I’m ashamed to say this, but swearing is one of my many shortcomings as a human. I cuss like a sailor. Always have, and probably always will, although I’ve mellowed somewhat in my old age. Although deep down, I am a lady, to most people, I come off as crusty as a crab cake. I don’t even like crab cakes.
Despite my cranky, bitter, and petty demeanor, I still have quite a few true friends who have known me for many years. I made a lot of those friends in my freewheeling college days. College was a pretty good time for me, although I spent those years fairly hampered by social anxiety and depression. I still managed to have a great time at Longwood, despite those handicaps. I left that school with lifelong friends and mostly good memories. It was a really nice place to go to school.
One of my friends is a woman I met during the very first week of our freshman year. In those days, Longwood College (as it was then called), had its bookstore in the basement of the much venerated Ruffner building. The bookstore wasn’t that big, so one often had to stand in line to get in there at the beginning of each semester. It was a chore that could take awhile.
I was standing in line, waiting for my turn to load up on overpriced textbooks, and somehow struck up a conversation with the striking redhead standing next to me. She was a fellow freshman, dressed in denim shorts, a t-shirt, and a beautiful cardigan, which was very stylish in 1990, although curiously, I would imagine it would have been hot as hell to wear that during a typical Virginia August. It’s also possible that my memory of what she was wearing isn’t quite accurate, although I do know she loved colorful cardigans and pearl necklaces. What I do remember very clearly is that I noticed the redhead’s well-coordinated, stylish outfit and her brilliant red hair. She was friendly, confident, and funny. Her name was– and still is– Donna, a fitting name for her that means “lady”. Donna is very ladylike and hilarious, to boot.
We stayed friends throughout college and shared a suite during my traumatic sophomore year of school. We were both English majors; she also majored in Spanish. She joined Sigma Alpha Iota, the honorary music fraternity, and I was her big sister. We were both members of Camerata Singers, which was Longwood’s auditioned choir that included a lot of liturgical, classical, and Broadway music.
I lost touch with my friend after we graduated. Then, one day in 2006, I got an email from her. It was out of the blue. She had included an adorable picture of her then three year old daughter, who was pretty much her clone. Donna’s daughter has the same flaming red hair her mother has. Not long after that, Facebook became a thing, and we reconnected that way.
This morning, as I looked at Facebook memories, I was reminded of something really funny that happened eleven years ago. My old college friend, Donna, was having dinner with her super bright and funny daughter. They had the following conversation:
Tonight over dinner, [her daughter] C says, “Your friend Jenny is a cusser!”
Me: “What are you talking about?”
C: “Your friend Jenny on Facebook. She’s a cusser.”
Me: “Why are you saying this?”
C: “Because every time I get on the computer, your Facebook page is up & she posts pictures that have the F-word by them. She’s a cusser.”
My friend continued…
Okay, so I just scoured your wall & I only saw one picture with the “f-word” near it & it was posted by [our mutual friend] Chris. HE’S the cusser! LOL!
It really is sad how she ended up a crack-baby & all. Especially since I never did any crack.
Donna is a dear friend, and we’ve known each other since 1990. Her daughter, C, is now a student at our alma mater, Longwood University. I’m sure she’s making her own hilarious memories at our school. Every year, on November 7, I see that funny post from 2012 and have a good laugh. What’s even funnier is that as of 2012, C hadn’t yet met me in person.
In 2014, just a few months after we moved to German, Bill and I flew home for my family’s annual Thanksgiving reunion. We were there to memorialize my father, who had passed away in July of that year. The memorial service was held in November so more people could attend. That’s also why I got married in November, although it turned out we couldn’t get married over Thanksgiving weekend. We probably should have done the deed in October. The weather would have been nicer.
Anyway, on that trip to Virginia, we met up with my college friends, Joann, Donna, Donna’s husband, and their hilarious eleven year old daughter, C, who had correctly identified me as a “cusser”. She was just as cute as she could be! I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her. As we were about to finish our visit, I said “Do you really think I’m a cusser?”
The girl blushed scarlet and hung her head in shame. I laughed and asked for a hug, which she willingly gave me. That day was probably my favorite of the whole visit, since it had been so long since I’d last seen Donna and Joann, and it was the first time I got to meet Donna’s husband and daughter and they got to meet Bill. Sometimes I think if I lived in Virginia again, I might even have some semblance of a normal social life. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t, because I’m kind of a recluse most of the time.
It’s getting close to Thanksgiving again. I recently got an email from my aunt announcing the annual shindig, which she blasts to everyone in our humongous family every year. Although I complain a lot about my family, they’re mostly very good people. I don’t agree with most of them politically– quite a lot of them are diehard Trump fans and conservative Christians. But they’re fun to see when there’s a wedding, reunion, or funeral. Despite being a huge family, we’re somewhat close, thanks to the annual reunion at Thanksgiving. Some family members are closer than others.
Lately, I’ve felt like an outcast, but then I live pretty far away now, and have altered my views on religion and politics. I no longer have the patience for long-winded arguments that I used to have, particularly with southern white men who are convinced that liberal politics are the pathway to Soviet Union style communism. I might have agreed with them if I hadn’t spent so many years in Europe, which does have some socialist policies that work pretty well and doesn’t resemble the former Soviet Union in the slightest. Having lived in the former Soviet Union just a couple of years after it fell apart, I feel as though I can speak with some authority about what it was like there. Europe is not like that at all. Since we are related, we all seem to have inherited a penchant for arguing to the death. And some are more insistent about it than others.
