Under one arm was her daughter’s face, and around Jessie Rodriguez’ neck was a laminated picture of same daughter, the point guard on the Nazareth Academy basketball team.
The daughter’s face was approximately the size of the entire mom, one of those Fathead things that was apparently required of every mother of every girl at the Illinois state basketball tournament this weekend.
I tried to picture my mother carrying my giant face under her arm at our games a very long time ago and I can’t really do it. For one, the pictures of the faces are blown up to such an extreme, that in the case of your average teenager, every tiny blemish is roughly the size of a frisbee. Even a very long time ago, when we didn’t exercise much control over what our parents did or did not do, I don’t think we would have allowed our mothers to publicly display our facial pores magnified over 100 times their actual size.
But there I was, at Redbird Arena in Normal, Ill., with my husband Rick, watching moms carrying their daughter’s giant faces under their arms, because the Illinois High School Association was introducing my Niles West basketball team at halftime in celebration of the 40th anniversary of our state title.
I was also there to shamelessly plug my book (in case you missed it, it’s the same book that is the theme of my entire website), which entailed sitting at a table in the concourse of the arena with postcards that had the book’s likeness, a sign on an easel with the book’s likeness and very cool pens with the book’s likeness supplied by my friend Shari. Subtlety was not the theme.
I figured walk-up traffic was a given. Why? Because, Rick and I reasoned, whenever we go to Northbrook Days, our suburb’s annual carnival, we never pass up a freebie of any kind, including chip clips, plastic freezer ice scrapers and Rick’s favorite item, a junior police badge that I believe he knocked over several small children to obtain.
Parents of Illinois girls’ basketball state finalists are apparently much more sophisticated nowadays, for even when I nicely thrust the postcard into the hand of one woman who asked me what it was, she waved me off with a facial expression not unlike one you’d make if someone shoved unwanted wasabi into your mouth.
Undeterred, I eventually met Jessie Rodriguez, who, trying to kill time while waiting for her daughter Laila, and wanting to find a resting spot for her daughter’s giant face, stopped at my table.
She was totally charming, at 46 a mere child compared to my teammates and I, but telling me that even 40 years later, her daughter’s team still faced the same challenges/discrimination that we did.
“They’re still fighting the battle,” Jessie said. “No pep band, no cheerleaders, small crowds.”
But the most interesting thing Jessie told me was about her own experience in high school. Describing her two athletic and hyper-competitive daughters – Laila has a full scholarship to play basketball at Trinity Christian College, where she will also study nursing – I assumed Jessie was once an athlete or at least athletic.
“Nope,” she said shaking her head. “I’m Puerto Rican, and my mother would say, “You need to learn to cook and clean, so one day when you have a family, you’ll be ready.’”
“In the 80s, this happened?” I fairly screeched.
“Oh yeah,” Jessie said. “My mother said, “Let your brothers play sports.’”
I would have gone home completely depressed despite the whole 40th anniversary celebration thing, except that Jessie told me another story, this one with her now in college at Northern Illinois, slogging through computer science classes until one day, one of her male classmates told her something.
“This is not for you,” he said.
“Wait,” Jessie recalled saying, her eyes blazing at the mere memory of it in the concourse of the Redbird Arena. “What was that?”
“You shouldn’t be studying computer science,” he repeated. “It’s not for you.”
Jessie had already switched her major twice until she found computer science. And who was this guy to suggest she couldn’t do it. She knew exactly what he was getting at.
“I’ll see you at graduation,” she told him.
And indeed, she saw him. She, in her honors regalia, he with the sheepish look on his face.
“Well, now I know,” I said after she described her successful computer science career.
“What?” she said.
“Where your daughters got their competitiveness,” I told her.
She looked at me as if it never dawned on her that she would have passed down something that made her children successful athletes despite the fact that she never wore a uniform.
Then she smiled.
And my work was done.
Why, you ask, has it been nearly eight years since I last wrote a blog on my website?
