Saturday, December 10, 2005

Now Is the Time

Each morning Jimmie Heuga turns the cold water on to remind himself. Don’t give up on yourself Jimmie! After waking up at 5:30, he takes a normal warm shower and then he makes it as cold as possible. He hasn’t missed a day in over thirty years. Sure, it helps his vision and speech and coordination and strength. But that’s not the primary reason he does it now. It sets the tone, a good slap in the face, a reminder, for how he must approach each day: bring it on!

An aide helps him in and out of the shower, on and off the toilet, to get dressed, and into his wheelchair. This is his life now inside an assisted living facility he calls “prison” or “big house.” And even though he can’t walk, he still exercises daily and looks forward to alpine skiing, waterskiing, and swimming. And although he can’t grip a pen well enough to write a letter or type an e-mail, he uses his voice-activated computer to correspond with friends he has made through his life, which he says he wouldn’t trade with anyone.

Born Sept. 22, 1943 in San Francisco, Jimmie moved with his parents, Pascal and Lucile, to Tahoe, Calif., before he turned 2, the age at which he began skiing. Jimmie drew inspiration from Pascal’s friends, many of them world-class skiers such as Frenchman Emile Allais, who Jimmie met at age 6. People were drawn to Pascal’s outgoing personality.

Jimmie followed in similar footsteps as Pascal. “My father remains my idol,” Jimmie says. “He’s just very inspiring. There’s a spark in his eyes.” Pascal, of French Basque descent, had a fifth-grade education, but spoke five languages. Jimmie missed school as well, spending his days on the ski slopes instead. His parents supported his hooky habit, even Lucile, a reserved woman who graduated from UCLA and took care of many family responsibilities. He’d often go to home room in the morning and then she’d pick him up and drive him to Squaw Valley, where Pascal ran the lifts. Jimmie skied all day. They weren’t concerned. Jimmie read a lot – Mark Twain and Somerset Maugham, among others – and always had good grades despite his awful attendance record.

It was a happy family. Pascal enjoyed the outdoors and travel, and Jimmie loved to go with him hunting, fishing, camping and skiing. Pascal ran the chairlifts for 35 years at Squaw Valley. Lucile was a housemother. Pascal introduced her to skiing, and she caught the Heuga ski bug. She skied until she died at age 89.

Jimmie, the younger of his parents two sons, was very competitive. That competitive flame burned brighter from skiing with Allais and the other world-class skiers, such as Bill Beck, Tom Corcoran, Brooks Dodge and Chick Igaya. Jimmie not only had fun, but learned to appreciate each day. One time at ski camp, University of Denver ski coach Willy Schaeffler taught Jimmie a lesson that he applies to any circumstance he has faced since then. Schaeffler said that he could take any day and turn it into a good day. For example, if it’s overcast and bad weather, it’s the same for his opponents.

“My life has just been paradise,” Jimmie says. “I had so many inspiring people.”

His childhood, although happy, was not the norm. At age 8, Pascal taught him to drive a car. That same year Jimmie appeared in segments of a Warren Miller video. At age 15, he earned a spot on the national team, where he enjoyed driving his sleeping teammates to various races despite having no license. The following year he barely missed qualifying for the Olympic team. “He was just a phenomenal story,” says longtime friend Billy Kidd. “He was like a Tiger Woods at that time, being so much better than any other junior competitor. In other words, it wasn’t even close. He was just so good.”

Jimmie didn’t dwell on his accomplishments. Then again, he didn’t have the time. The summer before he qualified for the national team, he did hard manual labor in a construction job for his father. When he got off work.... he ran. He had no off-season.

At 5'6", 115 pounds, Jimmie was fearless on any pair of skis. Socially, he was shy, in particular around girls. He never had a girlfriend in high school. Jimmie had three sets of friends: his school friends; his ski friends; and his summer friends. Because he skipped school he didn’t have many school friends. His ski friends didn’t have anything in common with him other than skiing due to the big age gap. He liked hanging out with his summer friends, who came from much wealthier families.

Jimmie grew up in a modest three-bedroom, two-bathroom home a block from Lake Tahoe. Pascal organized large barbeques with his wealthy neighbors, who lived in the Los Angeles or San Francisco area and had summer homes on Lake Tahoe. Jimmie took after his father, enjoying the company of his rich friends, who were impressed by his superior athletic ability. He learned how to waterski on a single ski ten days after first trying. Soon he out-skied all his friends. He had a great time. They’d waterski and hunt for porcupines. Ever see fireworks in a boat on the Fourth? Jimmie did.

His wealthy surroundings never seeped down to his humble roots. After high school, he decided to ski for coach Bob Beattie at Colorado University. That summer, however, he did odd jobs – pouring septic tanks and driveways, and building rock walls.

On the East coast, a skier the same age as Jimmie had also chosen to ski for Colorado. And even though Billy Kidd grew up three-thousand miles apart from Jimmie, he had a similar childhood. Billy was born in Burlington, Vt. His father moved the family to Stowe, Vt., when Billy was 12 and showed promise as a racer. Billy, like Jimmie, loved waterskiing, in the summer on Lake Champlain. His father, a local motel owner, introduced him to skiing at age 5. Like Jimmie, he immediately fell in love with it: pushing himself down his backyard hill that was so flat he stopped when he turned; making a ski rack for his bike and wrapping rope around the wheels so he could ride it through the snow; going off the University of Vermont ski jump; and always having so much fun on skis that he failed to notice it was dark outside.

