The trauma of a sauna

“Do you want to try the sauna?” asked Carmen, one of the teachers at my Swiss Catholic school. We were at a new private gym and as I am always up for something new I said “sure!”

Great,” she replied and stripped naked.

Ah. Err.

I’m a Lutheran from Ohio. Stripping naked in public is not something we casually do. After gym class, we would change quickly while staring straight ahead at the lockers. And here I had a teacher strip nonchalantly while talking and maintaining eye contact!

Let’s just say that was a bit much for 17 year old me.

I didn’t sauna again until college and I went to Czechoslovakia in ’92. We had gone on a university goodwill trip which included two weeks of backpacking with Czech students. We ended up at one point at a summer cottage in the countryside. The settings was beautiful… a lush field with a small mountain stream running through the back lot, a wooden sauna set back in the trees.

While two girls built the fire, the others set about damning the stream to create a clear pool of icy water.

And the Czech girls started to strip. So, looking in opposite directions, so did the Americans. The strangest thing, sitting there sweating in that small wooden hut until it was almost unbearable and then rushing out to plunge into icy water, naked, seemed almost natural.

Until a neighbor boy started cutting the grass with a scythe, like a teenage grim reaper, coming closer to us with every swipe…did I realize 5 girls frolicking naked outdoors was a bit much.

And I quickly reached for my towel.

After moving to the Czech Republic in 93, I started teaching English in the local schools. I became friendly with one of the other teachers and for the class trip she asked if I would like to join them. Sure! I said. It would be a week hiking in the Jeseniky mountain in northern Moravia.

But they never mentioned the sauna.

Yes, one evening’s activities was the girls and boys going alternatively to the sauna.

Accompanied by their teachers.

I have had many akward moments in my life, but that one has to rank pretty much at the top.

Until I moved to France.

After working out in the corporate gym in Paris, I went into the sauna in the female locker room.

Naked.

In my defense, in my experience, European saunas equaled nakedness.

It wasn’t until a French colleague opened the sauna door, saw me, screamed, and slammed it shut that I realized I committed a major faux pas.

The anthopologist in me thought. “Hmm. That’s interesting. The French don’t go naked into saunas.”

The Midwestern in me started to get up to run after her to apologize and to explain.

I stopped short realizing I probably shouldn’t be chasing after my colleague, naked.

Six feet of nakedness is a lot of nakedness. So I sat there and sweated it out, until she had had enough time to get dressed but not enough to contact HR.

20 years down the road, I traveled to Sweden.

Now, I know for a fact the Swedes like to sauna in the buff. I had a dear friend who got a Swedish family in Geneva for her year abroad. Giant house overlooking lac Léman, gold railing staircase leading down to the pool… and the sauna. The day they said to her, hey, let’s go sauna! She ran and put on her swimsuit. When she opened the sauna door, there sat her host mother, father, two teenage brothers and sister. Naked.

Yeah, that was a long whispered conversation over the phone about cultural differences in our respective host families with the word “naked” being repeated more than it should have been.

So I knew on my trip to Stockholm there would not only be nakedness, but male/female nakedness. OK, Swedes are 98% Lutheran. So it would be just like coffee after church back in Ohio, me in a big room with a bunch of Lutherans..

But without the coffee, or the doughnuts, or clothes.

….sweating together in an extremely hot room.

No, sorry, I was wrong. This would be the equivalent of Ohio Lutheran hell.

Be it what it may, I could not leave Stockholm without at least trying. I could handle it, right?

I went down to the hotel sauna at precisely 7am when it opened. As I had hoped, I was alone. So there I sat, naked, and sweating, and staring at the door, willing that no one joined me in today’s fellowship.

I could say that a very large Swede walked in but luckily for me, but unluckily for my story, I sat and sweated blissfully alone.

Someone once said to me that you either have a good trip or a good story..

… Let’s just say I had a very nice trip to Stockholm. 🙂

Traveling solo: arriving in Sweden


Back in the day, the day before marriage, a family, a son… Traveling was a carefree affair. Few possession, sleeping in hostels, going where the wind blew.