In just a few days, I’ll be visiting Armenia, a former Soviet territory, for the first time since 1997. When I arrived there in 1995, it was still pretty Soviet in most things. Today, it’s a lot less like that. Every year, there are fewer people who remember what the place was like when it was a Soviet country. I wasn’t there when it was part of the Soviet Union, but I did go there less than five years after it became independent. And I can tell people I know– especially my conservative Christian southern relatives– that I have yet to see any place like that in my travels, even in countries that have “socialist” leanings. But they don’t listen to me either, because I’m not very religious; I don’t worship Donald Trump; and I am a CUSSER. Somehow, it seems like my love of swearing is the worst of my sins.
Many of my relatives who would argue with me about this are people who have not been outside of the southern United States, let alone “across the pond”. They don’t respect my experiences or education, and stubbornly insist that they’re exactly right, no matter what, refusing to even acknowledge a perspective that differs from their own. They don’t seem to understand that even though I’m a woman who is a bit younger than they are, I’m not stupid, inexperienced, uneducated, or in need of “special help”. I simply have a different viewpoint based on actual things I’ve seen and done.
I find it frustrating to engage in conversations with a lot of my family members, so I keep my distance. And they avoid me because I curse a lot. But that doesn’t mean I’m not fond of most of my family members. I wish them well and would happily break bread with them, if I was in a place where that was easy to do. Maybe there will come a time when that’s the case again.
In July 2014, I discovered Paul Thorn’s hilarious song, ” I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love”, as my dad was dying. It’s a really perfect description of how I think of some of my family members. I do love them, but I can’t spend a lot of time with them… and yet, I’d like to see them for an evening, maybe… as long as we don’t talk politics and/or religion. Ah– never mind. It won’t happen. But I still wish them well. And I actually do love most of my friends– the ones who know me well, and accept me for exactly who I am.
Anyway… it might be worth it to go home to Virginia again, if only to see a few friends and eat some genuine American style junk food. Seriously… I was looking at the menus of some of my favorite crappy chain restaurants in the States… places where there’s nothing at all healthy on the menu. I certainly don’t need to be eating any of that stuff, but I still kind of miss it sometimes.
November always makes me think of being home in Virginia. I do sometimes miss being “home”. I haven’t seen most of my friends and loved ones in years. I think it’s having an effect on me. I also miss really good southern fried food that will send me into a diabetic coma. *Sigh*… guess I’ll have to settle for Armenian food this weekend. I’d probably rather have fried chicken, American style pizza, or ribs. It’s probably just the hormones talking, though… which will later be silenced by my cranky digestive system. Isn’t it fun getting older? 😉 I think I’ll cuss about it some more.
Incidentally, today is Election Day in the USA… so please go out and vote, if you can.
Some time ago, I downloaded The Rings of My Tree: A Latvian Woman’s Journey, by Jane E. Cunningham. The book, which was published in July 2004, sat in my Kindle queue for a very long time. I just searched my digital orders on Amazon.com and I see that I bought this book in April 2013– over ten years ago! I just now got around to reading it, three months after Bill and I visited Latvia for the first time.
I’m now glad I waited so long to finally read this book, after actually visiting Latvia, and having spent the last nine years living in Germany. My own life experiences gave me more appreciation for The Rings of My Tree, the extraordinary story of a woman named Mirdza, whose fate led her far away from her homeland when she was just a young woman newly out of high school. The title references how Mirdza’s grandmother taught her how to determine a tree’s growth by its number of rings. Mirdza also learned that strong trees weather storm after storm. Like a strong tree, Mirdza weathered many storms in her long life. And if you’ve ever been to Latvia, you know that it’s a country where trees are revered. One of our guides told us that it’s a tradition for new parents to plant a tree when a baby is born– linden trees for girls, and oak trees for boys.
Mirdza’s story is lovingly written by author Jane E. Cunningham, who, as of 2012, lived in Connecticut, and wrote that Mirdza, then aged 92, was then living in a nursing home. I’m sure that by now, Mirdza has passed away. But wow… she really lived an amazing life. At the time she wrote Mirdza’s story, Jane Cunningham had known Mirdza for forty-five years. They were neighbors. Jane was one of the first Americans who became a real friend to Mirdza, who fled Latvia to escape Soviet occupation. She landed in Hitler’s Germany before a series of lucky events led her to an American run displaced persons camp (DP camp) in American occupied Berlin.
While she was in the camp, Mirdza met and, in 1949, married her Latvian husband, Janis, who died in 2000. In 1950, the two had a son, who was born in Germany. When their son was six months old, the family moved to Oklahoma, where they were sponsored by a wealthy American couple. Janis and Mirdza worked for the couple to repay them for their passage to the United States. They had a second son in 1951, who died when he was a month old. Later, they landed in New England, where Mirdza and Janis spent the rest of their lives. In 1961, they had one more son. In May 1962, Mirdza, Janis, and their German born son became naturalized American citizens.
You might think The Rings of My Tree might be mostly about Mirdza’s life in America, but the story is mostly about Mirdza’s upbringing in Latvia, time in Germany, and subsequent journey to America. Mirdza was born in Jaunpils, Latvia in 1920. At the time of Mirdza’s birth, Latvia was a free country. Mirdza’s mother became very sick and died when Mirdza was only four years old; consequently, her earliest years were spent being raised by her grandmother, Gobina. Gobina was her father’s mother, and a very faithful, Christian woman whose father was German. She taught Mirdza how to speak German, how to knit and crochet, and educated her “from the Bible, ‘But the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Matthew 10:30). She would one day come to apply that Bible verse to her limited days of freedom in Latvia.
