I am really honored to be named as a Fulbright Specialist, by the U.S. Department of State. What does this mean? Hopefully soon, I will be heading off to somewhere in the world to share my passion and knowledge for journalism, sports, the important role of women in media. It is a big responsibility to represent a free press, and I am super thrilled to be selected to challenge myself like this.
mid-July, Chicago: I will be the keynote speaker at the Big Ten-Ivy League TBI Conference, which has done so much over the years to advance the discussion and research in sports concussions and brain injury. I will also be doing some media training, in the important area of how researchers/clinicians and sports media can best work together. We often don’t speak the same language.
I look at the last time I have posted here – August 2018. That lines up perfectly with another timeline – Jeni’s cancer battle. I have been quite occupied the past year, with work, life, and yes, watching my friend struggle to live.
It’s the new reality, as of Thursday, May 9, 2019. Jenifer Pettibone is gone, at age 48, from acute myloid leukemia, then the chemo, then the stem cell transplant, then the graft v. host disease, then the infection, then the lymphoma spots in her brain, then the chemo, then the graft v. host disease, then the pneumonia.
So why does any of this matter? Why does one woman’s suffering and death mean anything on a planet of a lot of people going through stuff?
It just matters to me because she was my dear friend. We’ve known each other since first grade, then really reconnected when I moved closer to her for a new job 5 years ago.
The person I want to remember is funny, stubborn as hell, had terrible taste in wine (the sweeter the better – please), loved her three children, loved to rescue doggies and get them to great homes, worked way too hard, and had the best laugh. Her hair was perfectly blond-red, she defined athletisure wear as a way of life before the media did, and helped so many kids find safety as a child welfare attorney.
So I have been gone from posting, spending time with her. I tried to write a 100 times about this, but just couldn’t. Putting it in words would make it even more real. Beyond what I saw.
This unexpected terrible journey will always have a cinematic start for me: I was in bed, in Rome, in my rental apartment for a study abroad trip for students I was leading. My room was lit up by moonlight. I heard crickets chirping. And Jeni called me on Facetime audio.
She was oddly reserved, almost quiet to the point of me not hearing her well. But I heard every one of the words I wanted to go away: They think I have cancer. Leukemia, something called AML.
Shit. I googled it. Shit Shit. AML is not good. We can do a lot with leukemia these days, esp. childhood onset, but AML is still on the naughty list. Low long-term survival rate. Like zero.
Jeni knew I would look everything up and tell her this. That is what she wanted. Her journalist friend, who dabbles in medical and legal things, would research the hell out of the web to figure this out. We would make a plan, and then execute it like cold-blooded lawyers. I would find the loophole and she would drive through it.
After all, we joked that I was her neurologist over the past 4 years, as she went through so many of these almost-paralyzing migraine headaches. I had taken her to the ER more times than I want to remember, as I feared she was actually having a stroke. I was able to diagnose her better than the overworked ER nurses could.
And now here we were, progressing from the damned migraines and straight on to a deadly cancer. Great. Can we save this for when we get old?
I came home from Italy, and she went into the hospital for in-patient chemo. Like carpet-bombing chemo. Napalm. Serin. Assad-worthy-against-the-law chemo. She was so sick, as the poison made her turn from the outside-looking healthy to now her shriveling outside matching her cancer-filled inside.
I went nearly every day to see her. She wanted red pop. She wanted Towne Club pop. She wanted her mail. She needed her kids. She needed somebody to sit with her and tell her silly things, serious things, or just be there to yell for help when nobody came even when we asked 5 times over more than 45 minutes ago.
Oh the kids. The invisible ink cri de coeur, writ big, was the kids – we all lived their suffering spirits every day for the past 11 months. The kids. Those awesome foster kids she adopted and loved to pieces. The kids. The kids. The kids. The kids now living with friends, neighbors, sometimes family while mommy fought to get better.
