Thursday, December 2, 2010

Girl Enters Roller Rink, Turns 90.

By Kim Brittingham

If you've been following my home blog for a while, you might remember a while back when NBC Universal offered me my own video series. They called it "Big Life" but we never shot any episodes beyond the pilot.

I'll never really know why NBC Universal decided not the move forward with my series, although my theory is that my anti-diet stance was just a little too progressive for them, and probably didn't gel too well alongside their favorite baby, "The Biggest Loser". (You can read more about my experience with NBC Universal in "Video Star", a chapter of my book "Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large".)

I was supposed to be scripting my own episodes for "Big Life" based on my own convictions, but it didn't take long for NBCU to start nudging me in the direction of things that didn't ring true for me. When it came time to talk about episode #2, I was encouraged to write a script that took me into a Crunch gym for a workout with one of the network's preferred fitness experts -- a personal trainer.

I wanted nothing to do with the idea, because there was nothing about it that felt organic or true to me. I never did enjoy going to a gym. Historically, I've found gyms mind-numbingly boring. I'm much more interested in finding engaging activities -- like biking and swimming and fencing and tennis -- that make fitness feel more like fun than drudgery.

In fact, one physical activity I've loved since childhood is rollerskating. As a teenager I frequented roller rinks the way oily Hustlers flocked to discos. Rinks were underage nightclubs with cardboard pizza and flat soda, where controversial romances took wing during "slow skates" and where New Wave girls like Dina Adams and me begged Flock of Seagulls requests at the DJ booth.

Rollerskating had been easy to learn in those days, and although I was certainly never a skating artist, I was more than capable of holding my own. I could join a racing pack like the best of them. And when the DJ started playing funk after 10 PM, I wasn't some stiff little white girl, ohhhhh no. This is where I could claim maybe a liiiiiittle artistry. Just a tad. But I'll let the Gap Band take most of the credit.

Rollerskating went the way of rug-hooking and making potholders on a lap loom, it seems. I'm not sure why. So for most of my adult life, I didn't get on a pair of skates.

But when my friend Jeffrey told me about a still-existing roller rink about a half-hour from my home, I got newly enthused. We drove to Jackson, NJ for $2 family skate night.

I couldn't wait to get those ratty, clammy rental skates on my feet. As I laced up, I watched as kids of all ages circled the shadowy rink to Lady Gaga, and couldn't wait to get back out there. I marveled at the number of mullets and stiffly sprayed bangs that showed up one night in 1983 and apparently never went home. I was amazed at the chubby little girls in pink legwarmers, jean jackets and side-ponytails and realized, wow, everything really does go 'round in circles.

Skates on, I leapt up from the carpeted bench and wobbled. Whoa, okay, I laughed. Must remember carpet does funny things under four wheels.

But soon enough, it became apparent: it wasn't the carpet. It was me.

I'd gotten...older.

And my rollerskating muscles were gone.

I pushed my legs forward on the polished rink floor and my ankles SCREAMED IN AGONY.


They were on FIRE.

I found myself reaching for the wall. I laughed again, but more of a panting-laugh this time. "You''d think I'd never skated before," I huffed to Jeffrey. " go on and skate without me. I don't want to...hold you back."

Jeffrey did some kind of Olympic pirouet twenty feet into the air and as he landed, angels sang and he glided away in a pink mist.

I made it haltingly to the next "off-ramp" and collapsed onto a bench.

My knees were crying like orphaned babes. My butt was tensing up like it expected to be punched.

I looked at all the skating kids, all the skating grown-ups, my 50-something skating friend Jeffrey, and Methusela flying by in some lagenlook get-up and a cute pair of white low-risers with purple glitter wheels.

And I felt painfully frustrated.

I watched their bodies moving and I knew how to move like that. The muscle memory remained in my body, but my body just wouldn't go. It was how I imagined it must be to lose one's legs yet still remember how it feels to run -- wanting to propel one's self out of that chair and start pumping forward, but there are no legs to stand on. Just the phantom memory of muscles moving, feet springing away from the earth and landing again.

It was the first time in a long time that I felt physically incapable of doing something I wanted to do.

With a little practice on the carpet I was able to eventually get back on the skating floor and push myself pathetically around the rink, half a lap at a time before I had to sit and rest again. Every time I tried to push a foot out away from me, the way one would when skating, my leg parts said "uh-UH!" Instead of a fluid leg movement like tracing butterfly wings on the floor, I jerked forward, putting halting little bursts of power behind each foot.

"Oh man, and now they're playing Rick James!" I cried out wistfully to absolutely no one, determined to be determined, and not lame. I bit my lip, resolved not to shed a tear over my shocking new limitations, but to keep it positive and fight my way back to 1981-ish skating condition instead.