Mirdza’s father had been the postmaster in Jaunpils. Her mother had been a switchboard operator before her death. The couple met while working at the post office, and built a beautiful home for their young daughter. But the beautiful life filled with roses and domestic bliss was not to last, as leaders in other countries were plotting to seize Latvia. Mirdza and her friends, family, and community were blissfully unaware of what would come in 1940, when the Russians took over the country and annexed it into the Soviet Union.
Mirdza was five years old when her father remarried a young woman named Anna, who was not very nice to her. Anna was very jealous and hated anything that reminded her of Mirdza’s mother. She eventually gave birth to Mirdza’s half sister, Rasma. Although Mirdza had known her mother and missed her, she was expected to accept Anna as her mother, even though Anna never treated her lovingly, as if she was her daughter. When Mirdza addressed Anna by her first name, she was chastised and told that Anna was her “new mother”. That was difficult for her. But in spite of the early hardships she endured, Mirdza was happy in high school and excited about her future.
Then came Josef Stalin and the Russian soldiers who would bomb Latvia into submission, as Hitler’s Army also approached. Mirdza, and so many of her countrymen, were now caught in the crossfire of World War II. At first, she thought life under the Germans might be better than life under the Russians. She stayed and worked at the post office for awhile, befriending a German soldier who was decent to her. She helped him send food home to his wife, and he ended up saving her life by giving her his wife’s address in Germany. When the Russians became a direct threat, Mirdza ran for her life, boarding a ship that took her to Poland, and onward to Germany, where she became a refugee, experienced hunger, humiliation, and homelessness, and witnessed hopelessness and despair that would haunt her forever. On her way out of Liepaja– a Latvian port town that Bill and I visited in June– Mirdza fell and injured her hip and her left hand. From then on, and for the rest of her life, she walked with a noticeable limp– a constant reminder of what she’d left in Latvia.
Mirzda’s life was not easy, but she somehow managed to survive a number of near misses that should have killed her or driven her to suicide. Along the way, she met people who taught her new things, helped her, or hindered her. She met one woman who actually talked her into surrendering to the Russians. She and the woman were actually waiting for a truck to take them to a Russian camp when they were picked up by an American who gave them an opportunity to find freedom.
The Rings of My Tree is a fascinating read for me, because I find World War II an especially interesting time in history. I would feel that way even if I hadn’t spent so many years living in Europe. However, what makes this book special– especially in 2023– is that it’s so relatable to today’s times. Mirzda experienced a lot of the same things refugees are experiencing now. Like other people who have fled their homelands for peace and safety, she faced discrimination, ignorance, and hostility. But she also met kindness, decency, and generosity. As I read about how Mirdza was treated in 1950s era America, I couldn’t help but realize that people of 2023 behave in much the same way, forming opinions about subjects about which they know nothing and about which they don’t care to be educated. Below are excerpts of the book that seemed especially insightful to me:
But aside from her experiences as a Latvian refugee turned American citizen, Mirdza also learned some hard personal lessons. When she was living in the DP camp with a bossy fellow Latvian woman named Tanya, she learned how to be assertive. Tanya gave her stockings and said something along the lines of, “Darn these for me.” Mirdza was about to do as Tanya demanded, but then something occurred to her, and she steeled her spine:
I see that The Rings of My Tree is no longer available as a Kindle download. I think that’s a real pity, as physical copies of the book are pretty expensive. I do think the book is well worth reading, and even paying a lot for, if my description of the book is intriguing enough. I’m just happy I downloaded it when I had the chance, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading Mirdza’s story. And I do think it’s a blessing that I waited until now to read this book, after I’d had a chance to see the place Mirdza left behind. Latvia is a very beautiful country, with many trees, beaches, and grand old buildings that predated the Soviet occupation. It’s good to know that Latvians are free to be Latvian now, and their homeland is free again.
When we visited Latvia in June of this year, I heard firsthand from Latvians that they never wanted their homeland to be occupied by Russians… and I read in Mirdza’s story how terrible communism is. I had also seen that in Armenia when I lived there, as well in other countries that used to be ruled under communism. But, toward the end of the book, it becomes clear that capitalism isn’t necessarily better. I don’t know if Mirdza realized it herself, but when her half sister, Rasma, visited her in America, after the fall of the Soviet Union, she was left flabbergasted by American supermarkets. She was bewildered by the huge array of choices Americans have, and the terrible waste… as well as the ignorance so many people in America have about the rest of the world. Sadly, as I see every day on Facebook, not that much has changed since Mirzda’s young life as a refugee. And she had the benefit of having white skin, which helped her fit in with the ruling class in the United States.
Anyway… I really enjoyed The Rings of My Tree. I’m grateful that I had a chance to read Mirdza’s inspiring story through Jane Cunningham’s capable writing. I hope those of you who will read this review will get something from it, and perhaps, try to read this book yourselves. It really offers perspective that I think is lacking from so many Americans… especially those who never venture beyond the United States’ borders. Yes, Americans are very fortunate, but our luck may be running out before too long. I implore you to open your eyes and your minds to what could happen to you or yours someday. You could learn a lot from Mirdza’s story, if you’re open to the lesson. I sure did.
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A couple of years ago, I became aware of a new book about legendary Romanian women’s gymnastics champion, Nadia Comaneci. The book, titled Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, was written by Romanian author, Stejarel Olaru, and published in 2021. For a long time, it was only available in Romanian. I was very eager to read this book, because not only am I fascinated with old school women’s gymnastics, but I’m also intrigued by Cold War politics, particularly in Romania.
