topics, most of which have proven of more use than where rain falls in Spain.

The impact of American musical theater on my life is incalculable. I know you're thinking "Wow! How shallow!" But the stories, the performances, the music, the lyrics, the costumes, the scenery, and the sheer energy of pulling all of that together make my spirit soar. Is it any wonder that musicals are getting me through this dark time in our history?

Last week, daughter and I did a whirlwind trip to New York to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! Kate managed to nab tickets to a Hamilton matinee for the same day. We were on our way to an afternoon and evening that restored my faith in some important things: all the ways we need to live and work together, how crooked paths can be made straight, how gifted storytellers, musicians, and actors can show us truth and love and laughter when we need it most. 

Both Hamilton and Dolly! showcase the indomitable American spirit. As different as they are, both shows capture the get-'er-done drive that has been a hallmark of our collective personality. And both expose some serious flaws in our collective DNA, as well. By highlighting our brilliance and our faults, Hamilton and Dolly! give me faith not only in the way our stories get told, but in the truth-telling stories themselves.

So, raise a glass to freedom before the parade passes by. Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out, and look around look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. I wanna be in the room where it happens room where it happens, because it only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long. (Pardon the mash-up, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jerry Herman.) Faith and courage restored. The will to persevere and fight for our better selves returned.

And as for writing that book about learning everything from musicals, I still might do it, who knows?