Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gymnastics and Reno

Crazy busy, and my brain wants to noodle around and mess around and do almost anything but what is needed for the deadlines. So, well, a wee break to satisfy the hamsters, I guess.

We were in Reno last weekend for Casey's big USA Gymnastics Region 1 final competition. He's a level 6, the highest he can go at his age, and he made the Northern California All Star team a few weeks ago, so he was given a special uniform and competed with the other boys who made the All Star Team. He saw his Demaray's teammates during the meet since they were at least in the same competition, but he was on different events at different times than they were. He said it felt strange, but he also felt like he had to do a good job because he was representing his team.
So Region 1 includes Northern California, Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii. This region is the most populated and the most competitive in the nation, apparently. At least that's what everyone tells me. And since I know very little about all the politics and stuff around all of it I tend to accept it at face value. Casey being on the Northern CA All Star Team meant that he was on one of the teams competing for trophies; only the various state all star teams were considered for team awards at this big Regional meet.
The actual meet was huge; running smoothly over 5 days with Levels 5 through 10 and various age ranges for each level. Casey's level 6 compatriots were only a small portion of the overall number of kids competing.
Part of the idea of these meets and the USA Gymnastics Association is to help kids have positive experiences with gymnastics competition. A benefit as well is that they help develop the athletes who go on in the sport to compete in things like the Olympics. The boys who do really well academically as well as in the competitions and stay in it up through high school can get recruited for 'full ride' scholarships to places like Stanford and UC Berkeley, though college funding for the sport is in serious jeopardy. The UC Berkeley team is fighting to keep their funding, and the rest of the universities are following very closely on what happens with the Berkeley case.
The kids who try gymnastics, like it and continue with it, and then join a competitive team have to learn discipline and they work really hard all year round, even during the off season.
For a bit of background, Casey and Riley both started doing gymnastics at a beginner class when they were in 1st grade; they learned basic tumbling and started on the basics for the gymnastics skills that are needed and form the basis for all of the more complex moves. That expanded for a few years for both of them.
They were both good at it, though Casey had the clear advantage over Riley of having a very strong, compact build while Riley is taller, rangy and lacks the sort of upper body strength Casey has. Riley eventually wanted to drop out and go into track and cross country as well as basketball instead, and Casey made it clear all along that he wanted to continue steadily on with gymnastics. Casey now goes to gymnastics 5 days a week, 3 hours per day, every week, more during the summer. A day off is very unusual. If Casey were to drop out for an extended period, like a year, he would not be able to get back to the level he is at now; the conditioning for flexibility and the strength required to be good at this are things that they work at always, constantly.
It's really amazing to see these little guys do these impossible things, as well as follow all the restrictions and structure required of them. It's a far distance from complaining about doing chores and homework. I have taken a fair amount of flak from other people, especially other parents, who would never subject their kids to such strenuous and demanding routines, or put them through such hard competition and judging. I have been warned by people worried for his health about putting his body through all of the things the sport requires, warned that he will grow up distorted in mind and body from the constant strain and disipline. And I have learned to listen politely, nod and let them gently know that Casey himself is the one who wants to do this so badly; he loves it, he craves it and he knows he always has the choice of stopping in this sport whenever he wants or needs to. So far he's been very clear and he wants to keep going, getting better, being as good at it as he can be. He understands that he has to do well academically in order to continue, so he keeps his grades up and gets on the honor roll every semester. He's one of those kids who wants to compete, wants to do well, and we end up watching him with some bemusement. Where did he come from? Where will it all lead him?
It's very competitive, make no mistake about that. Kids of every ability level have to learn to deal with the pressure of being judged by tough professional judges as well as realizing they aren't always the best in the crowd, and if they're very lucky, like Casey, they learn to measure their accomplishments not only against other boys who are really exceptionally good, but against their own abilities.
Sounds like a load of bunk, I know, but Casey came away from this competition really happy. He didn't come in first in anything; he came in third on rings and 11th on high bar, 11th all around. At the local and state meets he went to with his team throughout the season, he was getting used to getting a medal in almost every event, used to placing in the top three on most everything. Not here. And yet he was really happy with how he did, because he beat his own personal all around record score. I was really pretty impressed with his attitude. Though getting a couple of medals as well as his own trophy when his All Star Team won third place probably helped his mood too. ;)

So the next day after the big Regional meet, we drove home from Reno, through Donner Pass, and stopped and played in the snow for a while. The boys loved it. And life was good.
And we got home that evening just in time for Casey to make it to gymnastics practice.

Monday, April 02, 2012


We went to see the Hunger Games movie last night. This was mainly because Riley has been devouring the books and desperately wanted to see the movie, and it has been getting favorable reviews. So we all went and bought a few snacks for unreasonably high prices (the overall total to take 2 adults and 2 kids to a movie and get a few movie snacks is shocking these days). The theater was full even though it was a Sunday evening.

Normally I doubt I'd bother to write up a post about a popular movie. Lately I haven't bothered to write about much of anything, to be honest. I have been stuck in a funk for a couple of weeks, partly because I seem to have developed Metatarsalgia in the ball of my left foot, which is also the leg that has a big metal plate along the length of the tibia due to a bad break a few years back. Add my usual amount of tibia pain to the ball of the foot pain and it's keeping me from taking Yoda Bob Dog for our usual walks and it depresses me. Anyway.