Traveling with a family was still an adventure but visits were scheduled around naptimes and feeding and places where a stroller could be pushed. (Word to the wise, pushing a stroller up the cobblestones at Mont St Michael …is not wise.)

It was also a compromise.. finding what everyone wanted to do which rarely translated into what I, as an individual, wanted to do.

Which was fine.

The “I” disappeared years ago.

And it was good fun, this “we” thing.

Discovering funky children’s parks the world over, almost lost a finger on a downhill wooden ride in Japan.. but overall, it WAS good.

But that was then. And this was now.

Now I had a 4 day weekend coming up where my son was staying at his dad’s. My employer offered a trip on exactly those same dates… To Stockholm. Lately I had been traveling to new places where I had friends.. or business meeting.. but exploring a new city and country on my own that didn’t include meetings or friends or family… I think the last time dates back a good 30 years.

Yes, it was an organized trip, yes, it was with colleagues but after the flight and a bus to the hotel, I would essentially be on my own to explore Stockholm.

But like Steve Martin in the movie “The Lonely Guy” I would first have to endure the stares of “table for one” humiliation when I showed up at the airport…solo.

Not an easy thing, especially since I did not know which colleagues had signed up for the trip. Luckily, there was only one that gave me a familiar nod.

Make it on the flight.. check into the hotel… Fade anonymously into a sea of Swedes. That was the plan.

So, feeling like a teenager again. No cares, no responsibilities… Being open to new people and opportunities, just impatient for this damn plane to land..

Stash

One of the hardest parts about being an expat is the cravings. It is like being pregnant for years and years and never being able get that one item that would satisfy your hankering.

Now I live in France and from what I have heard, the food is pretty good. Sure we can pick up duck and fois gras and creme fraîche in any supermarket in town but man, what I wouldn’t give for a can of Spam.

Growing up in Ohio, I lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tuna fish casserole with crushed potatoes chips on top, Campbell’s soup…. But in my 20’s I decided to move to the land of croissants but now pushing 50 I am cursed with cravings for Pop Tarts.

Yes, I can get organic ham from black pigs that have raised range free in a forest feasting only on acorns, but it is not SPAM.

When I hear that a colleague is going on a business trip to the States, I try sweet-talking them into bring me back some contraband. The easiest thing I can ask for is extra crunchy Jiff peanut butter. (Yes, my cravings are specific and brand loyal.)

I would like to think of myself as a generous person but the story is still circulating at work about the time a French colleague saw a jar of extra crunchy Jiff peanut butter that had just been smuggled in and was sitting on my desk. She asked if she could taste it, …now, I really don’t believe this version of the story…. but it seems I bluntly said no.

She insisted and I explained that 1. She would not appreciate it and 2. She would probably criticize it.

Really. That hardly sounds like me.

I do go back to the States with my son every summer to visit the folks back home.

Kind of like salmon.

But my primal urge is to go home to eat processed food instead of spawning. (Can’t really spawn, I am at my parents…)

I usually make a list of everything I want to eat in a two week stretch. Denny’s, Pop Tarts, chips and salsa, Chex mix, triskets, Taco Bell, American Chinese, ohhhh. And Big Red gum. I tend to look like a baseball player with a plug in my cheek the entire two weeks I am home.

I usually buy an extra suitcase to put in the hold on the flight back that is full of peanut butter, crumbled bacon, Pop Tarts and my gum. I can usually make my stash last until Christmas but I make an exception for Big Red.

Like people who only smoke that one cigarette on the weekend and on Saturday night, I ration out pieces of Big Red to last untill at least May.

But it is more than just junk food. It is a taste of home, of comfort, of love. When I have a hard day at work, I know that a can of Campbell’s soup will be waiting for me at home. Proust had his Madelines, I have spoonfuls of crunchy peanut butter to calm me down and take me back.

Last Saturday, my 15 year old son asked if some friends could sleep over and play video games. Sure, why not? We had a BBQ and they dragged mattresses down to the living room to set up for an all night geek fest. I went upstairs at about 11 and told them to keep the noise down. They are good kids, the lot of them, I thought as I made out my light.

The next morning when I came down the stairs a familiar odor hung in the air. A feeling of dread hit me. What was l thinking leaving 4 teenage boys alone? The boys were dead asleep on the floor as I ran to the kitchen thinking “ohnoohnoohnoohno.”

