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What’s Normal

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I ran into Chiaki Ito before a city Stage production of “Next to Normal” a couple weeks ago—nothing abnormal about that. Chiaki is the music director for City Stage—but an artist, musician and attorney carrying a tote bag with “26.2” proudly displayed on it? The New York Marathon? That seemed unusual.

There’s really nothing abnormal about Chiaki’s athleticism. Everyone with a body is an athlete—an animal designed to move. Stay still long enough, you start to smell bad and they bury you.

Maybe what’s unusual is that Chiaki doesn’t look like an athlete. Mostly because Chiaki’s a she, and a few years past high-school soccer. Sure, it’s 2012 and we’re advanced when it comes to gender equality. (That’s probably why it only took two votes for our County Commissioners to figure out a woman’s body is her own.) And it’s been 40 years since an act of Congress (Title IX) brought funding parity to women’s athletics—at least on a federal level. (Perhaps this explains why so many misogynists are anti-federal government.)

Even in these enlightened times, unless a woman is very young, dunks like Mariah Chandler, or looks like Lindsey Vonn, does our culture truly support the woman athlete? Brandi Chastain is revered not because she is the ironwoman of US women’s soccer but because she stripped to her sports bra after the World Cup.

Well, at least professional women athletes are paid on par with men, right?

My mother grew up before Title IX, when even participating in sports was discouraged as unladylike and unhealthy for women. Her brother has a plaque in the Hall of Fame—one of the NBA’s 50 greatest, Paul Arizin. Google him. He invented the jump shot and that neat little rockin’ move on the wing that Laney’s very own Michael Jordan perfected. MJ was slightly more athletic, but Unk would have schooled him on how to actually shoot the rock. You won’t find this on Google, but Unk once told me that if they had the three-point shot when he played, he would have averaged 35 a game and never found a good reason to pass inside to Wilt. No lack of athletic skill or confidence there.

While Unk was making his mark in the NBA, mom must have attended the Kate Moss school of sports and fitness. Even though Mom was a great swimmer (and one reason both my brothers were outstanding collegiate swimmers), instead of sports she smoked cigarettes, popped pills and stayed skeleton thin to look good.

Well, sort of good. Skinny super-model good—not lean dancer fit. Is that healthy? I’m aware of our obesity epidemic, but can someone please give Kate a milkshake?

Even worse, Mom learned that when stress fragments the soul, a smoke, drink, pill or Happy Meal can pull it altogether. She didn’t learn that exercising the body exorcises some of our daily demons. Exercise reduces health risks, improves attention, concentration and mood. Today’s research may be swallowed by pill-makers’ “next big cure,” but man or woman, exercise is as effective as medication at relieving many depressions. Still, when I suggest Mom break off her affair with her pharmacologist and walk, dance or learn yoga, she says, “I’m 75! That’s just not normal!”

But normal isn’t necessarily healthy. City Stage’s “Next to Normal” was about a family desperate to be normal. And they definitely were not healthy.
It may be healthier to live Emerson’s injunction to “First, be a good animal.” Artists all around acted with the same notion. Plato wrestled. Thoreau and Whitman walked. Chiaki does triathlons. Even StarNews’ writer and critic John Staton plays basketball. OK, his shot selection is questionable, defense soft when present, and his dialogue aptly described as “trash talk”—but he’ll get no critique from me.

I appreciate the role of the critic, but too often it’s an out-of-control internalized critic that keeps many of us from taking our best shots, or even from getting off the couch. What if we stopped trying to be normal and agreed to be what we are: animals and artists. It might be more fun to “be a good animal” while mastering the work of art that is our lives.

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