At Stowe, Billy skied with Olympic champions just as Jimmie had in Squaw Valley, sometimes with the same skiers, such as Olympic silver-medalist Chick Igaya. Both ski areas were well-supported and funded for young ski stars. Billy and his classmates got out of school early two days each week to ski at Stowe. The kids didn’t get much instruction. They learned by watching and imitating; skiing down the mountain behind Olympic champions.

Billy and Jimmie both idolized Buddy Werner. He was the one American who beat the top European skiers and earned respect home and abroad with his quiet, self-assured personality. Werner had skied at Colorado University, not a small factor in Jimmie’s and Billy’s decisions to attend college in Boulder. Either was Bob Beattie, the CU ski coach, who had won a pair of national titles. Jimmie lived with Beattie off and on throughout college as did other CU skiers. It was a close group.

In fall of 1961 the U.S. Ski Association named Beattie the national team’s first full-time head coach. Most of the team was college skiers who took the winter semester off and bonded overseas with the European skiers. “When Jimmie and I were first on the team, the first year we went to Europe for the 1962 World Championships, they literally had enough money to send us over, and said if you got good results, we can bring you home,” Billy says. “I don’t think that those experiences could have been any better for us. We were a tightknit team. We were confident. We had great times over there. We strengthened friendships and had experiences that even without medals, came back with great memories.”

In 1958, Billy had walked through Idlewild Airport (later JFK Airport) in New York on his way to the National Junior Championships in Winter Park, Colo. Someone noticed him carrying his wooden skis on his shoulder and said, “I know skiing, how high do you jump?” That person, like many Americans at the time, had no idea about alpine ski racing. Americans didn’t own televisions and many associated skiing with jumping, not racing down a mountain.

American skiers had a lot to prove. Billy spent his 1963 Christmas vacation on the slopes at St. Anton in Austria. One day after skiing, he drank tea while chatting with the Austrian ski school director, who asked him how he thought he would do in the upcoming Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Billy said that he thought if he skied well he could win a medal. The old ski instructor laughed and told Billy that it was a foolish belief. For he knew the Americans’ ski history.... Billy used it as motivation.

As the 1964 Olympics approached, one fact told the tale of American male skiers: they had never won an Olympic medal. Not even Buddy Werner. That fact did not stop Beattie from arguing on behalf of his skiers for higher pre-race seedings. The night before many top races, such as the Olympics, seeding positions were given to each racer. Beattie sometimes argued for more than two hours with the Europeans. “It was a battle all the time,” he says. “I just kept talking until they did something.”

His arguments for his skiers seemed futile after a U.S. let down in the downhill and giant slalom. He had boasted to the media and now his only chance was the slalom. “We’re at the junction,” reporter Dan Jenkins heard Beattie tell his skiers the night before the men’s slalom. “If we don’t get a medal tomorrow we’re all failures and I’m the biggest. But I’ll tell you something. We’re going to get a medal because you guys are the best slalom skiers in the world.”

Chuck Ferries, the U.S. slalom champion and first American that final day, fell on his first run down the steep and icy course, causing greater concern for Beattie. Billy, on the other hand, felt much more poised than he did at the start of the Olympics....

Disgust shouldn’t be one’s initial reaction for winning your country’s first medal in men’s alpine skiing. However, Billy felt that way after crossing the finish line on his second run and seeing he had missed the gold by .14 of a second to Austria’s Pepi Stiegler. Then he thought, there still is Jimmie, who had the third fastest time in the first run.

Thirty seconds before his final slalom run and the last chance for an American medal, Jimmie looked over and saw some female Colorado students with a banner that read: “Go CU.” He was so pumped up he needed to let off some steam and started talking to the girls, “Oh, you’re from CU....”

“Jesus, Heuga! Get focused,” said Beattie, standing near the starter’s gate. Jimmie, with no hat or goggles, raced down the choppy and icy course... and finished third. Two medals for the American men! Jimmie, like Billy, had the same initial reaction and slammed down his glove. Then things came into perspective. Werner sprinted to hug Jimmie. Beattie rushed down the mountain and joined them and their teammates in a warm embrace. “In a lot of ways it put ski racing on the map,” Beattie says. “It gave us tremendous respect in Europe, but also here at home.”

Jimmie roomed with Werner at the Innsbruck Olympics. After Jimmie won the bronze, he felt uncomfortable going back to his room that night. He wanted to give Werner his medal; he thought Buddy had deserved it. Quick flashback. When Jimmie was 11, in 1955, he had a big race at Sun Valley in Idaho. His father couldn’t go with him because he had a hernia, so Jimmie drove over 500 miles there, and then back after a week of skiing. Early that week he met Werner, then age 19, who invited him to ski with him. They skied together all week even though socially they had nothing else in common. Still, skiing with his idol left an indelible mark on Jimmie’s conscience.

The 1964 medals had a greater effect on Billy and Jimmie than they realized at the time. Although teammates, they were by no means close friends. Competing against one another and other skiers had consumed them. “What really forced us to begin getting along was winning that medal,” says Jimmie, who won the Arlberg-Kandahar combined a week later in Garmisch, Germany, beating all the Olympic stars in one of the biggest races of the year, and the first American to do so. “Because suddenly, here, the guy from the East and the West share something in common that no male skier for the United States had ever done before.”