I have not read the books at this point, I have only the movie and Riley's reports to form my impressions, so whatever I say can safely be taken with a grain of salt. But what an interesting cultural reaction to a really dark concept. The people shown in the Districts look straight out of 1930's dirt-poor coal miner communities, while the rich in the city are futuristic and obviously don't have to do hard menial labor; they can afford to devote most of their time to decorating themselves. The contrast has been drawn very broadly.

There are very few characters in the entire movie who are sympathetic, actually; most of them seem set up for cardboard symbolism rather than as believable developed characters. Which I'll admit irritates me; I don't like being hit over the head with the Message, however one cares to interpret the overbearing message of the movie. And it seems that different factions in American society find ways to interpret the Message for their own groups; though it's not a perfect fit it could certainly be read as a commentary on the 1% vs. 99% Occupy wealth distribution idea, and I hear that the conservatives are interpreting this movie in their own way as a condemnation of the excesses of liberal values as well. Whichever way one looks at it its painted with a very broad brush. Polarization comes to mind. It's really not a feel-good story with a satisfying happy ending, and of course the books aren't either. It's interesting since usually movie goers really want happy endings; they can handle harrowing subjects in some cases but usually those types of movies only do well if they're well made, important historical subjects and offer some light at the end of the tunnel. This particular movie doesn't offer that.

So what is the appeal; why are people so willing to go see it? This movie is doing well in the box office and getting good reviews. It's very surprising considering the really dark content; kids killing kids, poor kids being offered up as a poor underclass sacrificial punishment/payment to a rich upper class that governs with iron control. There is no real ending; though our protagonists manage to survive, there is no hint of an overall bettering of the societal ills, though the movie leaves plenty of room open for sequels. There is no satisfying blowing up of the Death Star at the end. Honestly it surprises me; if this had come out when I was a teen it would have bombed, I'm pretty certain. The societal timing of this story is everything, really. It's not like the concept of the story is really new or that different, it's more that it somehow fits in with the zeitgeist of the times right now.

So what is the flavor of the times now that this sort of story appeals so much to the younger crowd? They identify with it; they feel in tune with it. It's alien to me. Riley seems quite comfortable with the notion of a large, underprivileged, underdog class. My guys are growing up with a deep feeling that our society is not fair, that a select few have all the power and all the control. This Hunger Games story feels familiar to them, like an extreme extension of the way things are. It's a weird notion for me to grasp. It's not like the notion of working class vs. upper crust is new, after all; that's always been around. But it may be a relatively new notion that most of us as Americans are just always going to struggle, be working stiffs who can barely make ends meet. That whole notion of the American dream, the self-made man, if you work hard enough you can better yourself, is eroding away. My guys do not seem to be absorbing that idea the way that my generation did. We grew up with the clear idea that if we applied ourselves and worked hard that we could do better than our parents did, raise ourselves up. My boys see us struggling to keep jobs, struggling to pay the bills no matter how smart we are or how hard we work. I don't think this is because Paul and I are whiners, blaming everyone but ourselves. We have just fallen into harder times where most everyone is struggling and with things like the Occupy movement they are seeing that the basic structure that we live with is unfair to the majority of people. They are growing up more quickly and much more cynical than we were.

I grew up with the Vietnam body counts on the news at night. I had friends with older brothers or dads who served and were lost in Vietnam. There were still nuclear drills at school, where that special alarm would go off and you were supposed to 'duck and cover' under your desk. Like that would help, really. But as kids we were presented with external fears that probably unified us as a country, certainly as American kids. We pledged allegiance to the flag and our country, we were taught the ideas at school that we could be proud of how people wanted to come to our country because we were free, we were brave and we welcomed people who were different and gave everyone equal opportunities. It may not have been perfect or always true but we felt that at least we were working towards it, that it was the right thing to do. My boys are not growing up with those ideas, though we make our own efforts to give them good values and a sense of right and wrong and what's good and fair.

We transferred them to a public school in a richer neighborhood because it offers a science and math magnet program; if they went to their home school in our neighborhood they would not be getting taught science at all. We cannot afford private school. They will not not be able to go to the best colleges because university fees are so expensive and only the wealthier kids can afford to go. Scholarships are a possibility but those have become scarcer and the competition is fierce. College in this country is much more expensive than it was when I went, and it wasn't exactly fair then either. It's gotten worse.

It's just a fact that kids from wealthier families are given more opportunities for a better life. And my boys are soaking all of this in almost subconsciously. We're solidly middle class, and they know we could be much worse off, but they've also had to do without when money has been especially tight. And I think they have a good feel for how precarious our financial situation is. I think they're lucky, happy kids overall, but the zeitgeist of what they are absorbing in school and from the world around them is frightening.

They do not see this country as a good place, the land of the free, not the way we did as kids. They think of other countries as being better places, fairer places, more caring places. They see other countries as places for better opportunities, and this country as a place with very serious problems that they feel powerless to fix. They feel invisible and unwanted in this country. And they may well be right, though it really hurts my own deeply American heart to think that.

I'm not sure what the solution is aside from our own parental efforts to give them love and make sure they know that we value them and think they can do great things. It feels like an uphill battle to overcome the damaging massages they're getting from everywhere outside, that's for sure. All those kids that are going to see The Hunger Games are identifying with the kids being sacrificed. And what does that say?