Although I haven’t yet visited Romania, I have read several books about the Ceaușescu era, and watched some really interesting films about Romania before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc states. So, the prospect of reading about Nadia’s experiences in Romania after she became a national treasure was very exciting for me. I was very pleased to see that the book was going to be translated into English (and other languages).
I just finished the Kindle English translated edition of Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape. Stejarel Olaru’s book was translated by Alistair Ian Blyth and made available in the US Amazon store this month. I had originally pre-ordered a print edition; that’s how much I wanted to read this book. I canceled that order when I realized I could get the Kindle edition sooner. As of just a little while ago, I have finished reading after a couple of weeks of effort. I’m glad to be finished with the book, which was very interesting, although less exciting than I had expected it to be.
I want to be very clear. This is NOT a book about Nadia’s life story. Elements of her life story and some information about her family are in the book, of course, as it’s not possible to deliver this story without those elements. But it’s important to note that this book is ultimately about the high price Nadia Comaneci paid when she made history at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal. Those who read this book should also come with some knowledge of who Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were, and what their regime was like. Remember that until the former Romanian president and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989, Romania’s government was an oppressive totalitarian regime.
One month before the Ceaușescus were executed, Nadia Comaneci defected with several other Romanians. She did so out of desperation. She couldn’t take life as it existed under Ceaușescu and his Securitate (Secret Police) anymore. But Nadia was a “national treasure”, and as such, she was highly valued by the Romanian dictator’s regime. Nadia worked very hard to be able to achieve Olympic greatness, but after she reached that pinnacle, she was rewarded with constant surveillance at home… phone taps, interrogations, and constant pressure to maintain her physical prowess in a sport where it’s common to retire while still very young, especially at the elite level.
Olaru’s book begins in November 1989, when Nadia undertook her daring escape to Hungary with a group of more average citizens. The group fled across fields during a frigid night. The Romanian border guards missed them, but they were picked up by the Hungarians, who were shocked to find the famous gymnast among those who were fleeing. The Hungarians were going to let Nadia go, and send the rest of the party back to Romania. Nadia, being a team player, spoke up and said that she wouldn’t be going without the rest of the group.
Very soon after her illegal border crossing, Nadia was on her way to New York City. She lost a lot when she defected; the man she left with was a married man who abused her. A lot of Americans had a negative impression of her in the weeks after she defected. I remember reading a 1990 era Life Magazine article that really made Nadia out to be kind of lowbrow, implying that she was bulimic and a bit of a skank. The reality was, the man was basically holding her prisoner, beating her, and exploiting her for money.
Upon arrival in the United States, Nadia Comaneci requested and was granted political asylum. I remember watching Nadia in the news, as this was going on during my senior year of high school. I barely knew who she was, because I was only four years old when she won gold in Montreal, and lived in England at the time. I didn’t follow gymnastics until I was about 15 or 16 years old. Still, I remember very clearly the story in the news, and was fascinated by it, because although I wasn’t a gymnastics fan in Nadia’s day, I did grow up during the height of the Cold War.
I never dreamed, when I was a kid, that one day, that whole system would disintegrate within a couple of years. If there’s anything to learn from that era in history, it’s that things can change very quickly, forever altering or even ending people’s lives. That’s one reason why I get so worried about Trump and his admirers. History has shown us that things can change in a “New York Minute”, as Don Henley sang back in 1989.
Olaru’s book also offers a very negative and damning look at Bela and Marta Karolyi’s years as Romanian team coaches. As bad as some of the revelations have been from American gymnasts who have trained with them, they are even worse in this book, as Olaru writes about how the gymnasts were literally starved and sometimes physically beaten when they didn’t perform well. Securitate notes provided by alleged informants, such as Geza Pozsar, the choreographer who worked with the Karolyis, indicate that the gymnasts often wept because they were so hungry. As Nadia grew older, she and Bela had difficulties, because she was no longer as compliant as she had been. He could no longer “spank her bottom” when he wanted to, especially after she became famous.
I’ve watched Bela Karolyi for years when I’ve viewed women’s gymnastics on television. His public persona is that of a big bear, with lots of energy and enthusiasm. But, based on this book, and several others I’ve read by people who have trained with him and his wife, Marta, he is clearly an abusive coach on many levels. So far, I have not seen evidence that he sexually abused his gymnasts– thank God– but I have seen ample evidence that he was verbally, mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive to them. However, even the best gymnasts, like Nadia, got that treatment. At least he was somewhat “fair”, I guess.
When Bela and Marta Karolyi defected from Romania in 1981, the Securitate became even more intensive in their efforts to control Nadia Comaneci and protect their national treasure. Although she lived a relatively upscale life by Cold War Romanian standards, the reality was, she was more in a cage than her fellow Romanian citizens were. And the “lavish” privileges she enjoyed weren’t all that great. She did have a car and a seven room villa, for instance, but the villa was poorly insulated. Consequently, she slept in the kitchen so she could stay warm. And she didn’t necessarily have to stand in line to get food, like rank and file Romanians did, but the fact that she didn’t have to do that doesn’t exactly make for a luxurious lifestyle, as Romanian officials tried to indicate.
In many weird ways, reading about how Nadia and her family members were policed reminded me of reading about people trapped in cults or abusive relationships. The Securitate didn’t want Nadia to abandon Romania, so they were constantly looking and listening for indications of potential plans to leave. And they did things like tell her she couldn’t survive outside of Romania. They didn’t seem to realize that Nadia had already proven her incredible strength and resilience, not just in 1976, but in the years following that triumph, after she grew several inches and gained twenty pounds. For awhile, she was looking as washed up as John Travolta did throughout the late 80s. But, just like Travolta, Nadia Comaneci made a great comeback for the 1980 Moscow Games and came home with more medals. I don’t know why the Securitate didn’t see that she was capable of doing that again in 1989; she was only 28 years old when she left.