That same year of the Olympics, Werner died in an avalanche. Suddenly a pair of 20-year-old skiers, Billy and Jimmie, were thrust into the spotlight, whereas the media had usually sought quotes from Werner. The media attention changed the sport in America, not the skiers. Before the Olympics, Jimmie had his goals written down and where there should have been an Olympic medal written, it was blank. He knew he was one of the best, however, he all but denied the medal before and after he won it. His mind was on competition.

That commitment, and impressive results at big races like the ‘64 Olympics, helped pave the way for the World Cup, a series of races worldwide based on a point system which Beattie and French journalist Serge Lang founded in 1967. With it came American television exposure and a more popular and better funded national ski racing program, as well as the best international competition on U.S. mountains. New ski resorts were built and programs such as NASTAR began spreading to many of them. Just as skiing enthusiasm had arrived for the U.S. men’s alpine team, in large part due to the ‘64 Olympic medals, its popularity grew in America.

He was a skier, so naturally it happened here, on a mountain. The year is 1967 and Jimmie is walking up the race course at Alpine Meadows, Calif. Racers always hiked up the course before a race in order to see where each gate was positioned. Jimmie looked at a gate. Then he looked down the mountain to gauge the turn he’d have to make and commit to memory. He closed his right eye and looked down the mountain with his left eye. Everything was blurry. He did the opposite, closing his left and looking with his right. Everything was fine. His vision was blurry. He asked his assistant coach Gordie Eaton if he should go see an eye doctor. Eaton shrugged, sure.

Jimmie saw an eye doctor. Nothing seemed wrong. But things just weren’t right. Sure Jimmie had finished third in the giant slalom at the World Cup that year, but he noticed something odd. The team would run sprints and he wouldn’t try to win. His competitive flame wasn’t burning bright. That wasn’t Jimmie Heuga....

No worry, he thought, I’m still having fun skiing. Still, his coordination, his vision, his flexibility, his sensitivity, and his strength sometimes deceived him. After a bitter cold day racing in Austria, he took a hot bath. When he got out, he felt pins and needles and almost a numbness from his waist down. He thought he burned himself in the hot water.... He searched for an answer, seeking various medical specialists, but never brooded over it.

A year earlier at the World Cup, he had straddled a slalom gate, flipped, and landed on his head and back, breaking his vertebrae. His mind told him to ignore it. A week later he raced in Kitzbuhel.

But the strange symptoms didn’t disappear. They’d come and go. Finally, in 1970, he received a diagnosis from a neuro-ophthalmologist... Jimmie had multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis, or MS, has no known cause or cure. In the United States, about one in a thousand people has MS, according to researchers. Those afflicted, like Jimmie, have a loss of myelin, which acts as a protective cover for the body’s nerve fibers. This affects nerve signals from the brain and damages the central nervous system causing a variety of symptoms, such as numbness, blurry vision, loss of bladder control, and trouble walking. The symptoms come and go and progress differently for each person. “I thought I was impervious,” Jimmie says of his diagnosis. “The day before I ran five miles in just under twenty-five minutes. I was in really good shape. I thought, so what, I can take on anything.”

Jimmie, however, quit ski racing because of his MS symptoms and joined the U.S. Ski Team coaching staff out of its Denver office. By 1975 he had worked for a ski equipment manufacturer in San Francisco and then his job brought him to Connecticut, where he lived by himself.

In a Jan. 2, 1975 article, Jimmie told the AP: “I’m in good condition. I’m sure that has a lot to do with the shape I’m in. I’m not exactly sure, myself, about the nature of MS, but I do know it’s not going to stop me.” That was the first time he went public about having MS. He had told his parents and best friend and ex-wife, but never discussed it with anyone at length.

The common belief in the medical community was that exercise worsened a person’s MS symptoms. That’s the thing about it, it’s so easy, Jimmie thought, I’m just following my doctor’s orders. He exercised less and less. He felt worse and worse. By that spring, he had stopped exercising and sat in his room and looked out his window with angst as he saw joggers and people playing. His pulse had sped up. He had done so little he could hear the tapping of the blood in his ear against his pillow.

One day sitting alone in that room he discovered a quote by philosopher Blaise Pascal: “Man’s greatest obstacle is to learn to sit quietly in his room.” After reading it, he pondered it and thought, “Are you going to give in to the sort of insidious allure of the room, to be swept up by the confines of its walls, or are you going to break out and get back into life?”

There were two voices talking to him: one by the medical community and one by Pascal. The medical community sat on one shoulder giving him a reason, a warning, an excuse to sit around and take it easy. Pascal sat on his other shoulder telling him to ignore the medical community, go exercise, get in shape, break free, Jimmie, don’t forget your health.

He went outside and rode his bike for 45 minutes. He fell three times. His coordination hadn’t completely returned. When he finished, he felt wiped out... but he also felt good. He smiled. His confidence returned. He felt much better than when he had sat alone in his room. He continued to fall and he continued to get back on his bike. Multiple sclerosis wasn’t the problem... it was the loss of self-esteem.

For the next several years Jimmie continued to exercise, continued to relearn how to bike and run and swim, but he didn’t tell anyone for fear of their response. His heart rate dropped; his self-esteem increased.

By 1980 Jimmie had clearly distinguished the difference between chronic condition and sickness. MS didn’t mean he wasn’t healthy... it didn’t mean he couldn’t exercise... No! Those doctors have it all wrong! His anger grew, but he didn’t dwell on it.

