LSS: A step closer to Olympic dreams

After much deliberation, consideration and some practice too, I am officially launching my campaign for a new Olympic sport.

It just so happens that if the Olympic committee sees fit, I may finally have the opportunity to realize my personal Olympic dreams — something I’ve envisioned for decades now.

My interest in this particular potential-Olympic sport was rekindled last spring by happenstance during a monthly ladies investment club meeting. (How many times has that sentence been written?)

Ten ladies of varied interests make up the membership of our investment club. We were all still sitting at the table after dinner when I remembered I had an arm-wrestling contender for my friend Stacey Scarce. If you know Stacey (parish naturalist), you know that among her many talents, is her arm-wrestling prowess. To my knowledge, she is undefeated in the ranks of women and can hold her own with many of the fairer sex, as well.

Another investment club member said, “Oh Stacey, I believe I can take you on.”

And that was all it took to launch a mini arm wrestling tourney. But alas and alack, we were no competition for Stacey. However, one of the women said, “Stacey, if I could take you on with these babies (and she motioned to her legs), I believe I could take you down.”

With those words, my face lit up.

“Leg wrestling?” I asked. “You know how to leg wrestle?”

I hadn’t thought of leg wrestling in many years.

The rest of the ladies in my investment club stared at me with blank expressions.

One of them said, “Jan, darling, there’s no such thing as leg wrestling,” as if we were discussing the Tooth Fairy.

“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong,” I explained and proceeded to explain the simple rules and regulations of leg wrestling.

Two people lie on the floor, side by side in opposite directions, with their hips aligning. Together they say, “One, two, three.” As each number is called, they raise the leg closest to the other person in sync. On “Three,” they hook legs and try to roll the other person. When one person successfully rolls on to his or her side away from the other person, he or she has won.

Got that?

So we went to my living room and moved the coffee table. I enlisted a volunteer to demonstrate one round and then a full-on Leg Wrestling Tournament was under way.

Mind you, the youngest member of our group is in her early 30’s. She did not participate. We have another member in her mid-30s, but she wasn’t there that night. Most of the rest of us are in the next decade-ish.

Not to embarrass my friends, but the first three or four of them were really very little competition. Some were afraid to try. Finally, Stacey agreed to a match.

While the girl can take all comers when it comes to arm wrestling, bring them my way for the leg wrestling portion of the evening’s entertainment.

Yep, I beat Stacey handily.

She’s convinced I have some secret technique that I’m not sharing. I promise I don’t. It’s sheer strength and force.

We’ve since taken our leg-wrestling tournament on to one other venue. Again, I was the undisputed champion.

Oh yeah, Olympics, here I come. Hello, Rio de Janiero 2016.

LSS: Finding turtle (speed)

Last week, our family took a trip to Bald Head Island, a tiny island off the coast of North Carolina. I had never been before and didn’t know anyone who had visited — so my expectations were limited, but we were meeting one of my dear friends from college (who happens to be as much fun as anyone I know) and her family, so I knew we’d have fun.

Other than that, all I knew was that the island didn’t allow cars — and that sounded good to me. Visitors take a 20-minute ferry ride and then get around on foot, by bike or golf cart. A couple of weeks ago, I did some research. I learned that the island’s conservancy works hard to protect a range of habitat and wildlife, but one of the primary animals protected are the loggerhead and leatherback turtles that come ashore in the deep of summer nights to lay their eggs. I was able to book a so-called Turtle Walk for my friend’s family and my own.

Some of them pretended, but no one (except me) was excited about the Turtle Walk. Nonetheless, at 9 p.m., off we trotted to meet our marine biologists guides. Our group of seven was alone for the Turtle Walk and watched a short video. Still no one was excited. Then the guides explained we would go check on Nest 1, which was just about ready to hatch. To date, no sea turtle nests in North Carolina had hatched.

We drove our little golf carts to the beach access near the marked turtle nest and both the guides became giddy with excitement because the nest had begun to sink, indicating hatching (called a boil, because the tiny turtle “boil” out of the nest and scurry to the sea to swim for 48 straight hours to try and catch the Gulf Stream) was in the not-so-distant future — anywhere from hours away to three days away.

We waited and watched for a while when a call came in that a turtle had come ashore a ways down the beach and was laying eggs. We left to go watch and found a giant turtle, facing the sea, laying her eggs. It was amazing. One of the scientists who was tagging her as she was in a trace-like state as she laid, said she was the largest turtle he had ever seen on Bald Head Island. Since it was her first laying trip since they had been keeping records, we got to name her. (We named her Tonie, which is another story altogether.) When she was done, she covered the eggs and slowly ambled back to the sea. We all felt privileged to have seen it.

My friend’s 14-year-old daughter said, “I did not think this was going to be cool — I was wrong.”

We then watched the scientists unearth the eggs, count them and relocate them to a safer place. Since sea turtles are endangered, they’re taking extra steps to try and save them. Tonie laid 140 eggs. Most loggerheads lay between 100 and 120.