Same reason it’s nearly impossible to find Kemp’s Java Chunk at my Mariano’s. There is no earthly explanation. At least not a good one. Because it was pure joy. Not the Java Chunk -- though honestly it really is special, trust me, you should try it if you can find it, which you probably can’t -- but my blog, which I began in the wee hours of the morning after getting laid off by the Chicago Tribune in the spring of 2009, and sustained me in every way writing always has.
I wrote about everything and nothing. Finding a Sonics Drive-In and their special milkshakes (sensing a theme here?), Twinkies, the Duggars and my YMCA. Disregarding proper grammar became addictive. So too did a certain departure from journalistic integrity or at least dignity. My kids, who appeared semi-regularly in these blogs and often claimed to be misquoted, certainly provided plenty of fodder. Now of legal age, I won’t say it doesn’t scare me that they could actually litigate, but I suspect they will still appear here.
I couldn’t do any of that as a sportswriter. And that was fine. Covering the Bulls in their championship glory days, the Bears in their, well, years between 1996 and 2006, writing about Olympic and college athletes, Little Leaguers and Hall of Famers, blessed me with a career I treasured. But as I shifted restlessly in those days after the Tribune and when I was first rescued by ESPN, I found the blog to be an unexpected refuge, always there for me to rant, be silly or wallow in self-pity. After getting laid off by ESPN in the spring of 2017, I think I was too numb to remember how much I loved my old friend.
I did, however, retreat to another abandoned literary project when I picked up a manuscript I had written in 2004 and had only periodically attended to since that time. Resuscitating the book that will appear in bookstores on Aug. 13, brings me back here. It made me re-design this website to something approximating current times and a site that will not embarrass my students or my kids. More than that, it has made me really happy.
Titled “State,” it is, simply put, a story of transformation. It chronicles a period in which my high school teammates and I went from pressing our proverbial noses against the doors of the “Boys’ Gym,” unable to practice or play there, to four years later when, playing before standing room-only crowds in that same gym, we won the 1979 Illinois girls’ basketball state championship.
I write in the book that the experience “saved us,” that it not only changed our lives then, but made us into the women we would become. It also placed me in a suspended bubble of high school nostalgia, writing to the background music of Styx and the Beach Boys and Barry Manilow (yeah, I know), reminiscing about Tab and the gym lockerroom, and demanding that my old teammates remember what they were thinking that time we jumped half-naked into the pool at East Leyden after our supersectional, 40 years ago.
I will say that it’s a very good thing I began my reporting “just” 25 years after our championship because the memories are considerably harder now to retrieve. The words don’t come as easily. And I won’t lie. I worry the same disease that robbed my parents of who they were, will sink its claws into me. It is what pushed me to get our story down, to leave for my kids and hopefully for those who will find in it the same inspiration that we did.
I love this book. And I love this blog. And I’ll try not to go away again.