In 1979 the National Medical Society had a conference in Denver and invited Jimmie to speak. They wanted to hear his controversial views. Before the speech, the organizers invited him to a charity bicycle race for MS. Jimmie wanted to race. They told him to sit with the dozen or so other people with MS, who sat watching in disbelief. Jimmie grabbed a bike and raced. That night he spoke to that group:

You’re letting yourself dream of what you can’t do – you can’t do this, you can’t do this. But there’s a lot you can do. We can’t do anything about the medicine. We don’t know the cause or cure. But we can do a lot of things to recapture our health. Everyone’s got constraints on certain things. I’m not as good a skier as I used to be. But who’s as good as they were. You reach your peak and you’re off that peak. And so you reach your peak momentarily and then, boom, you’re off it. So you’re off it and you’re never going to be as good as you were. But you can still maintain your health given the constraints that you’re dealing with, whatever those constraints may be.

That’s how he remembers the gist of his speech. They were embarrassed; they were angry. They thought their MS was much worse than his. Jimmie told them not to compare their lives with others. Everyone has their own situation. It’s how you deal with it that determines your life. Not MS.

By 1980, a decade after his diagnosis, doctors still advised him to wait for a cure, take it easy. Jimmie didn’t buy it. Warren Miller, a friend of Jimmie’s, filmed him riding his bike and swimming and exercising and feeling good. Jimmie showed the film to a neurologist. Same response: exercise is not good, take it easy. All of the National Medical Society board members disagreed with Jimmie. Well, not all. One member, Marvin Davis, agreed with him and convinced the other members that Jimmie should talk to other MS chapters nationwide. So Jimmie traveled to about seventy MS chapters across the country in the next three and a half years, playing the Miller film of him exercising and trying to convince stunned listeners why they should do the same. Many listeners became angry or simply were in denial. Don’t tell me I can exercise when my disease is worse than yours, they’d say. The response didn’t surprise Jimmie, whose goal was to get three percent of them to begin exercising.

It took an athlete, not a neurologist or scientist or medical researcher, to change the belief about a person’s lifestyle with MS. Jimmie changed the medical community’s thinking about the disease. That change occurred through the Jimmie Heuga Center, which was primarily funded through the Jimmie Heuga Express.

In 1984 a Vail ski instructor and friend of Jimmie’s thought of the idea behind the Heuga Express: take a group of skiers and record their total vertical footage skied in one day and raise money for it. It began in Las Vegas of all places. Jimmie and other Olympic skiers he had befriended over the years, such as Kidd, went to a big ski show in Las Vegas, going booth to booth and raising over $300,000. Next came the mountain: Mt. Alyeska. Miller filmed the record-breaking event in Alaska, more than a million vertical feet in sixteen hours of overcast spring skiing. Miller helped spread the word, showing his Alaska footage to groups of skiers and challenging them to beat the million vertical feet. It caught on with various events at ski areas nationwide and the championship in Vail, Colo. Each team had to be coed, and have three people due to the size of most chairlifts then in Vail, and pay or raise $1,000.

At a charity event in Vail, former Olympic gold-medalist and Jimmie’s close friend Jean-Claude Killy introduced him to former first lady Betty Ford. Jimmie explained to her the mission and goals of his nonprofit scientific research organization that provides specialized educational and fitness programs for people with MS. She decided she wanted to support Jimmie’s Center, located in nearby Edwards, Colo. The Gerald Ford Celebrity Event, which became the American Ski Classic, had a dramatic influence in initial fund-raising for the Center.

Billy joined Killy in writing letters to garner support for the Heuga Center. “Billy has been so helpful and positive about anything to do with me and the Center, to this very day,” Jimmie says. “He’ll drive over and get involved in anything that has to do with the Center.”

Life was good. More people and organizations started participating and donating toward Jimmie’s Center and word spread. Neurologists and MS specialists joined in, adding more credibility. Even in the mist of tragedy good things evolved. Jimmie’s 11-year-old Godson died skiing out of bounds in 1986. At the funeral, Jimmie delivered the eulogy. Remember, by that time, he had a lot of experience speaking in front of large groups. He knew how to captivate an audience. And he spoke about “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a children’s book he had read the night before. There is a character in that book that reminds me of my Godson, he said. The Skin Horse had bald spots on his coat and was ragged looking. And the reason, Jimmie said, was because he had been worn away with love, and that is what my Godson did to you, he wore you away with love.

One of the people touched by Jimmie’s eulogy was Debbie Dana, who knew the boy’s parents. Three years prior she had an infection in her heart and had brain surgery and nearly died. “I did die and I was brought back,” says Debbie. “And God sent me back and.... I met God twice and then I go to this funeral service and I hear this man talk about a child that wears you away with love. And I said that man understands more about life ... than most people.”

That night she and Jimmie fell in love, and six weeks later they were married. He asked her to marry him on a flight to Sun Valley. When they landed, they hurried the arrangements and got married. Right after, she says, they had a party, and that’s when she found out about his skiing legacy. They both enjoyed their new and exciting life together, living close to the Heuga Center. And traveling around the country to ski resorts and fancy dinners and charity events and giving speeches and gaining lots of media attention and believers in the Heuga Center. Not to mention a family of their own. They had three sons. They both enjoyed life on the move. By the early 1990s, the medical community supported Jimmie’s belief of exercise benefitting people with MS. Today it is scientifically proven and common knowledge that exercise has a significant, positive effect on people with MS.