I ran right past the fridge stocked with beer, I continued past the kitchen sink where I store the hard alcohol. I reached right for the highest shelf in the farthest cubbard where I stash my Big Red gum.

My worst fear was confirmed. The little bastards had found my stash in the middle of the night.

The house reeked of cinnamon and little wrapper lay all over the kitchen counters. Adding insult to injury, there was even one chewed piece casually tossed and stuck on my dining room table.

That was it. As a punishment, I drove to the little bakery and bought croissants. Huh. No Walmart extra fluffy pancakes for them! That will teach them.

When I got home, they were waking up. I told them that a certain piece of disgusting on my dining room table and all wrappers should be disposed of IMMEDIATELY. I sent them outside to eat their flaky croissants on the terrace while I stood inside, hold down my tongue with a giant spoonful of extra crunchy Jiff peanut butter…. that was put aside just for this kind of occasion.

You planted what?

Neighbors make good fences and fences make good neighbors, the old adage goes. So what does that make for neighbors who destroy a hedge?

I have the most wonderful neighbors, they are quiet and respectful, their three children are adorable and when we bake, samples get passed over the hedge.

Or they used to until one day they decided to pull six feet of the hedge separating our terraces down. “Do you mind?” They asked, with hacksaw in hand. “No…no” I replied weakly.

If we had sprawling estates, that would be one thing.. but we shared a common wall and if we stand on our terraces, we can shake hands. Or wave, or have no privacy.

Once I had a gentleman caller over and we were sitting in the garden. The wife sent her 8 year old son out with some cakes. We thanked him and as my guest bit into the first cake, a little voice over his shoulder asked if he liked it. His mother waved him into the house but the feeling that we were not alone soured the taste of those cakes.

They did put up a retractable screen but since it can get quite windy in Toulouse, it is not permentally up. I used to like going outside in my bathrobe and enjoy my first cup of coffee in my garden…now I drink it standing up looking out my French doors.

I decided I needed something that could grow up the now exposed chain link fence…and fast. I went to the garden store, made an impulse purchase, and voilà.

The next day at work I stopped by to see two of my favorite people, who just happen to share an office and are both British. Now, If I go to my French girlfriends for fashion advice, the Britanic duo are my gardening experts.

I explained to them my brilliant solution to my problem. C. Sipping her tea asked what I planted. She almost spit it out when I replied, “ivy.”

They both said incredulously, “you planted IVY?” I weakly answer that I want to grow something fast. Calming down and assessing the situation, they asked what kind did I plant. I started to reply that I bought… They looked at each other and started laughing…”she bought!” “What, what? Com’on, what?

They went on to explain that ivy is considered to be a pest and that most people try to get rid of it, much less pay money for it.

“Next she will say she watered it…” “…or fertilized it!”

It? Not it. 5 plants worth. This set them off rolling in their chairs…

When I went home that night I checked on my gremlins. Right now they are little and cute. And I did water them. And fertilizing might not be such a bad idea…

Who says you can’t buy friends?

On the drive back from a long weekend in Spain, we pulled off at a shopping area right before we crossed the border back into France.

I was on a mission.

At band practice, one lady would always bring in a thermo filled with a potent punch. After my humiliation and the obvious fact I was in Philippe’s crosshair, I needed allies in the group. As perceptive as Jane Goodall when sitting in that jungle, I too was trying to find ways of being accepted by the other musicians. Well, practicing and getting the trombone part down pat would have been the OBVIOUS choice, but I had another idea.

As I was pushing the cart down the wide asiles, I found what I was looking for, the liquor section. Now, I don’t normally drink. I have beer and wine at home when I entertain but I usually steer clear of the hard stuff. So my son stared at me, mouth wide open, as I struggled to get a 3 litre box of rum off the shelf and into the cart. “What are you doing?” He said incredulously. “Mommy is buying friends, dear,” I retorted as I headed to check out.

The next Thursday, I showed up early to set up my music stand and as brown-nosy as putting an apple on the teacher’s desk.. I set out the carton of rum. The others arrived and started saying hello when one of them spied the box. “Qui a amené ça?” She ask. I nonchalantly raised my hand, trying to look like I was studying my sheet music. The others saw it and shot appreciative glances my way. There was a spout on the box and everyone was spiking their punch.