Perusing the Internet between students Tuesday, I see this: "Christina Slammed over Performance." And I think "But, of course." It was about Christina Aguilera flubbing a few lines in the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl on Sunday. Horrible woman that she is, Aguilera, singing one of the toughest songs there is to sing before about 111 million people, became the 110th million person to make a mistake. Naturally, she had to apologize. Come on. Before she sang the last note, on-line chat rooms and twitter followers were already exchanging frantic messages as if they were the first to discover that the word "reaming" is not in the actual national anthem. In the days that followed, those who took notice gave way to those reaming her for it. Did she not practice? Was she not aware how important and sacred this song is? Is she not American? Or, in the words of moral barometer Joan Rivers, was she just "stupid?" "Christina must have been thinking about food, that's why she forgot the words," Rivers said in a PopEater exclusive because apparently, TV cameras made Aguilera looked heavier than 90 pounds. It would be easy to write off the scary Rivers, experiencing a career renaissance that rivals "Jersey Shore" in the "I-weep-for-our society" department, if she was the only one. After all, Aguilera is an internationally known entertainer. She is not immune to criticism and by accepting the invitation to perform at one of the most widely watched events in the world, she was leaving herself open to scrutiny. In her statement of apology, she begged for forgiveness. In America, we love when people beg for forgiveness. Sometimes we even forgive them. "I got so caught up in the moment of the song that I lost my place," she said. "I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through." What got me going on the Aguilera flub, however, was really not the moment or the apology or the singer at all. Before reading about her, I found myself lost in one of the typical Internet swamplands that passes for modern-day dialogue. It was the typical -- anonymous, of course -- comment boards that followed a column composed by a writer I like and respect. There was nothing extraordinary about either the comments or the column. The opinions expressed were actually fairly benign. But, like most columns -- which are, by definition, opinion pieces -- it unleashed a torrent of hate-filled, personal attacks on the writer. It doesn't matter that most of these type responses are misspelled and appear to originate from a lonely, unproductive cubicle or worse, a darkened basement. It is that these public forums have become so common and that each day, they seem to become scarier. I'm not sure why I read this particular one. I had stopped reading the comments that follow my own work on the website for which I work, not just because many were so sick in nature, but because, like so much else on the Internet these days, there is no accountability. In the 26 years I worked for newspapers, I received plenty of negative mail and later e-mail. Some were demented in nature -- I'm a female sportswriter -- and plenty were critical. But even the worst of it usually came with a signature. And even with the worst of it, I usually always replied. Sometimes, if it was particularly nasty, I would thank them profusely for writing, tell them how flattered any writer is when a reader takes the time and the thought to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, maybe even address the criticism directly and seriously. You would be surprised how many times even the authors of the meanest letters would write back with nice replies, thanking me for answering, saying they never expected me to actually read their letters, often even apologizing for being too harsh. But weird as it was, there was a civility to it all. A conversation. Accountability. The culture now is largely ignorant, frightening and is only getting worse. Among the most civil discussion about the Aguilera "incident" questioned whether this might be career-threatening. And those who saw the singer after her performance Sunday, said she was devastated. Yep, it's devastating all right.
The AOL headline on Friday asked the question, “Do you remember where you were 25 years ago?” and it didn’t take a photo of the Space Shuttle Challenger to jog my memory. There are some things you don’t forget. The sky was so blue and the sun so bright that day that I remember being stunned by how cold it was. Not Chicago cold but literally freezing at 32 degrees; cold enough that the orange crops were dying and tourists were scurrying for sweatshirts to layer under their light jackets. I was in heaven at the excuse to wear a sweater for a change. At 24, I had actually become somewhat jaded at the satellite and shuttle launches, occasionally even forgetting about them in the three years prior, until the early-morning vibration at the Kennedy Space Center not far from my Cape Canaveral apartment would shake me from my bed. But this one was different. It was partly the anticipation due to the delays in the week leading up to the launch. But mostly it was Christa McAuliffe. I knew everything about her, her husband’s and kids’ names, how she was selected from more than 10,000 applicants. I was fascinated, not just by her personality, which was cute and vibrant, but the fact that she was a regular person, a mom, and she was actually going into space. I had long since given up the desire to be an astronaut, probably around the same time that I first discovered that the Tilt-A-Whirl at Kiddieland made me want to hurl. But space flight became the dream of practically every kid in America whose parents let them stay