Things began to change for Jimmie in the 1990s. His Center and personal image and popularity remained strong throughout the decade, but his MS took its toll on him and his family. There were evenings when Debbie would tell Jimmie to dress for a black-tie dinner. I can’t Debbie, he’d say, I’m so wiped out. Sometimes his cold shower barely helped him make it through the day.

About ten years ago Jimmie waited on an airplane in Denver, delayed on the tarmac for an hour and a half. He had flown alone. The pilot had to wait for a gate to open and the plane was hot. Heat is bad for MS. Jimmie became exhausted and had to be wheeled off the plane as he thought, my world is getting smaller and smaller each day. A few months later he used a wheelchair, which he has needed ever since.

Then came the catheter, a tube doctors inserted from his stomach to his penis. He carried it like a sandwich bag. But life with it was no picnic. He’d have an infection and go to the hospital, like he did the time he rode on an inner-tube with his oldest son at Lake Powell, only to have his catheter bag fill up with blood. Jimmie never heard Debbie say a word about the expensive hospital bills. Sure, a dozen times or so he was in and out, but there were three or four times he stayed longer. It took its toll on Debbie. She worked. Jimmie became more physically dependent on her. Her three children were a handful as well. In June 1999, Jimmie moved a few hours away to an assisted living facility, the Balfour Retirement Community in Louisville, Colo., near Boulder and Denver. It was a decision that Debbie says she agonized over, talking with friends and ministers and psychiatrists.

The morning Jimmie left Edwards to move to the Balfour, his oldest son, Wilder, who was 10, crawled into bed and held his father’s hand. Neither father nor son said a word. “I probably should’ve but I.... I really thought I would be back, that I would be back....” Since then he’s only been back as a visitor. Jimmie and Debbie divorced a couple of years later. Leaving his children, he says, has been the hardest thing he has faced. It is the one issue, after talking for hours and hours about his life, that he becomes noticeably choked up about. He says his boys' response to him is different now and that they’ve come to grips that he can’t parent them, something he “still agonizes over.”

“I have my physical condition to deal with, which is really restricting,” he says. “Physically, I have a driver’s license. People go, Jimmie, I don’t think you should be driving. And I know my limitations. More than that, I wouldn’t trust myself going to Boulder. So how can I break out and physically go out and earn a living? I’m in a vacuum here.... and I want to break out and go take care of my children – let’s go rafting or let’s go bowling or let’s go to Lake Powell....”

And yet even in his “vacuum” there are no guarantees. The Heuga Center pays Jimmie for the rights to use his name, a five-year contract that has been renewed several times. It helps pay for his room at the Balfour, which is so expensive, virtually all of his savings and retirement money have been spent on it.

He worries. He doesn’t complain. He is still his father’s boy. (A few years ago Jimmie visited Pascal, who at age 95, greeted his son by doing pushups.) Jimmie says he relates to former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s philosophy on adversity: don’t lie; don’t complain; don’t make excuses.

Jimmie focuses on the positive, on the joy of skiing again after a hiatus in the ‘90s when he couldn’t stand the thought of skiing with the assistance of another skier or device. Billy Kidd’s persistent persuasion and encouragement finally convinced Jimmie to give it a try. At Billy’s Steamboat office he shows a visitor a video of Jimmie skiing down a course on a bi-ski soon after he began skiing again. “You start on a beginner trail to get the feeling of it,” Billy says as he watches the video. “But then to get up on something steep like that is difficult. Then to go around gates when he says turn here is extremely difficult. So he was really doing well, surprisingly well.”

Jimmie put three pictures of himself skiing with his bi-ski, or sit-ski, last winter at Alpine Meadows in a column on his wall near his bed. On the slopes he sits down on a seat with skis. He doesn’t use outriggers or small balancing skis. Instead, he uses his arms to balance as a skier holds a pair of ropes behind him for speed control. Looking on his wall at the middle picture, last autumn, he said, “I see a lot in that picture that just really turns me on and gets me excited about this coming year.... And so for the first time I skied down some black-diamond runs. That slope is part of a course. I’m going from one gate to the next gate....”

A while later he looks at the photo near his bed of him as a 9 year old skiing at Tahoe. “Today’s skis are just so far advanced,” he says. “Look at how my knees are so bent. I should be putting more pressure on my edge. Today’s skiers at that age are skiing much better. I look at my kids and they’re doing more than I did, yet it’s all relative. They’re all better skiers than I was. What’s too bad is that I couldn’t help them because I could have made them better skiers. But at least I could stand on the sidelines.”

Jimmie named Billy Kidd the Godfather to his third and youngest son, Winston. Billy’s middle name is Winston. Billy has been ski director at Steamboat Resort since 1970, as well as a television commentator, skiing writer and author, and has skied all over the world, including Antarctica. Their lives have taken different paths but they both say they are better friends now and see each other about once every two weeks. “I think that we probably became better friends and got closer over the years because of perspective,” says Billy, wearing his trademark cowboy hat at his Steamboat office. “In other words, we’re getting older, we can look back and see how something that happened was not just a funny story but it had significance on how it affected our lives ... it’s really easy to get discouraged. Things go wrong. Everybody’s life doesn’t always go right. And even for Paris Hilton it seems that once in a while she chooses the wrong dress and oh, what a catastrophe. With Jimmie, he keeps a very good perspective on what’s important and anybody that can meet him will be positively affected by him.”