So by the time we started, everyone was loose and in a good mood. Now my partner in crime, Eve, couldn’t make it that night so I was playing akwardly solo. And I was standing there even more akwardly whenever they rehearsed a song without a brass part.

But that night was different.

When Philippe called out that the next song would be “Shout” but the Isley Brothers, one of the backup singers motioned for me to join them. I put my trombone down and walked up to the mic trying to remember if I had garlic at lunch. This was a classic from my high school days back in Ohio. At every school dance in the cafeteria, they would play this song. So singing back up on the shobie-do wap…wap wap waps was not a challenge at all.

In fact, it was glorious. We were dancing and singing, the lead singer was on fire as were the guitars and the drums. A collective whooohoo went out when we finished. Before I even had a chance to leave the mic, the next song started.

Lucille Ball could not have found herself in a more awkward situation with Desi at the Copa Club.

The girls started dancing and I started to panic. I stared at their feet and tried to mimic their dance moves. I started to gain confidence until they started to sing. In Spanish.

The song was “El Negro Zumbon”.. umm what, come again? It is a classic known throughout Europe. It was even featured in the film “Cinema Paradiso.” I can assure you. It was not played at the high school dances back in Ohio.

So I tried to fake it.

Fake it as best as you can while singing into a live mic. In a language you don’t understand. While dancing a choreographed routine you don’t know.

Philippe thought he would help.

He slowly walked over singing and playing his guitar, enunciating the lyrics to me. He could have been singing in Greek. It is like when the teacher approaches and you don’t know the answer… Go away, I wanted to hiss, you are not helping. The song finally ended and signaled the end of rehearsal.

The others asked if I was taking the box home with me, I said no and told them to use it for the punch for the next time.

And after that night, I was sure there would be a next time.

Adventures in Botox

When I called the plastic surgeon for an appointment, she asked what I was interested in. “Ohhhh, I’ve got a droopy eyelid.” Which is true. My grandmother had it, my mother had it. Grandma did nothing and my mom got a tuck.

So, since 50 is around the corner, and the droop is becoming visible, I went to see the good doctor recommended by a friend.

After looking at it, she said the one word I was not expecting…”Botox.”

Botox??

Really? She suggested injections would work better than any surgery. I hesitated.

There is a stigma about using Botox, like it is cheating, in a way.

Concidering my six years of extensive orthodontistry as a child and my monthly hair appointment now to cover the grey, what difference would a little Botox make at this point?

I admitted to a few close friends that I was considering Botox injections. The reactions were varied. Some said I didn’t need it, some were horrified, others asked if I could give them my doctor’s number.

In the end, I decided to go for it.

That is how I found myself on a Thursday afternoon, laying on a table with plastic wrap on my face. Another new experience, as my mother would say. But she didn’t know I was there.

Because I didn’t tell her.

Over the years, when I could call home, my parents would casually mentioned various surgeries, but only after the fact. “How’s Dad?” “Oh, recovering well from his gall bladder surgery…” “What? You didn’t tell me he was having surgery… I called you Tuesday!” When it has been cosmetic, my mother doesn’t mention it at all … waiting, I guess, for me to notice. This game is very unnerving, like trying to see if Mom is now Mom 2.0.

So, now it was my turn to play, guess-what’s-new. But first, I had to be brave enough for the injections. The doctor came over once the numbing gel had worked its magic. After taking a pen and having drawn nine (9!) dots around my eyes, she started the injections. The ones by my forehead were barely noticeable but when she went to the sides of my eyes, I had to hold myself still. But compared to an orthodontist visit, this was nothing.

When she had finished, I went to see her assistant for payment and instructions. “Sleep only on your back tonight” she warned. “Why? Why?” I started to panic as I could feel my forehead freezing up. “You don’t want the Botox to spread..” Spread? Where would it spread? Turns out to other muscles in the face causing, guess what… A droopy eyelid.

So sleep on my back it would be. I was also told not to rub my face and why not forgo make-up for a day or two. The list was getting long.