Yes, Jeffrey and I did return to the rink, but our visits aren't frequent enough for me to improve much. So in between, I've started going to the gym.

OH my GOD, it's TRUE! Kim Brittingham is going to a salty-smelling, musclehead GYM and doing things on machines that need to be wiped down afterwards, a gymmy-gym gym!

And I can scarcely believe I'm saying this myself, but -- I'm NOT HATING IT.

I'm not hating it for three very specific reasons.

1. It's an '80s theme gym that plays obscure, heavily synthesized music and teen angst movies. Can you say, "Kim's Gym"?

2. I'm starting very slow and gentle, on snort-worthy amounts of weight and at speeds that induce merely a "calorie-burning" heart rate (not the beefier "cardio"). Kiss my grits if you don't like it.

3. I have a definite PURPOSE. My goal is to SKATE AGAIN. To be able to carry my body around the rink multiple times without stopping, smoothly, gracefully, and with a modicum of style.

When Jeffrey jumps up excitedly from the bench and shouts like a seventh-grade girl, "I'm sorry, but I just have to skate to this!", then darts out into the rink away from me, I want to be able to dart right out behind him. Because I always knew I'd be eternally fourteen in spirit -- but with the foolishness of youth, I never believed it when they told me my body would stop keeping up.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ghosts at the Merchants House Museum NYC, Somerton SEPTA Station

Did someone say ghosts? Ghosts at the Merchants House Museum? Check. Ghosts at the Somerton train station on Philadelphia' SEPTA? Check!

Someone on Facebook today asked, "Have you ever seen a ghost or experienced a haunting?" What a delicious question.

Maybe I have.

I'll let you be the judge.

The Mystery of the Merchant's House Smoker

First, a story about the Merchant's House Museum in New York, an exemplary antebellum house which has been on television for its alleged paranormal activity, most notably on "Ghost Hunters". I adore this place.

Some years back, I attended docent training at the Merchant's House Museum. Early on a Sunday morning we were having a docents' meeting, in the hours before the museum was open to the public. For a few minutes before we gathered in the basement kitchen, some of us early-bird volunteers killed time roaming through the house. A couple of women wanted to look at a new exhibit that had been assembled in one of the bedrooms. I wandered into the master bedroom at the front of the house and looked out the windows and into the street below.

Sniff, sniff.

Who's smoking?, I thought. There's no smoking allowed in here.

No paying visitors were in the house yet, so it couldn't be a guest's careless faux pas. And the staff certainly knew better than to light up.

I moved my face closer to the window pane and peered down to the sidewalk, expecting to see a lone smoker, or perhaps a pair or huddle of them, standing directly below. There was no one.

It was a strange sort of smoky smell, too. Not quite like cigarettes. More like the sweetish pipe tobacco an elderly relative used to smoke when I was a little girl. I think he was my father's uncle, a red-cheeked man with a model railroad running through a cardboard-and-plastic utopia in his basement. I hadn't seen or smelled anyone smoking a pipe since.

The smell was crisp and sharp at first, like tobacco just lit and repeatedly puffed to its fullest aroma in a quick sequence of dove-gray clouds. Then it faded, gradually and so gently. It was infuriating. The harder I sniffed, the less of it I smelled. It couldn't be traced, it couldn't be followed.

I have no explanation for it.

It's interesting to note, however, that I was standing in what had been the bedroom of Seabury Tredwell, owner of the house from 1835 until his death, after which his daughter Gertrude inhabited it until her death at ninety-something years of age. Might Mr. Tredwell have been a pipe smoker? Was this what they call evidence of a "residual haunting", an olfactory recording of a moment in the distant past, in replay?

Phantom Girl of Somerton Train Station

It was a bitter cold Saturday night in the late '80s. This time of year, if I'm not mistaken -- January, February. My friend Kurt picked me up at my parents' house to go see a movie.

In those days, we lived near the Somerton train station on the R3 West Trenton Line of SEPTA, Philadelphia's commuter rail system. There's a short stretch of road that runs parallel to the tracks at one point. Then the road veers off to the left and the tracks disappear into a short tunnel under an overpass.

Kurt's car sailed around a curve in the road and we briefly rode alongside the tracks before they were out of sight. We came to a red light at Bustleton Avenue. We were silent for a moment when Kurt turned to me and said,

"Did you just see what I saw?"

I met his eyes.

"You mean the girl standing on the train tracks who totally doesn't look like she belongs there?"

His eyes widened. "Uh-huh."

"Kurt," I whispered, urgently. "We need to go back around there. Right now. Hurry!"