By then, it was nearly midnight, but we returned to the potential boil to see if the little turtles had made an appearance. To everyone’s astonishment, they had! We couldn’t calculate exactly and no one was certain why the boil was interrupted, but part of the nest had crawled out of the ground and scampered to the sea. While seven little heads and flippers were peeking through the sand, waiting to make it to the ocean.

Again, it was amazing.

It was the first sea turtle boil of the season in the state of North Carolina. About one in 1,000 sea turtles make it to the Gulf Stream. About 1 in 10,000 live to adulthood. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time and are awed and grateful to have witnessed such a rare event.

Plus, a week of operating at turtle speed was good for all of us.

LSS: Keep up the good work, Sassy Pants.

She was a gangly 11-year-old out in the West Texas town of El Paso when we met.

A few years later, she babysat for us when we had our first child. By the time she was a high school junior, she worked part-time in my home-based public relations business and radio cooking show.

Occasionally, she was astounded at my requests and expectations. For example, as I was running out to a meeting once, I gave her a grocery list for an upcoming show. I asked her, after shopping to come back to the house and put the items up. She looked at me dumbfounded. She explained she had no idea where anything belonged.

“Just think about where you got them in the store,” I said. “If the item was on the shelf, put it in the pantry on the shelf. If it was refrigerated, put it in the refrigerator, etc.”

When I got home, my kitchen counter looked like a produce display case. All the fruits and vegetables were displayed exactly as they had been in the store.

Amidst many other Susanisms, our relationship has worked through the years. Our whole family came to love that girl.

Much to our joy, a few years later, after we moved to Lafayette, she decided to come to the University of Louisiana. Her family — who did a great job of giving her a beautiful foundation in travel opportunities and fostering compassion — surely missed her. For our family, having her nearby for so long was a thing of beauty.

In college, she got involved and became a Ragin’ Cajun through and through. When she graduated, she moved to Washington, D.C., and began traveling leading groups of students in national/global learning opportunities. In the last two weeks, she has helped lead a group of high school students from around the world across Central Europe.

She sent a note to her parents, some friends and me this week. The note is a beautiful demonstration of just how much a kid can grow, learn and flourish.

She started her note off with highlights of their visit to Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

Then, she wrote the following. With her permission, I’ll share it with you:

“On Sunday, we visited Terezin, a former Nazi concentration camp an hour north of Prague. We had a thirty-minute group meeting prior to bus boarding where we read about the history of the camp. Many of my students looked confused, and I asked who needed a quick Holocaust and WWII refresher.

“Every hand belonging to a student from Latin America, Asia or the Middle East went up. The Holocaust is not an event that is often included in their history books, and if it is, it is apparently a brief summary. Even though I was initially surprised that so many of them were hearing this for what seemed like the first time, I also realize that there are recent genocides not covered in our school books either.

“I visited Terezin when I was in Prague in high school. It was interesting to visit as the ‘teacher,’ instead of the student. Terezin was not a large-scale termination camp. The Czech Jews were held there until they were deported to Auschwitz. Out of every 1,000 people who left Terezin for an extermination camp, about 4 or 5 survived. Our visit was somber. That afternoon, we debriefed to try and help the students make sense of many things they heard, saw and learned. One of my students from Kuwait was deeply moved by the experience. He said that he took pictures of the camp because at home, people deny the Holocaust happened, and he can no longer deny it. He had proof.

“We returned to Vienna yesterday for our last ‘real’ day of programming. We had our final meeting and said our good-byes. My students gave me a handmade card with their favorite ‘Susan quotes.’ Apparently the phrase, ‘sassy pants’ was used frequently. I was blessed with a wonderful, sweet and engaged group of students. I will truly miss (most) of them.

“We are currently driving through the foothills of the Austrian Alps and watching the Sound of Music on the bus. Most of the kids seem to love the movie as much as me. We are looking forward to our Sound of Music tour tomorrow.”

I wrote her back and did my best to explain how her letter filled me with a ridiculous and sappy amount of joy. I’ve told her lately just how proud we are of her, but that note was such a confirmation that she has grown up — from a girl who couldn’t find a place for the groceries, she has become a girl who’s helping others find their place in the world.

Keep up the good work, Sassy Pants.

LSS: Contrapposto, baby.

A new or different perspective intensifies and enriches life.

And sometimes the inspiration for seeing things a little differently comes from a surprising source.

In our family’s case, it was our 10-year-old daughter’s art class that led us to a new way of looking at things — and our family’s latest buzzword.

Contrapposto, baby.

Four months ago, I had no idea what contrapposto meant, and I’m certain that many of you will immediately know the term’s context and meaning. I, however, did not. So, Piper and I learned together as we looked at and for various examples of its usage in art and figured out ways we could apply it to our lives.

Turns out, we’ve looked better ever since. In turn, and with summer vacations in full swing, I thought I’d share my newfound insight with you, dear reader, on the off chance that you are in the same boat as me (pre-4th grade art history lesson).