She had to live. For them. So bring on the poison, the puking, the hell. It was all to live. For them. She was going to beat this because she was needed in this world.
The summer of chemo turned into the fall of waiting. She went home from the hospital for a little bit, then went back in to prep for her stem cell transplant. She had a match, which was amazing. A match from Germany no less!
I joked that her donor was a German woman, which automatically had to be awesome. She then would be totally stubborn for a good reason. She joked she would be more German like me, which may be scary! If she developed a craving for Deutsche Küche stuff from Aldi’s, then we would know the stem cells really kicked in. Ja wohl.
More chemo. More isolation. More total fear of one rogue germ making her sick. Masks and gloves and gowns for all of us to see her. When we were daring, we lowered the mask to kiss or touch her. She had no immune system, no hair, no color in her skin anymore. She was turning into the sick person who lived in the hospital, every day a step away from her vibrant self. But she had hope, because the stem cells were the Obi Wan that would surely slay the evil Sith Lord AML.
Thanksgiving came and we were all thankful for the procedure. It was a success. She should get better now. Slowly.
Except I never really saw her recover at all. She went home for December, so weak. Her bed was her prison and safe space. I would come over, and we would lay in bed to talk. We kept waiting for the day when it would all kick in, turn around as promised. That day was always tomorrow. Hope was always the code word. We had to hope and believe.
New Year’s Eve is my line where the roller coaster started the hard downhill turn. Jeni went back to the hospital, and it never got better. Infections, graft v. host, then the lymphoma diagnosis, and the rest.
Did you know that if you get a transplant of some sort, you are more likely to get lymphoma? That is utterly cruel and insane – we fix one thing (yay) and then it opens the door for you to get something even more incurable.
They never really knew for sure if Jeni had lymphoma, as I put a hard veto vote on the creepy neuro-oncologist who wanted to open her skull and do five biopsies. He was nearly overcome with giddiness at the thought of that. I wanted to slap him. Jeni did too – and just said no thanks. He went away.
We had our brief moments of hope, little shards that would end up cutting all of our hearts as they slipped away too fast. She went to rehab in March, with the goal of building her up to go home and resume life. She was back on chemo, this time for her brain.
But she was determined to get stronger, for the kids, so she amazingly walked like a champ all over the PT center. There were a few times when it was a perfect spring day, and I loaded her up in her wheelchair, threw on her kelly green St. Patrick’s day hat, and we went for a long walk around the building. We loved every minute, because it was normal. She was outside and free.
But then the slide started again, faster and faster, until it was obvious there was no more sliding to do. We were at the bottom.
The last time we talked was April 28. She was in the hospital, and was hoping to start making a plan to go home in like a month. Looking back, that was crazy. She could not even get to the bathroom without help, much less think about going home to be a mom to three active kids so soon. But there we were, making the plans. I wrote down all the things she wanted done to the house to make it more friendly for her. She wanted the kids to have Boy Scout camp, princess parties and summer school. These things were going to happen. Because everything happens in tomorrowland.
We ordered her new glasses, a funky blue pair that she said she never had the courage to try before. We were going to go there. We paid her bills. We even had a surreal discussion about where she wanted to take the kids (with my help per her order) on vacation to Northern Michigan. Mind you, she was not allowed to be in the sun without being covered up. She had to be careful of public places and germs. She had to be close to medical services in case she needed them. She needed someplace that would be disability accessible for her walking scooter.
Maybe camping. Maybe the Sand Dunes. Maybe Traverse City. Maybe Mackinac Island. Maybe a waterpark.
I told her we will see what looks best. She was so happy, there was a plan. Then I kissed her bald head, which had some funky little alien tufts of white and brown hair growing, and said I love you. She said the same. We always did that, as we learned last summer that this all could be over fast. No words left unsaid.
And that would be the last time we talked in person. We shared some texts on April 29, before she had a biopsy. She was put in ICU the next day. I cancelled the online order for her glasses two days later, because I felt she wasn’t going to need them anymore.