The girl we'd both seen had hair hanging below her shoulders, and she was wearing one of those straw boater hats with a red-white-and-blue striped ribbon around it. The cheap kind you might see at a political rally. She was holding a balloon, and standing in the middle of the train tracks. Not on the platform, not on the side of the road. Just standing there, completely serene, with her feet planted firmly between the railroad ties. And despite what had to be temperatures in the teens or twenties at best, she was wearing 1970s-style short-shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and knee socks.

Kurt glanced quickly into the rear-view mirror and over his left shoulder, then put the car in reverse and turned around.

We drove past the station again, slowly. He rolled down his window. We craned our necks in every direction looking for her.

He inched the car alongside the tracks a little further, and we squinted through the darkness. We looked back through the tunnel opening, we studied the shadows around the little train station building that was still standing back then, but has since been demolished.

The girl, whose appearance didn't make sense in the first place, had vanished.

Kurt rolled his window back up, sealing out the unforgiving winter air. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" My voice was the only sound above the whoosh of heated air blowing from the dashboard vents. Kurt's eyes were open so wide, his dark brown irises were like two drops of ink at the center of white salad plates. He nodded slowly.

"Let's get out of here," he said simply, and we did.

I always said I would eventually do some digging; try to find out if a girl was killed on those tracks. Maybe you know a librarian or research guru who'll find this mystery irresistible.

You'll let me know if you learn anything, won't you? Be sure to get in touch if you had a similar paranormal experience or ghost encounter at the Somerton train station or the Merchants House Museum!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Body Odor Etiquette: When Your Friend Smells. BAD.

Body odor and etiquette are the topic of the day here at Kim Brittingham's blog, yes indeedy.

So, you've got a friend with offensive body odor. What are you supposed to do?

Should you inform them of the situation, gently, so they can do something about it? Or should you keep your trap shut, to avoid hurting their feelings? What's the kindest possible move?

Well don't ask me. See, I used to have this friend, a woman I'll call Rita. When I first met Rita I noticed a slight unpleasant odor about her person, but I didn't think much about it.

It's easy for me to dismiss and forgive these smallish, smelly social infractions because I have a paranoid belief in my own stinkyness, the seeds of which were planted in the 8th grade when a mean little girl named Dana told me I had B.O. Back then, I probably did. No one taught me how to use deodorant; I had to figure it out for myself (it was the next thing I did after asking my mother what "B.O." stood for). But since that day, I've asked many an intimate companion to "smell me, just smell me. Tell me honestly, do I smell?" I try very hard to keep personal odor in check.

So anyway, my unfortunate 8th grade incident and that resulting hypervigilence have made me more readily forgiving of others who do stink a little. I always think, "that could just as easily be me!"

But eventually, Rita's odor required no hypervigilence. It got a little worse each time I saw her, until it was a bold, sour cloud traveling with and around her. And I wasn't the only one noticing anymore.

One day Rita and I decided to scare up some cash by sharing a table at a local flea market. She asked if she could sleep on my sofa bed the night before, so we could get an earlier start together in the morning. I told her no. I lied. I made a lame excuse, and felt like a jerk about it. I'm just not that kind of lie-teller, game-player, y'know? I'd rather just shoot straight. But I didn't want to hurt Rita's feelings, and I didn't want my one decent piece of living room furniture contaminated with that awful smell -- and it was awful. It made me think of rotting vegetables, and the smell of certain varieties of baby food my mom used to serve to my siblings when they were infants -- peas, maybe. Like peas and milk that's turned. No, not inside my sofa bed. I just didn't have the confidence Febreze could handle it.

The morning of the flea market, I loaded my sellables into the back of Rita's van and took the co-pilot's seat beside her up front. I'd never been inside Rita's vehicle before.

The stench was nauseating. And I mean this literally. Rita's bad smell filled the space of the van, in concentrate. The second I sat down, I could feel it crowding around me like a lecherous ghost, clinging and stifling, licking at me, laying upon my skin. I wondered if I'd carry it with me into the flea market, wondered if people would smell it and think it was me. I felt the urge to vomit rising from those deep pink trenches under my tongue, and I swallowed hard. The market was only three minutes away -- I could hold it.

At the market, I tried not to sit too near Rita, without seeming to be avoiding her. I took walks to "exercise my legs", went to the bathroom often, browsed at nearby tables. Every time someone came to our table and just casually touched a finger to something Rita was selling, she shot up from her chair and hustled over to them to be of saleswomanly service, and each time she stood, the stench wafted anew into the air -- a knock-out bullhorn of odor. I watched with a heavy heart as some people made contorted, sickened faces as they walked away from her.