Granted, we have looked better in a shallow and superficial way (and maybe only in our imaginations), but at this point in (mid)life, one needs occasionally to embrace the shallow and superficial and just go with it.

Consider my contrapposto interpretation a summer gift for you. Do not consider it an art history lesson. This interpretation is not aiming for scholarly level. The dual goal here is to make you look better in your summer family vacation photographs and create more interesting captured memories. And for good measure, maybe you’ll also look at the world a little differently every now and then, spotting a contrapposto of your own.

The lesson:

Contrapposto, in Italian, means counter pose or set against.

Think Michelangelo’s David. Remember how David is standing? He’s relaxed with most of his weight on one foot. He’s holding a sling with his left hand, casually thrown over his left shoulder. If that image doesn’t come immediately to mind, imagine a mother standing and holding a 9-month old baby, with one arm on her hip. (She’s taking a pose very similar to David, except instead of holding a slingshot near her shoulder, she’s holding the baby on her hip.)

The weight-bearing hand and foot details are key to contrapposto. They make a hip jut one way or the other. They misalign the shoulders. Just like David and the baby-toting mama, taking the contrapposto pose makes a more interesting image. Why? Because these two pose details create a variety of angles — primarily triangles, in fact. For reasons I won’t even pretend to explain (or comprehend), all those angles and triangles make a more interesting and dynamic image.

What does this have to do with you? Try a contrapposto pose in your next family photography session. Have some fun with it at the beach, in the mountains, at your camp, on a riverbank or in your backyard. I double-dog dare you.

Chances are, you’ll find out what we’ve learned. Michelangelo and his Greek predecessors who started the whole contrapposto craze were on to something.

I’m a believer that looking at the world in general with an altered lens — including those you love and even yourself — is almost always good for the brain (and heart).

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears Sundays. She would love to see your favorite contrapposto posed photographs. If you’re so inclined, send a single image to her at jan@janrisher.com. Who knows? We might stage our own contrapposto photo competition.

LSS: Hope through history

Sometimes things just make you smile.

The story I’m about to tell you is one of them. It’s a story about a 13-year-old boy named Bradley Curtis.

He is the youngest in his family in Starkville, Miss. He’ll be in 8th grade next year. He plays football. He has loads of friends, the manners of generations past, an awe-shucks smile that will melt your heart and is more humble than you’d think possible.

He also happens to be the youngest son of my college roommate and the best friend a girl could ever have.

So, I can’t be completely objective.

Even still, I believe Bradley’s story could give a lot of people hope about the next generation.

In June, Bradley went with a group of students from Mississippi to Washington, D.C., to compete in the National History Day competition. Bradley had been working on his individual research project for months. All told, about 500,000 students competed in the competition on local and state levels across the country (and in American schools outside the country). After those competitions, 2,800 students competed in the national competition.

Only about 60 students, in nine categories and two divisions, won national awards. Bradley was one of them. He was the only student from Mississippi who placed nationally. In fact, he was the only one from most of the South to get an award. This year Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina didn’t have any national award winners either.

“I started really researching in October,” he told me. “I didn’t stop until I had to turn my paper in — in May.”

I asked how many hours would he estimate he had worked. His answer was very Bradley-like.

“ Hours?” he asked. “Shoot, I have no idea. Just about every day, I would do something on it. And then, on a lot of days, I would go spend a good portion of my day at the library.”

He’s not exaggerating. The eight-page research paper he wrote is titled, “William Wilberforce: Reform of the Slave Trade.” It documents Wilberforce’s struggle to abolish slavery in the West Indies during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bradley struggled to come up with a topic to research to fit the competition’s theme of Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History until he remembered a movie he had seen a couple of years earlier and thought the topic might work. “Amazing Grace,” tells the story of Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish slavery and his relationship with his pastor John Newton (who wrote Amazing Grace, the song).

Bradley did much of his primary research at the local university library in Starkville, but he didn’t stop there. He researched at Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta — one of two research libraries in the country focusing on African American history. He also received materials from Wilberforce University in Ohio.

“I went to a bunch of places to do research. Everywhere I went the people were so willing to help me. I think that helped a lot,” he said incredulously.

Note to Bradley: Anytime a 13-year-old boy (or girl, for that matter) winds up in a library genuinely trying to do deep research on 16th and 17th centuries, librarians are going to help. In fact, they’ll probably be giddy about it.

“I felt like I got to know Wilberforce. I really did,” Bradley said. “For 26 years, he worked for slave trade to be abolished. He kept having to go through obstacle after obstacle. Eventually, he accomplished his goal. He was so driven.”

And what did he learn from the experience?

“A lot of what I learned was how to start early on the research, how to do a bibliography, how to cite sources, stuff like that,” said the 13-year-old boy as he was waiting for a friend’s family to pick him up for an afternoon swim.

With that, the car pulled in the driveway and honked. Bradley apologized that he couldn’t talk anymore, said goodbye and ran out the door.

I smiled, believing that things were going to be just fine.

Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.