As I read this book and got some insight into Nadia Comaneci’s plight after her 1976 Olympic glory, it occurred to me why Nadia was known for never smiling. Based on Olaru’s accounts, backed up with actual notes from the Securitate, phone taps, interviews, and interrogations, it sounds to me like Nadia Comaneci’s life was a living hell. When she was being trained by Bela Karolyi, who has his own version of this story famously depicted in a movie about Nadia, she was evidently enduring a nightmare that we could never fathom. No wonder Nadia was willing to risk it all and leave for the West, once she retired from gymnastics.
Today, Nadia Comaneci is married to fellow Olympic gold medalist, Bart Conner, who won his medals in Los Angeles, back in 1984. They run their own gym in Oklahoma, and share a son named Dylan Paul Conner, who was born when Nadia was 44 years old. She still physically looks amazing, but I notice she smiles a lot more these days.
Overall, I think Nadia and the Secret Police is an excellent read for students of Cold War history, especially if they are interested in the Ceaușescu era and/or Romania. I will warn that this book is translated, and sometimes the translation gets a little mucked up. There were times, for instance, that the translator wrote names as they would be written in the Eastern Bloc or Soviet Union, with the last name first. Other times, he writes them as if they were in a western country. At times, the writing is also a little dry and formal, and there are some typos. I was surprised by the abrupt ending of this book, although I appreciated the many footnotes, notations, and photos.
Again, I cannot reiterate this enough. This book isn’t really for people who idolize Nadia or gymnastics and are looking for a life story. This is a book about history and politics. Nadia Comaneci just happens to be the subject, because she’s probably still the most famous Romanian in modern times. The focus is less on gymnastics, and more on world politics and intrigue. Yes, it’s useful for diehard Comaneci fans to read, but the focus is more on the oppressive government regime and less on Nadia Comaneci’s gymnastics prowess. I’m glad I read it. And I’m glad I’ve finished it, so I can move on to the next book.
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Happy April Fools’ Day, folks. I was originally thinking maybe I’d write something in the spirit of the day… like falsely post that I’m finally pregnant, or Bill and I are divorcing. But then I realized that I generally find April Fools’ Day annoying, at best. I mean… sometimes, the jokes and stunts are relatively amusing, but I mostly think silly fake postings about major life events are kind of stupid.
I will admit that it’s funny when Ritter Sport comes up with gross sounding chocolate combinations. Below is a screenshot of what they did in 2019…
Euro Wings also had a funny April Fools’ joke today…
And some time ago, NPR had a pretty good joke about people who don’t read before they react or comment. I used that joke at another time during the year, and sure enough, I got someone… Then, I promptly blogged about the phenomenon.
But I don’t want to write about April Fools’ or the inane shit I’m going to see as my fellow Americans wake up and start posting their crap. I posted last night that I think more Americans should zip it. And I stand by that opinion. 😉 You readers might think I ought to zip it, too, but since this is space I pay for, I’m going to preach on with my bad self. 😀
So what about that title, then? What’s it about? Well, it’s about a 1979 era gymnastics video I watched on YouTube yesterday. I love to watch old school gymnastics, which were less about powerful tumbles and more about artistic expression. I also find the former Soviet Union fascinating.
I happened to catch this video that featured some of the greats of that era– Nadia Comaneci, Emilia Eberle, Kathy Johnson, and Elena Naimushina. Sadly, Ms. Naimushina died suddenly in 2017, but in 1979, she was about 14 years old. She was a great gymnast, so she was interviewed by American sportscaster, Charlie Jones. Charlie Jones was born in 1930, and died in 2008. In 1979, he was pushing 50.
At about the 2:36 mark, Jones says “Every pretty girl that I interview, always kisses me right here on the cheek.”
Elena laughs as the translator does her job. Then, after a shy giggle, she says “That is something that you can look forward to after the competition.” Then Jones and Elena share a laugh… har-dee-har-har-har!
I was actually a little shocked as I heard Mr. Jones request a kiss from the young gymnast. But then I remember the 70s, and how kids were often pressured to let adults kiss them. Eddie Murphy had a whole 80s era routine about it.
To Elena’s credit, she managed to handle that awkward moment with grace and charm. Still, it was pretty creepy and inappropriate. Of course, that shit would never fly in 2023, especially given the whole Larry Nassar scandal. I guess it’s just crazy to realize that I was seven years old in 1979, and this kind of thing was quite common. Old guys would not hesitate to ask for intimate gestures of affection from kids. It happened to me a lot when I was coming of age. It was an especially common thing to see on games shows like Family Feud, especially back when Richard Dawson was the host.
Nowadays, people wouldn’t necessarily assume that Jill prefers males. Or that Jill is, in fact, a female herself… By now, Jill is probably someone’s grandmother. And, of course, today we’d worry about spreading COVID-19.
Isn’t it interesting how times change? At what point does a person stop being considered “young”? Does it happen at a certain age? I swear, it seems like yesterday that I was a teenager. Now I’m getting old enough to live in a retirement community!
I do think it’s a good thing that requests for kisses and comments to twelve year old girls about boyfriends are best left in the past. But watching these clips, posted when I was a child myself, are a reminder that time marches on, customs change, and things that once used to be okay to say or do can eventually evolve into something very taboo. And that’s no April Fools’ joke!