I then asked a question that I am sure I am the first woman ever to ask after getting Botox, “but can I play the trombone tonight?”

The answer, dear reader, is no.

I took the afternoon off just in case I started to swell or had a bad reaction. I went home and settled in with an Advil and Netflix on my reclining couch. I sent a message to Philippe that the doctor told me it was unadvisable to go to band practice that night. (All true!) And I waited for the Botox to work its magic.

I slept on the reclining couch propped up with pillows. It was a restless night, with starts of fear that I had turned my head too far and now would looked like a cartoon character that had just been smacked in the side of the head with an anvil.

I woke in the morning and rushed to the mirror. No changes. Nothing. All that for that? I read that noticible changes appeared after a week. But I did feel a pulling like Jell-O that was solidifying in my forehead from day one. Two weeks on and I can report that my forehead feels tighter and it is a bit unnerving that I can’t move certain muscles anymore.

Like I can’t furrow my eyebrows. As hard as I try, I can’t look pissed off. I can declare as loudly as I want “I’m mad at you!” But I will scowl at the victim of my rath with a pleasant look on my face. Shouting “I’m scowling here!” seems counterproductive.

Like a fairy godmother, my plastic surgeon has left me the non verbal power of sarcasm. I can raise my right eyebrow to “calling bullshit” levels quite smoothly and rapidly.

Oh, my droopy eyelid, you are wondering? Honestly, not much seems to have changed but maybe it is the subtleness and the time it has taken to kick in that I can’t really tell. Before, it bothered me. Now, both eyelids look the same. Colleagues have been asking me for a week if I changed my hair color (no, hehe) because they can see something has changed. One of my closest friends who knows me very well says it looks as if I had a very good night’s sleep.

The best case scenario is that it will last 6 months. So, I will see if this was just a one shot at 9 shots.

Unless, things start to droop again…

A lesson in humiliation

Philippe raised his hand suddenly and all the musicians went quiet. He bluntly said the concert was in two days and he didn’t think the trombones should join.

Eve and I had been dancing and having a good time while the others were playing a song with no trombone part. OK. Maybe doing the limbo with our slides was taking it a bit far, but the atmosphere was so… joyous. Everyone had been singing, playing, and dancing wildly…except Philippe.

He had been watching us.

He went on to mentioned that we would be playing before a crowd and we could not behave like that on stage. And we didn’t play all that great either. His dissing my trombone skills, fine. But not knowing how to behave on stage? It made my ears burn. Eve lowered her 24 year old eyes. My 47 year old eyes burned with indination.

The room was silent. The others just stared. So when Philippe called out the next song, ignoring the tenion in the room, it was no surprise that the joyous spark was no longer there. ‘Shout….kick your heels up and shout.’ sang the lead almost in a monotone voice. The backup singers were no longer dancing. The stood there, with their arms by their sides … Leaning half-heartedly in to mumble…”shout….shout….shout.”

When I walked out that night, I was debating if I should go back. Good lord, I had told all my friends that I was playing my first concert… How could I even announce that I was … told not to come? I was even writing about this in a f***ing blog. Oh, the humiliation.

I debated telling my son. The entire week I tried to cajole him to come watch me play in my first concert, how would I tell him I was cut from the band? When I got home, I looked at him, and decided to tell him the truth and the real reason he didn’t have to go to a concert he didn’t want to go to in the first place.

Is this what it feels like for him to get cut from the first team and have to tell me? To come home to announce to me a bad report card? If you are lucky, as a parent, there are not many occasions where your kids have to witness your public humiliation. And being a parent, it makes you think twice on how you react… To set a good example. My pride and ego wanted to sell that horn online that same night and send Phillipe a scathing email.

But I knew my son would be watching my every move. And could throw sometime in the adolescent future “but YOU quit” right back at me.

So, I swallowed my pride. I wrote to Phillip to ask if we could come earlier to practice to … practice. And maybe see if we could play at the next concert.. in June.

The night of the concert, I took my son instead to watch the local soccer team play.

After a half hour of practice.