Maybe what inevitably links Billy and Jimmie is not their similar love for skiing or storied past. Maybe it’s their appreciation of life. For if you ask either one, they’ll tell you they wouldn’t trade it with anyone else. And not even a cure for MS would change a thing. “Let’s say research came out and they came up with the cure for MS,” Jimmie says. “What does that mean? How would that change my life? The cure to MS doesn’t mean that suddenly the quality of my life is better. I have to maintain the quality of my life. Whether I have MS or not, I have to solve that issue. So in that sense, a cure doesn’t mean a thing.”

Jimmie is excited about the bike he started pedaling daily in July, not with his feet, with his hands. His velcro straps keep his hands in place in order to pedal his stationary bike that sits between his bed and computer desk. He can only ride it outside when someone rides with him. Stopping and starting on hills are a problem by himself. He is also at the mercy of someone else taking him skiing or waterskiing or swimming – all part of his activity list. And he acknowledges his improvement, his increased arm strength and lower heart rate.

Before MS, Jimmie never had the time or the mind-set to reflect on his life and its pleasures. Now he is happy with a simple frog-kick and flex of his buttocks in the swimming pool. Everything is so much more meaningful now. He still doesn’t compare or judge himself with others. He finds fulfillment in his accomplishments, an approach to life he says is vital for anyone.

“I’ve been dealing with this for thirty-seven years every day of the week,” Jimmy says. “And every day I have to slap my face and say, ‘Don’t give up on yourself.’ And you don’t ever have the answer. You have to really tell yourself, ‘All right asshole, get in there.’ Because I’ve had good times. I’ve had bad times. And yet I wouldn’t trade those times for today. I just have to put the past behind me. All the good times and the bad times and just live for today because here I am looking at the rest of my life.”

A life that has grown smaller, inching him into the confines of a room. But remember, he was sitting in a room when he discovered the Blaise Pascal quote.

“What’s an inch when you’re able to use the world?” he says. “But in time it comes in. And after 30 years it comes in from the top and bottom and sides ... and then all of a sudden it’s inched me into this room. And the whole issue is, this is your life Jimmie, what are you going to do about it? Sit around here and piss and moan? Or are you going to get on with your life? And here I am, 62, and I’m looking at the rest of my life. What am I going to do? Am I going to go, ‘God dammit, why me? Why me? Life has dealt me a freaking hand.’ Or am I going to go, ‘Hey, I got this bike here and I can get some things going. I can go swimming and waterskiing. I’m swimming tomorrow and I waterskiied yesterday and Jesus, I’m psyched.’”

Saturday, December 3, 2005

From the City to the Suburbs and Back

My family and friends often ask, “What do you do all day?” or “What did you do today?” Given that it is a very open-ended question I usually give them a summary of what I did or if it’s a weekend I’ll usually give them the edited version. They don’t seem to understand how I can be busy without a job. If I have a job then the question becomes, “What having you been doing when you get off of work?” or “Anything interesting or new in your world?” To which I’ll probably give them a similar answer to the first set of questions.

The truth is, I am busy, if not physically then certainly mentally. I always have something on my mind, just my nature, although I don’t always let someone know. Nevertheless, here was how I spent the first Monday after Thanksgiving with no job.

I woke up and ate and wrote spontaneously in a notebook until three pages were filled. It is an exercise I have been doing every morning to clear my mind and practice writing more creatively. The idea came from the bestseller The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Reading and writing, as Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing are the two most important things a writer can do. I believe him. But exploring your surroundings and meeting new and interesting people can be equally important. I’ve been trying to do all three, which in a nutshell explains why I’m busy without a job.

I had planned to see an author I admire and who I had recently read one of his books titled There Are No Children Here. His name is Alex Kotlowitz, a long-time Chicagoan, who was to give a speech that night at the public library in Des Plaines, a northwestern suburb of the city. I had already scheduled to use Hertz to drive to Des Plaines. I wanted to see if I could find a better deal with Enterprise. Because my cell phone had recently broken, I couldn’t call. So I walked down State Street to the Enterprise dealership. A stout man with dark, thinning hair told me the price. I said sure. It was twenty dollars cheaper. I walked back to Hertz, a few blocks away on Clark Street, and canceled my reservation.

The Red Line was next. I took it to the Fullerton stop and with my black gym back I had slung over my shoulder, walked to the Lakeshore Athletic Club. I lifted weights and used the Stairmaster for almost two hours.

On the way back home I ran into a familiar homeless man outside of Walgreens on Division Street. Virtually every day he is on that corner. We’ve been trying to arrange a time to have lunch together. Sometimes it rains or it gets too cold and he takes shelter at a friend’s house. I run into many homeless or people asking for spare change, usually black men, and I turn them down. The reason I like this man was because he reminded me a little bit of Eddie Murphy, complimenting girls on their appearances and always jovial with strangers, but never in a way that seemed force. He was genuine as far as I could tell. The other thing I noticed, besides the fact he would be at the corner each day, sometimes hours and hours with the relentless Chicago wind, was that he was in a wheelchair. And he had no feet. I didn’t know anything about the man, except that he was a friendly guy with no feet and no home. I’ll talk about him at a later time. On that day he told me he hadn’t eaten all morning and asked me for some money. It was the first time he had asked me for money.