Those of you who read this blog regularly, probably know that I grew up in the 1980s. As a child of that era, there are certain cultural phenomenons that are etched in my personal history. Personally, I think the 70s and 80s were great decades for coming of age. Most of us were too young to remember Richard Nixon. We got to be kids at a time before everybody was so plugged in to their electronic devices. We had a lot of freedom to come and go– I can remember running all over my neighborhoods— even when I was very young— and exploring to my heart’s content. And there was some really great– non auto-tuned— music in that era, to include an iconic band called The Cars, fronted by the late Ric Ocasek.
Ric Ocasek was 80s model Paulina Porizkova’s long time husband. When Ocasek died in September 2019, they were in the beginning stages of getting a divorce. Although they were splitting up when he died, Ric and Paulina still shared the house they purchased together when they first got married in August 1989. Paulina had envisioned them staying close and being “best friends”, maybe living in apartments near each other. But it was not to be. As Ric recovered from surgery for “stage 0 cancer”, he suddenly and unexpectedly died in the bedroom he and his third wife used to share. He’d also been suffering from heart disease and emphysema.
It was Paulina who discovered him, as she carried a cup of coffee to his sickbed at about 11:00 AM. It was made just the way he liked it, with three quarters of a teaspoon of sugar and just enough milk in it to turn it a very specific shade of beige. This part of the story resonated with me. My husband, Bill, knows how I like my “beige” coffee, too, although I prefer half and half over milk.
My sisters read fashion magazines regularly, but as an adolescent, I spent most of my time in a barn, tending to my horse. I’ve never had the figure, the bank account, or the desire to wear high fashion. I will admit that I used to like to watch America’s Next Top Model, and I did learn about models and fashion in the process of watching that show. But I really watched ANTM more for the drama, not because I care about haute couture. When Paulina Porizkova became a Top Model judge during Cycle 10, she quickly became one of my favorite people on the show. I liked that she was down-to-earth, intelligent, and basically kind… or as kind as she was allowed to be, anyway. As a music fan, I admired The Cars, and thought it was cool that Paulina was married to one of the co-founders of that band. I was pissed off when Paulina was fired from ANTM after Cycle 12. I thought it was a huge mistake. In my opinion, the show went downhill after she left. Paulina was also very briefly on Dancing With the Stars, but she was voted off very early. I didn’t watch her on that show.
As someone who grew up at a time when a lot of us were terrified of being invaded by the Soviet Union, I also find Paulina Porizkova’s personal history very interesting. Paulina was born on April 9, 1965 in Prostějov, Czechia, which was at that time, Czechoslovakia. In 1968, when she was three years old, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied her country. Her parents, Anna and Jiri, did not like the idea of censorship, being forced to work menial jobs for little pay, or standing in line for hours for a loaf of bread. So they left the country on a motorcycle and settled in Sweden, leaving Paulina behind in Czechoslovakia with her grandmother.
Life was difficult in Paulina’s homeland. The Soviets decided the house her grandfather had inherited was too large for one family. They divided it into three apartments and moved in a single lady and another family. There was one toilet for the whole house, and it was on the veranda. Meanwhile, Paulina’s parents were making a lot of noise about their daughter, who was separated from them. The sympathetic Swedish press wrote a lot of stories about Paulina, causing her to become famous. Still, Paulina didn’t mind, because she didn’t know what she was missing. She loved her grandmother, and wanted to be a good communist, as she was being taught in school. She even had aspirations of visiting Lenin in his tomb, and becoming a “Young Pioneer”, complete with a red kerchief. Below is an anecdote of something she and her cousin did in an attempt to win one of those red kerchiefs…
When Paulina was seven, her pregnant mother, Anna, came back to Czechoslovakia in disguise. She wore a wig and glasses. The police found out who she was, and she was jailed. But she was seven months pregnant, and the Swedish press continued to put pressure on the Czech government. Anna was then given house arrest with her family. The police moved into an apartment across the street, so they could watch her and make sure no one visited. Anna told everyone in the family about the good life in Sweden, which was diametrically opposed to everything the Soviets reported. Anna spoke of how clean, beautiful, and safe the country was, and how she could eat a banana or an orange anytime she wanted one. Paulina wasn’t sure if she should believe her, but she soon found out firsthand, as the Czech government deported Anna, Paulina, and her baby brother from the country. She was told she could never return to her homeland, and was forced to leave her beloved grandmother behind. Then, when she got to Sweden, her father decided to leave the family and marry his girlfriend.
Life in Sweden was also challenging for Paulina. She was bullied in school because she was different. Unlike the blonde girls whose families had plenty of money, Paulina was tall with dark hair. She wore outdated clothes from thrift stores. Some of her classmates called her a “dirty Communist”. One Swedish girl, in particular, was especially mean to fourteen year old Paulina, who one day dared to wear new clothes she’d bought with her own money after working hard all summer. I wonder how that Swedish girl felt the following year, when fifteen year old Paulina was invited to Paris by model scout, John Casablancas, and launched her career as a bonafide top model. I hope she felt like the dumbass she obviously was.
Modeling was a lucrative career for Paulina, but she didn’t particularly enjoy the job. Sexual harassment toward the models was rampant among the photographers and clients. She had to wear hot clothes when it was hot outside, or strip down to nothing when the weather was freezing. She saw a lot of beautiful young girls wash out of the business before they even got started, many times owing a lot of money to the agencies who had paid for them to get their teeth fixed or skin issues treated by dermatologists. Paulina was fortunate, as she was successful and made a lot of money. And, in 1984, when she was 19 years old, actor Timothy Hutton, who was directing The Cars’ music video for their hit song, “Drive”, cast her as the love interest. That was how she met Ric Ocasek, who was married to his second wife, Suzanne, at the time.