At this rate, I didn't think I could tolerate being around Rita again. She suggested subsequent get-togethers, meeting for coffee. I made more dishonest excuses, and couldn't bear doing it.

I talked the situation over with others.

"If I tell her she smells bad, her feelings are going to be hurt. There's just no way they won't be," I said. "But if I don't tell her, and she continues to go around smelling like that, it could be really bad for her. She hasn't made a lot of friends in this area yet, she's only lived here a few months. She wants to make more connections, she wants a job. But is she turning people off and she's not aware of it?"

"You have to tell her," everyone agreed. "It won't be pleasant for her to hear, but she has to know."

"I'm kinda worried about her too," I said. "I've heard some diseases can cause foul body odors. She's had a lot of health issues in the past. What if something's wrong internally?"

"Even more reason to tell her," they told me.

Besides the fact that almost nobody likes to smell bad, I thought Rita might be especially sensitive to the issue, because she's a very fat woman. She was already self-conscious about the size and shape of her body -- I didn't want to add another layer of shame. And it's hard enough to win acceptance when you're obese; almost impossible when you're obese and have an alienating issue like body odor.

"But if anybody can tell her in a kind and gentle way, Kim, it's you," my friend Stephanie said. "Who better?"

So I did. It took me several weeks to get up the nerve, but what finally pushed me to act was the picture of Rita in my mind, wondering what she'd said or done to make me upset, wondering why I was ignoring her. That was unacceptable to me. I didn't want to be responsible for making her feel so unceremoniously rejected, and besides, I wanted Rita for a friend. It was the smell alone I couldn't stand.

I was too big a coward to call her on the phone. I didn't want to hear any hurt that might be in her voice. If she cried, I didn't want to hear it.

So I sent the kindest, most diplomatic e-mail my heart could compose. I told her I couldn't stand the thought of hurting her feelings, and how hard it had been for me to broach the subject. I told her I was worried that the odor might be a symptom of something internal gone awry. I reminded her that as a fellow fat woman, I was mindful of keeping certain fleshy places clean and dry, powdering under breasts and bellies and such, and that I understood how some places on the body might be difficult to reach if you were apple-shaped like she was. I offered her links to web sites that offered extra-long back brushes and other grooming products for large people . I reminded her that I wanted her for my friend. I told her I wanted her to have every opportunity for friendship and employment in her new community, and that I would hate to imagine anyone being distracted from her wonderful qualities by a mere odor that might be easy to take care of.

Rita did not take it well. She said she felt humiliated. She even remarked that it was ironic I should say these things to her, considering I did so much fat-positive writing. That comment, I didn't quite understand. Fat or thin, if you smell unbearably unpleasant, I'm going to tell you so I don't have to lie about why I'm not hanging around with you anymore. I guess it was the hurt talking.

"You couldn't possibly have said it better," friends told me. "She'll come around some day."

But she hasn't, and I don't think she ever will.

Several months later, I posted a Facebook status update for the singular amusement of my friend Stephanie. She was coming over to write with me, and I warned her I was a mess and I didn't plan on showering for her, either, so she'd better be prepared to take me as I was. I think the Facebook status read, "A true friend will come over and tolerate your unshowered STANK." Rita, whom I hadn't heard from since the "you smell" e-mail, saw it, and simply commented:


That made Stephanie angry. "Unfriend her now! Unfriend her!" she raged from my dining room table. "I felt sorry for her before, but not anymore. Okay, so the news was hard for her to take at first. But now she's giving you 'TUDE? Look bitch, we're all fat around here, but I'd sure as hell want to know if I was choking people everywhere I went, so I could DO something about it. Unfriend her, Kim, unfriend her today!"

I did unfriend Rita, mainly so she wouldn't have to see any future comments that might be hurtful to her. And frankly, I felt I could live without her sarcastic comments, too. And Stephanie's tirade made me think maybe Rita was being ungrateful after all. Sure, I might be really embarrassed if someone told me I smelled. But if they delivered the message as kindly as I had, I imagine I'd eventually get over it and be able to face my friend again. I hope I'd at least refrain from being snippy.

Is this one of those things that can never be taken well? Are we damned if we do, damned if we don't, no matter who we're dealing with? If you don't tell a person they smell, then they're left to think poorly of you when you suddenly stop spending time with them. If you do tell them, they're left to think poorly of you for embarrassing them.

It seems like a no-win situation, but there is one potential positive outcome. If the message was heard, and Rita has started doing things to eliminate her odor problem, then she wins in the long run. Unfortunately for me, the messenger gets demonized either way.

Welcoming feedback and other anecdotes on dealing with a friend who has body odor. What's your advice on body odor etiquette? Do you deal differently with a friend who has body odor and also happens to be fat?