You have to suffer to be beautiful

She had just poured excruciating hot liquid wax on my body. “Il faut souffrir pour être belle,” she said as she ripped the wax, all the hair and my dignity off in one swift gesture. I let out a bellow that shocked her. She then laughed said I sounded like “un cerf en rut.” … A rutting stag. Still gasping from the pain, I managed to ask how the hell did she know what that even sounded like, she shrugged and said that she was dating a hunter.

That sums up the relationship the French have with being beautiful, you first have to suffer. Maybe that is why they are world renowned for being beautiful and as tough as tacks.

When you make a monthly visit to have hot wax poured on your private parts as well as other parts of your body, you know that you are a warrior and really don’t need to take shit from anyone.

A friend recently told a story at a dinner party how she opted for electrolysis. How each individual hair was removed permenantly and… painfully. We sat there with rapt attention as she explained how she was in tears with the needle sharp poking pain … everywhere. But instead of being horrified, we whipped out our phones to write down her dermatologist’s number.

…but not all French beauty techniques are painful. Massages, spa days and other pampering is de rigueur. AND French women find the time to take care of themselves. In between full time jobs, home, husband and kids, they still find the time to have their nails done… and pay for it out of their own bank accounts.

Last Mother’s Day, I decided that I would take advantage of a deal at a spa. An hour of anti-age facial treatment. Sounded good to me! I show up for my appointment with my hair in an updo. They asked me to remove all jewelry and any metal Bobby pins in my hair. Strange request, but alright. I settled in on a comfortable table, the lights were dim and calm music was playing. I was just starting to relax when the massuse walked in.

She spoke to me in soothing tones and I nodded dreamily while I listened with closed eyes. And then I felt two cold pieces of metal on my temples. Still going with the flow, I tried to stay in the zen zone.

That is when she turned on the electricity.

Waves of pain coursed over my forehead and I jumped up screaming “what the hell” in French. I made her show me what she held in her hands and she explained in a trembling voice that by using electricity it will relax my wrinkles…and that nasty line that was clearly apparent in between my eyebrows.

Oh, as I tried to relax my face and the angry lines I looked at her tools and they resembled what I had seen in pictures of electrical shock therapy, in mental hospitals. But if they could reduce my wrinkles… So I laid back down on the table.

She started again …and turned the electricity back on. It was ok. Really.

More on the scale of a whimpering dog than a rutting stag, but ok.

She worked on my forehead, my temples and I started to relax again when she brought those babies down by my jaw line. My eyes shot open as every nerve and every cavity ever touched by a dentist or orthodontist in 40 odd years came vividly to life. “Ahhh AAAH”

Remember the scene when Dr Frankenstein brings the monster to life? That was me, that was us. I sat up garbling incomprehensibly, she cowering with her “happy” sticks in a corner. She squeaked out, “do you have any metal work in your mouth? Metal work? METAL WORK??? My mouth is nothing but metal work. I still have a bar left over from my orthodontist days when I was 16 and is still holding my teeth in place.

She was trying to talk me back on the table by saying it would make me look younger. That stopped the monster. I raised an eyebrow, quieted down and asked, “how much younger?”

“12 months younger”

Nope. Nopity nope nope.

Only 12 months? For 5 or 3 years even I might have gotten back on that table, but 12 months? She needed to work on that marketing pitch.

Even I won’t suffer for a measly 12 months….

then again…

My Mother Never Did Anything For Me

I think it started when my son was about 6, while he was sitting comfortably with his feet up and I was on all fours with an old toothbrush trying to clean the fungus out from under his toenails. Tired and a bit disgusted, I looked up at him and quickly said

say my mother never did anything for me.”

He tore his eyes away from his cartoon and said quizzically “what?” I sat back on my heels and told him while waving the toothbrush around “I do things like this for you all the time and you know what? When you will turn 15 you will probably say that I never did anything for you. So, I want you to say it now..right here… while I am working on your toenails WITH A TOOTHBRUSH that your mother never did anything for you…so say it.” He just stared at me. “No, really, say it, I’m not kidding. ” “My.. mother.. never.. did.. anything.. for.. me?” He said slowly. “That’s right,” I replied, as I bent down to attack another toenails, ” and don’t you forget it.”