Paulina was struck by Ric’s turquoise eyes, which she describes in great detail, as he often wore dark shades that hid them from public view. She writes reverently about his naturally slender body and extreme height, and his shocking mop of black dyed hair against his pale skin. She immediately noticed his Czech surname, even translating it for readers. It was more poetic than her own surname, which she also sort of translates, as much as possible, anyway. She agreed to date him, even though he was married and had two young sons at the time… as well as two older sons with his first wife. She was still in her prime when they married in 1989, but she decided to mostly give up her career to be Ric’s wife and the mother of their two sons, Jonathan Raven and Oliver. She would occasionally model and take approved acting gigs, always approved by Ric, and never interfering with his schedule. Even though she made a lot of money when she was a model, she let him be the breadwinner… and they did not sign prenuptial agreements, even though their financial advisors strongly recommended it. That decision came back to bite Paulina firmly in the ass when Ric suddenly died, having disinherited her for “abandoning him”, as well as his two eldest sons. She had to go to court to get what was hers and, for a time, was left quite destitute and dependent on friends as she rebounded, now as a woman of 54.
I found No Filter to be a very quick and engaging read. I managed to finish this book in less than two days, and yet I came away with a lot of fresh thoughts and new perspectives. Paulina’s story has given me a lot to think about for many reasons. I could relate to much of her story, simply because of the time I’ve spent in Europe and the former Soviet Union, and because, like her, I’m now a woman of a certain age. 😉 I realized in reading Paulina’s book that we really aren’t that different, even if no one wants to take pictures of me in the nude. 😀 Also, she displays a fine sense of humor, and provides some comic relief in the form of wry anecdotes that are very disarming and show her humility. I do not get the sense that Paulina is vapid or arrogant, at all. In fact, she seems to be quite the opposite!
Paulina Porizkova has an evocative writing style, and she uses a lot of vivid and vibrant language to bring her story to life. In fact, even though I don’t typically read a lot of novels anymore (with the recent exception of A Stopover in Venice, by James Taylor’s second ex wife, Kathryn Walker), I decided to download Paulina’s novel about modeling, A Model Summer. I actually think she might be even better at writing novels. She uses a lot of colorful imagery and descriptive devices such as similes and metaphors to figuratively “paint” a picture in readers’ minds. I suspect A Model Summer might also be revelatory, because I have a feeling it’s based on her story, just as A Stopover in Venice is obviously based on Kathryn Walker’s marriage to James Taylor.
I remember on Cycle 12 of America’s Next Top Model, a very successful contestant named Marjorie Conrad commiserated with Paulina, as Marjorie is originally from France. Other contestants would rag on Marjorie, and fellow European contestant, Elina (from Ukraine), for being too “negative”. Paulina understood why they were like that, as she’s Czech, with dual U.S. and Swedish citizenship. And, having lived in Europe/the former Soviet Union for about fifteen years of my life, I kind of understand it, too. Europeans have a different mindset than a lot of Americans do. They aren’t as “toxically positive” about everything, and take a more realistic, and often pessimistic, view of most things. I mention this, because I noticed that Paulina is often quite negative in this story about her life, in spite of all of the money, fame, and success she’s had.
Again, life was legitimately hard for Paulina as a poor little girl in Czechoslovakia. It was hard for her as a transplant in Sweden, where she stood out for being too tall, too dark haired, too poor, and coming from a “commie” country. It was hard for her as a model, who was quite successful, but didn’t really enjoy the industry that much for a lot of reasons. It was always “just a job” for her, and not a very interesting one, at that. She caught a lot of shit for frankly stating that, too. I’m sure Americans, in particular, think she should appreciate having been a model, even though she was expected to tolerate egregious and outrageous sexual harassment and very personal and often negative comments about her body. Below is a quote from early in the book:
Life was also hard for Paulina as Ric’s wife, as it turns out that he had some rather controlling behaviors that young Paulina had misconstrued as love. She was very young and inexperienced with men when they met. She’d had a tumultuous and difficult childhood that was fraught with abandonment, poverty, and abuse. She probably would have been better off going to college and finding work in which she could use her formidable brain. Instead, she fell into work that exploited the genetic jackpot she inherited by sheer chance. At one point in the book, Paulina writes about how people will usually encourage children who are smart and/or talented to develop and use their gifts. A smart child will often be encouraged to study hard and earn higher degrees, for instance. A musical or artistic child will be encouraged to improve their techniques so that their arts can be shared with the world. Beautiful women, though, are often judged harshly for using what they have, especially when they are “older”. Below is a quote Paulina got from a follower on her Instagram:
Easy for you to complain about the system now that you aren’t an “it” girl—but you had no problem making millions of dollars, enjoying your celebrity, and making millions of young girls feel ugly and unworthy for decades. NOW you are aware of how fragile self-image is???? You played a big role in creating the machine that makes people feel worthless if they aren’t “magazine beautiful,” and now you are crying because the system is making you feel like you made everyone else feel. The hypocrisy is incredible.