She was gone a week later. I saw her one last time in ICU, on that Monday, a visit so nightmarishly terrible that I cannot write about it. I have decided to forget about it and focus on April 26.
I can’t honestly tell you what I have “learned” from this. There is no greater meaning, yet, from watching a strong, vital woman get destroyed piece by piece by medical intervention.
They gave her six weeks to live without treatment. She lived 11 months with treatment.
Jeni wanted to live. And she fought like hell to live. That’s probably all I can say I know for sure right now.
So yeah, I have been away from my blog. But I think you can give me a pass.
But it’s all good. Been taking a break from some things, like blogging, in order to be more present in life. And honestly, I have not felt like writing here.
So I didn’t. When in doubt, don’t.
It’s been a complicated year, trying to unpack the ongoing turmoil and tragedy at my workplace of Michigan State University. I know students and others who have been directly affected by sexual assault and Larry Nassar’s abuse. I have been at a loss on how to best support them, other than to let them know of my care and respect for their courage. The anger and sadness is real. And deserved for the university’s continued failings to make things right.
I have had several friends die, way too young, and feeling their losses and seeing their families suffer with crushing grief has been hard. Another friend is fighting for her life, and is giving every bit of her soul to defeat AML. I hate her suffering.
And in the late spring, the wonderful Oreo kitty crossed the bridge, at 17 years old, after bringing so much joy to so many.
Yeah, that’s a lot.
I have chosen to be more present, less on my phone/social media, and forcing myself to see the quiet moments. I sat on a rooftop terrace in Paris, 10 times in 2 weeks, to watch the sun set over the city and have the Eiffel Tower come alive with twinkling lights.
I looked at the flowers in Rome, and tried to remember the smell of each.
I enjoyed my coffee. (Because yeah, it was better than the stuff in the US).
I thought about the things I want to write in the future, and what I want to leave behind.
It’s been a good time to realign and refocus. Which is a gift to get to do.
So yeah, I am alive 🙂 I hope you are too. Be present. Be grateful.
A lot of random thoughts, not necessarily in any order, other than they are flying around my head.
Tune out: I am thoughtfully choosing to do less with social media, which I know, for a media person, seems impossible. But it is not. I am only interacting with Twitter and Facebook when I need to for my job, and not for me. Why? It seems like Twitter is a slow drip of caustic fluid, hardening hearts and making people angry. The people who live to start shit, or be jerky, have their own special clubhouse and love to kick the furniture around. I block, unfollow fast. If you are mean, buh-bye. I will still keep listening, as always, even if I disagree. I do not need my SM to be an echo chamber. Just a space of normal people. And a lot of cat GIFs.
Drop out: This I cannot explain intelligently: I have one friend who refuses to leave Detroit, unless absolutely unavoidable, to shop/do business in the suburbs. I have another friend who doesn’t leave the house, and has everything delivered by Amazon or the supermarket’s online shopping feature. In third, another friend who refuses to go to Detroit, and will only do her business in the suburbs. And me? I shop anywhere where I need to go, and I like leaving the house. But I find this to be an interesting case study watching all three, as they have pretty well-thought out fundamental reasons why they are so against the other. One wants to only support local business, other wants no hassle and no shopping, and the third doesn’t want the hassle of the big city and its inconveniences. It’s just weird to observe all three amazing people in total. There is something going on here, just cannot figure out the big picture.
Not true, unless I believe it: Working with journalism students is a wonderful way to codify your own belief systems about the business. I am old school – I want sources on the record, less opinion and more fact, and try to get all sides into a story. I am definitely not on team Hot Take. I was asked the other day, by a student, how I report on “facts or people I don’t like”. As in, if I don’t want to be part of a story on something I don’t agree with personally…do I still have to be involved? And the answer is…you do your job. I have many times spoken to people I do not agree with, but I still strove to treat them fairly and with respect. Just because something is true, you don’t have to like it. And reflexively, just because you like something, does not mean that it is true. Good journalists find the truth and present it.