up late enough to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon during the summer of 1969. And if you didn’t want to walk on the moon yourself, you were certainly shaped by it somehow. Seemingly anything was possible after that, the accomplishment inspiring both optimism and frustration, hence the saying “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t (fill in the blank)” becoming as cliché as a peace sign. We were certainly not immune to tragedy in January of 1986. We witnessed assassinations, natural disasters, airplane crashes and the Apollo 1 explosion. Some denounced NASA altogether for being too dangerous or just too expensive. But it felt like everyone was excited about the idea of a civilian in space. I had been living in Orlando for six months and was a little disappointed I wasn’t going to get the close-up view I had gotten in Cape Canaveral. But 50 miles away was close enough, friends told me, to see the launch on a clear day like this one. I had the television on in the other room and the stereo turned up high in my living room, where sliding glass doors led out to my balcony and luckily faced east. I counted down to myself with the radio, that part just never got old, and squinted to see the plume of smoke. I didn’t have to squint. It was bright white and thick and as it rose, I remember feeling a little jealous of Christa McAuliffe. How lucky she was to be getting this opportunity. There was no explanation for a few seconds after the white line suddenly exploded and then separated into two white trails. And then from inside, I heard the words, “There has been a major malfunction.” Anyone who was watching could instinctively tell that, but I was in denial. I called my friend Ken and yelled at him. “That is so irresponsible,” I said. “Why is he scaring everyone by saying major malfunction. They don’t know that.” But I knew. We all knew. The next thing I remember is driving to work a short time later and the odd sensation that I was the only one on the highway until I realized that everyone had pulled to the side of the road. The eery, y-shaped plume of smoke was still distinct against the bright blue sky, and we all stood by our cars staring and shivering, the cold day only partly responsible. For a while, there was a faint hope that the capsule had survived the explosion and fallen into the ocean, but I don’t think anyone really believed that. I stood there a very long time as the white smoke faded and disappeared. So yes, I remember where I was 25 years ago.
My husband wanted to get me a real birthday present this year, he really did. Because he gets nervous doing it on his own, he dangled all kinds of nice ideas. Jewelry even. I guess he still remembers how I reacted the year he got a new TV for our bedroom and tried to pass it off as a gift. So he really tried. And what did I do? I told him I’d rather have some moles removed. OK, let me re-state. I’d rather go to town at the dermatologist. Let them sand down, burn off, chemical peel, whatever it is they had to do to make me smoother and fresher without that gnawing guilt that I was being self-indulgent. This was my birthday present, after all! It would be rude to feel guilty. So I went to the dermatologist and told him to hack off whatever protrusion he happened to see, a request I think may have put him off a bit having used the word “hack” and all. Plus, I could tell he thought I was crazy since my protrusions apparently are only visible in my magnified makeup mirror. I got that impression when he told me that all women needed to throw out their magnified makeup mirrors. So now, of course, me being me, I’m starting to have second thoughts. Not about the hacking necessarily. The two scabs on my face are healing nicely and people only stare a little. But if the sanding doesn’t take and the little bumps grow back, can I still get a real present? I’m just wondering. I’m also wondering how I feel about turning 49. At some point, it becomes customary to start getting birthday cards with cartoon drawings of crazy old women with humorous comments about your age. When you’re 32, this is funny. When you’re 49, the cartoons start resembling you in real life. I think this is about the time when it starts becoming customary to be sad on birthdays even when there is really no earthly reason to be. At 49, with a family and a job and a half I love, I should be ashamed of myself for feeling sad about anything other than maybe the prospects of getting a new photo for my now-expired drivers license, which I actually really liked for the first time in my life. Still, it’s weird. I mean, 49? Next year, 49 will sound great. Next year, I will long for 49. This year, all I can think about is 50, which is really unfair. It’s all about 50. I have all year to try it on, get used to it, throw it out there just to see if people react in shock and amazement that the woman standing before them with a smooth complexion could possibly be almost 50. I have already started trying that and I don’t get much, but I may have to do it with people around my same age, a more sympathetic audience. I keep thinking about how gloriously happy Oprah was when she was 50. But, I mean, come on. And though I am extremely thankful about being in good health – that’s another sign of being old – I do wonder whatever happened to those endorphins, if maybe they got lost when I switched classes at the ‘Y,’ because the only sensation I feel now is the desire to have a masseuse meet me afterward on my exercise mat. But all that said, things are good. Really. I’m happy. No regrets. Well, except maybe the realization that I now have to go get my new drivers license photo with two scabs on my face.