“How much do you need?” I asked.

“Whatever you can spare,” he said.

I gave him a five.

“Thanks my man. Now we can eat. Now we’re going to eat lunch with this.”

He said it as if he was feeding a family. Maybe he was referring to himself and his stomach as two separate people. We shook hands and made arrangements to meet in the near future.

I went home and showered and grabbed my notebook that fit into my big black winter coat pocket. I emptied my wallet of any big bills and I left all my credit cards and other cards on my desk.... I was headed to the hood. I had a few dollars and my lucky two-dollar bill. I was headed to Crane Tech Prep, a high school in one of Chicago’s notorious dangerous westside neighborhoods. A neighborhood that a 28-year-old black man, who lived on 79th Street, once told me while riding the El, “You have one strike against you, man, just for being white. That’s one strike against you. It’s dangerous for me. It’s dangerous for anyone. But you have one strike against you right off the bat.” I had decided a week earlier to go to Crane Tech because they have a great basketball team each year. Will Bynum, a Crane alum, played for Georgia Tech and now is in his first year with the Boston Celtics. This year, Crane has one of the nation’s best point guards, Sherron Collins, who committed to Kansas. I thought I could write a feature on Collins or the team as most reporters wouldn’t venture to that neighborhood. I did. Its coach, Anthony Longstreet, a rounded man with droopy eyes like a bulldog, had told me a week prior that he didn’t have a complete schedule yet and that I would have to come back in a week at this time, aka 1:30 p.m.

So I went back. On the way there I talked to a 26-year-old white man with an unkept beard. He said he had been laid off as a teacher on the south side. He mentioned that he had been substitute teaching and I told him I was interested in doing that since I had no job and would be flying home over Christmas and busy on New Year’s. I needed the holidays off but I needed some money as well. My savings was dwindling away. He said that in order to teach in Chicago Public Schools you needed a teaching license. That is bogus, I thought. They are laying teachers off and there is a shortage of subs and they require licenses. They don’t do that in Connecticut, which pays its teachers the most of any state. I felt worse after talking to him. There go my hopes for a job where I could have time to write and still have the holidays off. He offered to show me to the main office on Clark Street because he was going there. I said I was meeting someone.

On the train there I noticed a big loud black girl with a black and white leather jacket with “Scareface” written on it with a picture of Al Pacino holding a big gun. It said, “The American Dream” on one sleeve and had a big dollar sign on the other. This wasn’t the Gold Coast. I got off the Western stop and walked over a highway bridge. I looked to my right and saw the great Chicago skyline. It wasn’t very far away, but there was a huge difference. As I was about to cross the street on Jackson, a tall black man, about 30, said he needed forty cents. I told him sorry, that I was unemployed. He didn’t say anything but he had a look on his face that said, “What am I going to do now?” I did feel nervous. My palms were a bit sweaty, especially when I saw a group of young black men walking by with dew rags underneath their hats and baggy jeans and big coats. They didn’t appear any different than kids from my hometown. It’s just I knew they were tougher here. It was different. I kept my head down and stared at the sidewalk as I strolled to Crane. No one bothered me. When I arrived at the school, I saw two police officers walk out and into their car parked in front. That’s weird, I thought, why are cops here. Crane is a large stone building with giant pillars and equally large reddish-orange doors and large black gates in the front and back. The cops had left the door slightly ajar. I wedged it open with my fingers and walked in. I told the hallway monitor I wanted to see Coach Anthony Longstreet. I signed in and they gave me a pass and I walked into the gymnasium. A group of girls were huddled on the bleachers gossiping and watching the boys play basketball. It must have been gym class. Coach Longstreet’s office door was ajar, just like the front door, and I walked in.

“Now is not a good time,” he said shaking his head with a look of anxiety. “Now is not a good time.” He kept shaking his head. I stood there and wondered for a second who these other white men were in the room. “Can’t you see Coach Self is here,” Longstreet said as he walked away shaking his head. Kansas head coach Bill Self, resplendent in a dress shirt and dress pants, was sitting on a desk next to Sherron Collins, who was also sitting and wore street clothes. Self had a notepad in his hand or pieces of paper and seemed about to explain something to Collins. There was another man in the small room, probably Self’s assistant, standing on the other side across from me. There was an awkward silence as the three men looked at me. I looked at them. Self broke the silence and said, “Hi.” I said hello back and walked out the door. Was Collins signing his letter of intent to go to Kansas? Or was it to make sure he was academically eligible? Maybe neither. I found out later that Coach Self was just checking on Collins to make sure he was academically eligible and on pace academically to play college basketball. I knew I could write a good story if they would just let me – that seemed to be my theme so far in Chicago. Maybe I should work an easier route and write about someone no one knows. I pondered that after listening to Alex Kotlowitz.

Before I saw Kotlowitz speak I ate a gelato at CafĂ© Gioia. Enzo had stepped out. I’d catch him later. I came home and read the local newspapers and bought some groceries and went to pick up my rental car at Enterprise. They gave me a Toyota Camry and I headed west on the Kennedy Expressway. Most of the rush-hour traffic I had worried about drove the opposite way, into the city. I found the public library in Des Plaines and waited in a big room with a few dozen chairs for Kotlowitz.

Formally dressed in black pants and a dress shirt, he looked skinnier and had shorter hair than I had imagined. Not that I cared. He was a writer and he spoke like an intelligent one. He spoke openly, but had a speech that he had written out word-for-word, which I saw when he signed his books after it and a Q & A.

