My dream of being an ice skater evaporated and I couldn’t be happier

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People always seem to key in on the same piece of information on my resume. The notation mentioning that I earned a bronze-medal in ice dancing from the United Stated Figure Skating Association always seems to impress, even though I go out of my way to explain the lowliness of that specific award.

My parents first took me to South Mountain Arena in West Orange, New Jersey when I was five and I quickly developed a dream of becoming an Olympic skater.

Later, as an overweight adolescent, the aspiration remained, and even though I had never seen any pudgy athletes waiting for a medal to be placed around their necks, I could still picture the event quite clearly in my mind.

However, I realized my world was nothing like that of the kids who were real competitors. Though my parents would schlep me to a rink several times each week, they refused to let me take the sport too seriously. In retrospect, they did me a favor, but it would be years before I understood their logic.

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I always admired elegant skaters when I was growing up and dreamed of being like them.

I loved the graceful, elegant figure skaters, and especially admired the pairs and dance couples who flew to reverberating orchestral music in perfect unison, on good days. Though, I was also on hand to see them collapse in screaming heaps on the hard ice, blaming one another for the error that had deposited them on their butts, teaching pros and parents encouraging them to calm down and get on with it, since each and every one of them harbored the hope – almost as wildly absurd as winning the Powerball Lottery – that they would one day find themselves staring down from an Olympic podium, gold medals shinning as the crowd sang the national anthem.

Because I was a not at the rink on a daily basis, most of these children rarely spoke to me. The pecking order was strictly set. Anybody who was not part of this elite group of Olympic hopefuls was often snubbed, though not because the serious skaters weren’t interested in mingling with those of us who were mere hobbyists. I didn’t understand until later the often-wistful looks I caught from some of these kids when they’d pass those of us who were skating just for fun.

One special skater was Tommy, who my girlfriends and I would watch surreptitiously, transfixed by his skills on the ice and the abundance of sensuality he oozed. I was equally amazed by the way he fit into both skating worlds. On one hand, Tommy was an ice dancer who skated with his sisters when they needed a partner. But he wore no sparkling, billowy-sleeved costume. During practice sessions, Tommy often appeared in black jeans and a white T-shirt, sometimes with a box of Camels rolled up in his sleeve. Then, he would swap out that attire for hockey gear.  He’d take the ice as a defender, popping and checking opponents into the boards, tough and illusive, his figure-skating skills making him almost impossible to catch or knock down.

One day at the start of a dance session, I was standing by the boards when the announcement came over the intercom that the opening dance would be a Dutch Waltz. As skaters were lining up at either end of the ice to begin the simple pattern of cross-overs and swing rolls, Tommy streaked by and grabbed my hand. As there was always a dearth of male skaters – most of the girls had to perform the patterns alone – I was delighted at the prospect of having a partner.

Tommy stood slightly behind me and to the left, placing his right hand solidly on my waist. I placed my right hand on top of his. Then he held his left hand out for me to take, as courteously as a medieval knight. When I grasped his hand in mine, he pulled me tightly to him, close enough that I could smell the warm scent of nicotine on his breath. In proper Kilian dance position there would have been a demure space between us, but Tommy held me as close to his body as our skates would allow.

The introduction to Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz with its deliberate 3/4 time echoed from the loudspeakers. All the skaters straightened up, preparing to launch themselves into the dance. Tommy and I pushed off. We turned and whirled and for the first time I paid no attention to my feet. Though the Dutch Waltz was the simplest of all the dances, I felt like I was flying.

I would get to know some of the other skaters, because Tommy introduced me to them. And I sensed that while I admired their world, they admired mine. I had something that none of them had: freedom. Skating was all they were allowed to do. They didn’t attend summer camp or participate in Scouts. They didn’t go to football games or act in plays or spend idle times just walking in the woods with the dog.  Some of them didn’t even go to school: their educations handled by private tutors who worked around their skating and ballet lessons and hours of ice time. They had no holidays. Some would tell me they practiced 365 days a year. For them skating was a prison, where they were constantly observed by parents and coaches.

I sensed a kinship with a girl who, one day, while under her mother’s watchful eye, still managed to slip some coins into a vending machine. She pushed a button behind her back, gathered up a Snickers bar that had dropped into the tray, unwrapped it, and shoved the entire snack into her mouth without her mother noticing.

Perhaps it’s hard to blame what today we would call helicopter parents for their vigilance. The financial investment in creating a world-class skater is astronomical, equivalent to an Ivy League education. Still, I wonder how many of those kids chose that life. Or, if given the chance, would have preferred something else.

As I got older, I finally appreciated not being part of that world. I would have missed out on so many things had I been forced to focus on skating alone. Perhaps I should thank my parents for giving me the opportunity to branch out.

Still, I have never quit admiring the beauty and grace of ice skating.

 

A Light in the Desert-cov (6)

Mystery/Suspense

Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group

286 Pages

Price: $16.95 Paperback, $9.99 eBook

http://www.midpointtrade.com/book_detail.php?book_id=261955

As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.