In her chapter, “The Responsibility of Beauty”, she writes:
People seem to understand that being beautiful is neither an accomplishment nor a fault. It is a gift. Generally, if you are given a gift or something of great value, your responsibility is to make use of it. When a person is born with an athletic or artistic ability and becomes a celebrated athlete or artist, we don’t shame them for using their gift. If a child is intelligent, we encourage them to get an education, to study hard, to develop their gift of intelligence as much as possible, and then use that gift out in the world. Developing their gift is seen as their responsibility. Wasted talent is a waste of potential. But when your gift is beauty, developing it is considered vain and narcissistic. Trying to maintain it is likewise shameful, whereas in athletics it’s practically heroic. An older athlete who strives to maintain their athleticism and compete with younger athletes is regarded as brave. An older model who strives to maintain their beauty and compete with younger models is often regarded as unnatural, embarrassing.
I think the above commentary is very astute. It’s true that Paulina Porizkova was part of an industry that causes a lot of girls and young women heartbreak and misery. When she was in that industry, Paulina was, herself, young and arrogant, and unaware of her “responsibility” as a model. She writes about a reporter who asked her what she thought her “responsibility” should be. Would she model fur, for instance? Or “blood diamonds”, just for the money? At the time the question was asked, young Paulina didn’t know how to answer. Over thirty years later, the question still haunts her, but in spite of being a “dumb” model (which she obviously never was), she manages to write some very intelligent commentary about the subject. I found it very intriguing, so I’m including a few samples below:
I had become a model at fifteen and made a great deal of money because people thought I was beautiful. I was also an arrogant asshole. Give a teenager loads of money, no rules, and lavish praise for her ability to look stunning and fit into sample-size clothing, and moral responsibility probably isn’t what she spends most of her days thinking about.
…somewhere along the way, we pick up the message that we can’t be beautiful and intelligent. That if we want to be taken seriously for our intelligence, we have to downplay our beauty. Right before I moved to Paris, I thought of myself as ugly and smart. Once I started working as a model, I was suddenly beautiful and stupid. When I called my dad to tell him I was staying in Paris to model full-time, he said, “Oh, now you’re going to be a dumbass.” When I arrived in Paris I got a reading list from a university and decided to read all the books listed in the English literature syllabus, notbecause I necessarily liked them or would choose them on my own, but because I wanted to make sure people knew I was intelligent.
I struggled with shame across my forty-plus-year career as a model. While a woman seeing a photo of me in an ad might have felt shame for not looking like me, I had been shamed for not having the body of Elle Macpherson. And the boobs of Cindy Crawford. And the teeth of Christie Brinkley. When the standard you are being held to is physical perfection, none of us can compete. I just quietly envied those other models and decided I surely had other, more important attributes. I was smarter, I could play the piano and draw, and I was certain I read way more books. I cut other women down in my mind so I could feel, if not superior, at least equal. I turned around and shamed those women after feeling shamed myself.
In my experience, no one shames a woman as often and as effectively as other women. We are all in the same boat, wanting to go the same way, yet instead of working together to get there, we knock one another off the boat. Do we not understand that the fewer of us there are to paddle, the slower we advance?
Yeah… this is not a dumb woman, at all! I can see why Paulina is sometimes negative about her life. She’s being honest, but a lot of Americans can’t respect honesty. They’d prefer bullshit. I also loved what she wrote about fame, and how people want to project themselves onto famous people. She explains that famous people are very well known, and yet very few people actually know them at all. Reading her comments reminded of how, when I was at James Taylor’s concert last month, some guy yelled out that his father “loved” him, and James reminded the guy that his father didn’t even know him. I got the sense that, like Paulina, James might be uncomfortable with people calling him by name and acting as if they’re somehow friends. If you think about it, it really is pretty weird, because we only know about the “famous” parts of these well-known people. We don’t actually have a personal knowledge of them at all, other than how what they do makes us feel. Paulina also reminds us that people in the press often make up or embellish things to sell their wares. I was also reminded of actress Justine Bateman’s book about her experiences with fame and how strange it must actually be for famous people… at least the ones who aren’t complete narcissistic assholes. Below are a few more quotes from the book to highlight what I mean…
On the other hand, Paulina Porizkova is also a believer in palm readings, tarot cards, and psychics, and she writes a bit about her experiences with her beliefs in her book. I don’t judge her negatively for that, especially since, in her experiences, they’ve actually been correct. Or, at least that’s what she claims. I know some people will probably think that’s kind of dumb or sacrilegious, though… or too much “woo”. And I know some will also judge her for being “the other woman”, and for the fact that she dated another man while she was still technically married. But, in fairness, Ric was also seeking the company of other women.
To sum things up…
I’m sure you can tell that I really enjoyed Paulina Porizkova’s book, No Filter. I am probably a bigger Paulina fan now, than I was when she was on ANTM. I hope this book helps her make some money, since she was left in quite a legal pickle when Ric Ocasek suddenly died. I still admire him as a musician and love his music, but now I think he was a bit of a narcissistic jerk. It’s too bad Paulina didn’t use her formidable common sense to protect herself from the situation he left her in when he died in 2019, but she trusted him and, sadly, he got to her when she was very naive and inexperienced.
There’s a lot more to this book that I didn’t cover, in spite of the long length of this article. So, if I have piqued your interest, I would highly recommend reading about Paulina Porizkova’s life. She’s led a very interesting one, so far… And I do hope that she will, one day, find that true love and acceptance she thought she’d had with Ric Ocasek. There are still some very good men out there. I know, because I managed to marry one myself, even though I am definitely no model. Like Paulina knew how Ric loved his coffee, my Bill knows how I love mine. I bet he’s not the only guy out there who’s like that… I think Paulina deserves someone who will fix her some coffee the way she likes it, and appreciate her very fine mind over her still gorgeous body.
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