He talked about his books, which I had read, but what struck me most was his view of Chicago and of himself as a writer. In many ways I felt the same way. “I’ve gone through life always thinking of myself as an outsider,” he said. “There’s an old Groucho Marx line that I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me. And that’s how I think I’ve often felt in my life. I can’t begin to psychoanalyze the reasons behind that. Anyway, part of it explains my attraction to journalism because wherever I go as a journalist I’m inevitably and naturally an outsider by race, by class, by religion, by geography, by politics, by circumstance. It’s a tough part for me of being a journalist. And the tough part, of course, is finding your way in the communities where you don’t belong. But being an outsider I think can be terribly important. Because I think outsiders often have a much clearer and cleaner perspective of what’s going on in the inside.... And when you think of this city you come to realize that it is a place that is molded, if not defined, by outsiders.” He mentioned how various architects, artists, and writers “thrived” in Chicago as outsiders. It made me feel like I, ironically as an outsider, belonged. Perhaps even more than his comment about being an outsider was how he compared Chicago to New York and why it is a unique place, a place that seemed to fit my value system. “It’s a place that doesn’t presume,” he said. “It takes you at face value. New York, for instance, where I’m from is a place where you’re measured by your accomplishments, by your wealth, and in some ways I find New York a more provincial place than Chicago. There is no question in my mind that if I was to live in New York now my immediate circle of friends would be other writers, other journalists. And here in Chicago my friends cover a wide birth.” He also said that the city represented all of America more than any other place. “It’s a city which within its boundaries you can find most of what we celebrate and bemoan in this country. It’s a place constantly in search of itself.”

“It’s an imperfect place. And I believe, as a result, a perfect place to try to make sense of these imperfect times.”

A New York City native, he answered my question about how he began as a writer and what he recommended for a freelancer like myself. He said after college he didn’t know what he wanted to do, and he spent a year working at a cattle ranch in Oregon. He then saw a small add for a small weekly newspaper in Lansing, Mich., and was hired. He realized he wanted to write for a living. After a year there, he worked as a freelancer for five years. He worked ten years in Chicago, writing for the Wall Street Journal. He said it was a great newspaper for reporters and that he enjoyed working there, but left twelve years ago to write books. In the end, he pointed out that stories are what he sells to editors and if they are good ones they will sell. Finding and reporting a good story is what he teaches his students at Northwestern and Notre Dame, and what he says is still the hardest part of his job. “As a writer I am often writing about very emotional material,” he said. “I try to write as dispassionately as I can. And I do that because I think it is important that readers find their own way. I think the worst thing that readers like is to have them pushed or pulled through a story. You don’t like to be shouted at. And let me tell you, there is a lot of shouting going on these days.”

Still, I went to this speech and enjoy his writing because his values seem to mirror my own and I found his story topics pertinent and compelling. “I should also tell you that I write out of a very strong moral conviction. I have a very clear sense of how things ought to be. A very clear sense that things ought to be fair, that they ought to be just.... And if they’re not, well then what better reason than that to tell stories,” he said. “I enjoy the everyday story, the stories of everyday people, people who struggle against forces both within and without. And I’ve got this undying faith of the ability of people to change.”

Still, some things have not changed. On my drive home, back into the city, I decided to take the exit near Wrigley Field and drive around, primarily through working-class Mexican neighborhoods. Everything seemed bleak and dark and less lively in contrast to the downtown city lights and constant traffic, mostly by taxis. I had entered the Enterprise drop-off lot and parked when I realized I hadn’t filled up the tank. So I drove out and looked for a gas station. When you don’t know the downtown very well and you don’t own a car, finding gas is a daunting task. Or at least it was for me. I lingered at traffic lights looking for gas stations as I drove through downtown. Then I headed south on Michigan Avenue because the pace was a lot quicker. Still no luck. I felt like an outsider in the car, not on foot. I headed to Chinatown, thinking there has to be a gas station in that area. No luck. Finally I stopped at a Walgreens near Chinatown and asked a young black man, who had a gap in his front teeth, where I could find gas. He told me, “Three blocks east and about ten blocks north.” He was friendly and appeared eager to help. Thank goodness for him. I was tired and wanted to go home.

Gas stations, like many things, are different on the south side. When I pulled up to the pump a young black man told me the pumps were temporarily down. “Can I wash your windows for a few dollars?” he asked. “Me and my brothers need some money so we can fill up and go home.” I told him it was a rental and that I didn’t really care if the windows were washed or not. Then I asked where he lived. He said 79th Street. I felt bad and gave him a dollar and told him he could just keep it. “Well, can I wash your windows anyway?” he asked. I told him again that it was a rental. “It’s always good to ride in style,” he added. I told him thanks, but it wasn’t worth it. Then I realized I had pulled up to the wrong side of the pump. The gas cap was on the other side of the car. I pulled up to another pump and heard the same young man telling a middle-aged white couple that they could use their credit cards now to pay for gas. I pulled out my card and filled it up. I heard him tell his brothers he only needed two more dollars and they could get some gas. I left with a bad feeling. Here I was, tired and in a hurry to get home. And here was a black man about my age who had to raise money washing windows to get home. He seemed as genuine as the man who gave me directions and the white people I chatted with at the Des Plaines Public Library. It didn’t seem right.