 

 

A peek inside my inner-city classroom

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My students deal with myriad issues outside the classroom, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn.

I have taught in an inner-city high school in Phoenix for almost two decades, where children struggle differently than I did growing up in a middle-class suburb. Here’s a peek into my classroom from when I was a reading specialist.

“You can’t talk about God!” Rachel called from across the room. “You’re not allowed!” The 15-year-old smugly crossed her arms over her chest.

“Of course I can talk about the gods, Rachel.” My use of plural deities threw her off and for a moment she was speechless.

“There’s that church-and-state thing,” she shot back.

“What do you mean gods?” Berto, shy and quiet, got to his seat after arriving late. Again.

Earlier in my teaching career, I would have publicly chastised Berto for his tardiness, pointing out that he’d never, ever hold a job if he couldn’t be on time. But since discovering that the boy’s mother had recently died, that his 28-year-old father was in prison, and that he was pretty much homeless, I just didn’t have the heart.

I looked out over the faces in my freshmen reading class: a mixed group of mostly Hispanic and Black students, none of whom read at grade level. A few had such poor reading skills the tests couldn’t even register their abilities. At 15, some were considered pre-school readers. Others were close to the ninth-grade level, but the majority of my students’ reading abilities fell between third and sixth grade. A few of the children were Special Ed with behavioral issues and learning disabilities like dyslexia. One girl had been born a conjoined twin to a crack addict. Her eyes wandered and were set too far apart. Another girl was a cutter who contemplated suicide. A tall, muscular boy who had just been paroled from prison told me he had done “dirty things,” but did not elaborate. And then there were my African students: a thin, gangly Ethiopian boy with a constant smile who spoke four languages, but not a word of English. I’m not sure what language the tiny, frightened Nigerian girl spoke.  I later learned the West African nation boasts 510 living languages, but I could find no one who understood a word the child said.

Still, my job at South Mountain High School, the most inner-city school in Phoenix, Arizona, was to teach them all to read at grade level.

“There is only one God! Jesus, our Lord and Savior,” Rachel shouted, quite pleased with herself.

“I thought we weren’t allowed to talk about that!” Carlos squinted at Rachel.

She turned to him slowly and glared.

“We can certainly speak of the gods or God, if you like,” I said, butting in to avoid a confrontation. Carlos and Rachel were always arguing.

I checked the clock. I’d give the stragglers five more minutes. I hated starting a lesson with half the class yet to arrive. So, we’d begun with a story from the newspaper, an effort to stall for the latecomers and to boost the little bit of knowledge my students had about the world beyond the blighted blocks in which they lived.

This day, the class discussed Ancient Rome. As I recall, some fabulous new artifacts had recently been discovered in the city. I don’t remember how Jesus came up, but in a school that’s almost 75% Hispanic – a group that’s overwhelmingly Catholic – and 24% Black with an abundance of Southern Baptists, the fact that Jesus enters into discussions is not necessarily surprising.

I mentioned that we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, pointing out that the blond, blue-eyed version favored by Europeans is completely unlikely.

“Ms. Montgomery, of course we know what Jesus looked like!” Little Sophia, with the angel’s face and waist-length, blue-black hair, stared up at me,

Several heads nodded in agreement.

“No, Sophia. We can only guess. We have no idea what Jesus looked like.”

“But there are pictures!”

I paused and took a breath. “Photographs?”

She nodded her head.

“There were no cameras two thousand years ago, Sophia.”

The girl stared from her seat in the middle of the room. “But, Ms. Montgomery,” she said as if speaking to a confused child. “If there were no photographs, how did that guy paint the picture of the supper?”

“You can’t talk about that!” Rachel shook her head.

“Think about history,” I said.

“I hate history!” Rachel crossed her arms again.

“It’s so boring,” two students said almost simultaneously.

“Still, do you think it’s possible to teach history without ever mentioning religion? And if we mention religion, mustn’t we also speak of God?”

Rachel bit her lower lip.

“Remember learning about why the Pilgrims first came to the New World?”

“Freedom of religion,” Berto called out from his seat by the row of computers near the wall.

“Raise your hand, Berto.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You have all learned about the Pilgrims and how they came to the Americas so they could worship freely, yes?” But a quick glance around the room told me that some of them had no idea what I was talking about. “The point is, we must study religion if we are to understand our world. Religion has shaped our past and will shape your future. After 9/11, many of you might have discussed what it means to be a Muslim in your classrooms.” There were a few nods. “The thing a teacher cannot do, however, and this is where the separation of church and state comes in, is to try to convince you to convert to a particular religion. That is what is not allowed.”

“Oh, I get it.” Rachel nodded.

A number of other students seemed to understand, as well.  Though, from Big Travis, in the back corner of the room, there was no response. Exhausted from football practice and protecting his mother from an estranged, violent father, he snored quietly as his head sagged on his massive chest.