What was said one night out of exasperation turned out to be a ritual. After getting up from the table to wipe him I would say “say it.” After driving him to every garage sale in town to find Pokemon cards, cleaning up vomit, sitting outside for hours waiting to see a famous soccer player, making minion cake for the entire class, getting him water in the middle of the night … I would say, “say it.”

He would grin and say, “My mother never did anything for me.” Hehmmm, and don’t you forget it.

My son has reached that magical age of 14 and a half. He is affirming himself, finding his own way and I am dreading that his selective memory will soon kick in. But the last time I said “say it” to him.. he looked me in the eye and replied “my mother did everything for me.”

Ain’t that sweet?

….But the next day he said “don’t you ever think before you speak?” I finally realized that it if we want our species to continue, and deter infanticide, parents as well as budding teenagers should use their selective memories… selectively.

The Greatest

I had just changed out the tape in the camera when the man who called himself The Greatest walked in. Good lord, it was Mohammed Ali.

It was 1992 and I was working the odd job for Miami University’s A/V department, basically covering the hours that the regular staff didn’t want. While my fellow students were sleeping it off, I was at the lab, picking up my equipment and loading it on a dolly to drag across campus early on an April Saturday morning.

Normally these gigs were long winded professors who had put in a request for their lectures to be recorded for all eternity. I just had to set up my video camera on a tripod, hook the professor up with a lapel mic and let the camera roll.

I checked my schedule and that day promised to be a long wind-lollapalooza. “Great,” I thought, “a symposium.” I had 8 hours locked up in a lecture hall to look forward to on a beautiful April day. Well, tests were coming up and I needed the money so might as well get on with it.

I got there early and started to set up before anyone arrived. I heard the professors before I could see them. The were chattering away and basically ignored me in the back of the 100 person lecture hall. I made my way to the front to make sure the mics were ready before settling down with my books in the back next to the camera.

I don’t remember the hall being very full even though the event was open to the public and the topic was a bit more interesting than the usual fare. It was a symposium on one of the greatest boxers who ever lived, Mohammed Ali.

One by one, the professors took their turn at the podium to read their papers that focused on varied topics such as Ali’s political, historical, and religious impact on America and the world.

I believe it was at the start of the second presentation when I looked up sharply because the speaker seemed to have lost his place in his notes. He was staring at the two people who just walked through the doors. There was an audible gasp when the handful of people in the room recognized Mohammed Ali.

It was if they had mentioned his name one too many times and they had unwittingly summoned him to be there. Ali and his manager quietly took their seats, the lecturer cleared his throat and tried to continue.

It is one thing to write a paper and criticize an icon, it’s another if he is sitting there six feet away listening to your every word. Like if you would write a critical paper on Michaelangelo and he walks in to listen with a raised eyebrow.

At one point, one of the lecturers read the part in his paper about Ali dating white women. Ali slowly held up a finger that trembled slightly, and slowly admonished the speaker. The lecturer laughed uncomfortablly but he had to carry on.

Some parts were boring, both he and his manager would look around the room at times. Once, his manager caught my eye when I looked up from my books and rolled his eyes dramatically. I tried not to giggle. It seems the three of us were the only ones not taking ourselves too seriously.

During a break, Ali stood up and was very kind to his fans, slowly signing autographs and doing magic tricks for the few people there. I quickly took the camera off the tripod and started shooting footage. He looked at me, looked at the camera and shaking slightly, pointed right at my lens. Like he used to do. Wow. Wow. wow. wow. Chills.

Several hours later after the last person spoke, the host got back up on stage for his closing remarks. Everyone applauded and the symposium was finally over. As I was collecting my equipment from the stage, I overheard them talking about the reception. I was hungry but I could feel that I would not be welcome to join them. The professors did not even thank me nor aknowledge me as they left the room.

I was the last to leave the hall and I slowly pulled the dolly behind me down the empty hallway. As I was walking out, I saw two people in one of the alcoves on a pay phone. It was Ali and his manager. Their eyes lit up with recognition when they saw that it was me and both gave me a friendly wave goodbye.

They didn’t have to. They could have ignored me like the others. But they didn’t. Ali might be considered the Greatest for the impact he made in so many domains… I think he was the Greatest because he didn’t make you feel like you were anything but.