 

A Light in the Desert-cov (6)

Mystery/Suspense

Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group

286 Pages

Price: $16.95 Paperback, $9.99 eBook

http://www.midpointtrade.com/book_detail.php?book_id=261955

As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could eat a horse … but I didn’t

I was raised in a time when children were pretty much ordered to eat everything on their plates. “There are starving children in Africa!” my mother would intone whenever we looked askance at some of her dubious-looking culinary creations.

Being of Irish and German extraction, my mother never met a dish she didn’t feel the need to cook the color and taste out of. I know this because I spent the first six decades of my life hating brussel sprouts, not realizing that the gray mush she shoved onto my plate was nothing like those lovely wee cabbages sautéed by my sweetie pie – browned crisply in butter and sprinkled with a dusting of . . . toffee. (I see you looking skeptical. Try it.)

My mother also insisted that one never turn down an offering of food. Ever. This was a moral imperative. Perhaps this was because she grew up during the Depression when food was scarce, or maybe it was because she took umbrage whenever anyone just nibbled around the edges of her meals. But, whatever the reason, this rule set me on a path of accepting whatever fare was placed before me. Which has worked out pretty well most of my life, though there have been some interesting gastronomic adventures along the way.

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Traveling has always provided the opportunity for a wide array of noteworthy edibles. I learned this when I was offered Vegemite in Australia. Had a paid attention to the grinning Aussies huddled about as I bit into their beloved spread made from spent brewer’s yeast, I might have had an inkling of what was to come. While they compared the substance to peanut butter, it was more like aged, brown sardine paste that had been left too long in the sun. Let’s just say once was enough.

The next day, I attended a barbecue where the main dish was kangaroo burgers. Crocodile sausage came later. Both were OK, though biting into Skippy seemed inherently wrong.

In China, I was offered something called a one-thousand-year-old-egg. The name alone is off-putting. But the visual is even worse. I considered showing a picture here, but on the off chance someone might be enjoying breakfast, I reconsidered. Suffice it to say it’s a gooey black egg preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, and quicklime. Did I eat it? Yes! I know the rules. Was I glad there was a large glass of wine on hand? Indubitably.

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Once, on lovely evening in Fiji, I was seated on the ground with others in a circle when I was handed a coconut shell high-tided with kava. High-tide, in this case, means the shell was full to the brim. (Low-tide is a shell half full.) Kava, for the uninitiated, is a root that gets pulverized into what looks like dirt. And that is exactly what it tastes like. The village chief grinds the kava, mixes it with water, and distributes it to those who wish to imbibe. There’s a clapping ritual, after which one is expected to down the beverage in one gulp. Of course, since my mother trained me well, I complied, not knowing that the kava would just keep coming around. After five hits off the shell, my lips and tongue were quite numb so speech was a bit problematic, though I no longer noticed the beverage tasted like dirt. I will say I had one of the best night’s sleep ever, and not a hint of a hangover.

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Sometimes, there were misconceptions about certain foods. My first TV sports reporting gig was in Columbus, Georgia. I had just moved there from Washington D.C., and, as you might expect, that change of scene was particiularly jarring. Some of my new work friends took me out to dinner and I found myself looking up at a middle-aged waitress.

“You want grits with that, honey?” She stared at me.

I paused, unsure.

“Grits?” She thumped a pen on a pad of paper.

“Um . . . I’ve never had grits,” I replied. “Could you just bring me one so I could taste it?”

Several beats of silence were followed by what I recall as hysterical laughter from those at the table.

And here is where I have to admit that twice in my life, I sort of broke the food rule. One time, I was hanging around with my friend Jill, whose lovely mom was the antithesis of mine in every way, especially in regard to cooking. She would even make her kids something special, if they didn’t like what was being served. By comparison, my mom would stand by the table clucthing a metal pancake turner, ordering us to eat what was on our plates or starve.

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Whenever possible, I would invite myself to Jill’s house for dinner. So, I asked what was on that evening’s menu.

“Tongue,” she said.

“Tongue?” I thought she was kidding.

She got up from her seat at the kitchen table, opened the fridge, and pointed inside. “Tongue.”

Eh gads! There was a giant tongue resting on a plate, the meat covered with little bumps I thought might be taste buds. I took a breath. Suddenly, whatever my mom had planned didn’t seem so bad. I ate at home that night.

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The only other time I avoided an offering of food was when I was a student in Luxembourg during my junior year in college. I was driving by a picturesque field where pretty, plump ponies were grazing.

“Oh! Look!” I said, pointing at the animals.

Lennart, whose parents had taken me in for the semester, said, “Those are the ones we eat.”

Later, I was invited to attend a reception where we students would be welcomed as honorary guests. We were to be served the national meal of Luxembourg — cheval and pommes frittes — which I learned, to my horror, was horse with fried potatoes. My brain was assaulted by visions of Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka and National Velvet.

To everyone’s surprise but my own, I developed a case of the flu the evening of the affair and had to miss that dinner. Under the circumstances, I think even my mother would have understood.

 

A Light in the Desert-cov (6)

Mystery/Suspense

Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group

286 Pages

Price: $16.95 Paperback, $9.99 eBook

http://www.midpointtrade.com/book_detail.php?book_id=261955

As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.