I don’t think anybody has been under the illusion, at least in my 20 years as a sports journalist, that being a female in sports media was easy. All of us have horror stories, about the men who belittled, harassed, overlooked, and clearly meant us harm.
I have made a point of trying to be a role model in sports media, taking every chance to speak to kids, students, groups, etc. about being female sports journalist and what life is like. Nearly every time, I get asked about the locker room – why I can’t go in (wrong, I do), why men are not allowed into female locker rooms (wrong, they are at the pro level), why we are not further ahead in the business, or why I wanted to go into this as a woman.
I feel all questions are good, giving a chance to start discussions.
I had an appearance as a panelist Monday evening, at Michigan Radio’s Issues and Ale public forum. Author John U. Bacon, Fab Fiver/former pro player Jimmy King and I discussed protest in sports, issues like concussions, and just the overall landscape. It was a lot of fun, and the audience questions were fantastic.
Afterwards, a woman came up to me, and floored me with a question: Given the current crazy atmosphere of women and men revealing the sexual abuse they have endured in the workplace, why aren’t women in sports media coming forward with their stories?
That is a great question to ask, and I didn’t have the thoughtful answer right at hand. I still lack the killer answer, but some of my thoughts have come together a little more.
I don’t feel that we are owed, by anyone, their “story”. If they want to say something, please do it – we are here to believe you and support you. I think that is the biggest glacier that’s moved – we are hearing victims and wanting to have their back. Some parts of our society are not entirely on board with that, still looking to victim shame or throw darts.
I think I am pretty average for a woman in sports media. We’ve all been through some shit, from our work places, the sports/athletes/coaches we cover, and the worst offender- the public. There is no polite way to say it.
We all know the bosses who have made demeaning comments and held us back. The assignments denied because it was cheaper to send two men and put them in one hotel room and not get two rooms for a male and a female. The work function where somebody gets trashed and goes over to the “sports chicks” because he heard we were sluts as the only women in the sports department. The sports editor having a file in an internal editing system, rating all the physical attributes – and grading them – of all the women in the department. The other media members on a work trip all going out to dinner to the strip club, leaving you with the choice of staying by yourself or eating at a place that makes you feel awful. Being at a professional reception, where a sports editor is recruiting over a drinks, and then delivers a nasty proposition and a butt grab. Co-workers looking at porn and openly sexualizing athletes (oh look, the tennis player is air kissing another athlete at the net…oooh!). The public sending rape threats, commenting on how you look – or don’t look – or dress – or don’t dress. Too fat, too stupid, too blonde, too whatever, who are you screwing to get the sports job job, token hire, n-word lover…
It’s poison. Drip. Drip. Drip. Some of this stuff I told my editors and HR. Some I didn’t. Some I forgot because I had to – until I remembered.
I’ve never been badly assaulted because of my job. Thank God. But we all have damage on our armor. Most of the time we get out of the way of the wrecking ball, using sarcasm, avoiding that person in the future, lamenting the job opportunity we will never have because so-and-so is there, and telling other women we know who to avoid at their workplaces.
The HR response for many has been, oh, that’s too bad, but you are the women in the sports department. What did you expect? (sotto voce)
After a while, you don’t want to fight all of this to do your job. You develop a plan for what your limits will be. Ignore the comments after stories. Don’t feed the trolls on Twitter and try to block them. Forward threatening voice mails to your boss. Game plan for the creeps. The witty comeback.
I am grateful for all the wonderful men – gentlemen, big brothers, editors and bosses – have my back and helped me. They were saddened to see this crap, and angry. They listened and believed, which is great. Nearly every job I have had meant a man hired me, and some took a risk by hiring a woman. Having female mentors also made all the difference. They knew, and my older sisters in the business had been through it all – many had it much worse.
So where is our swell of horror stories?
I can’t tell others what to do. You can only have your personal truth, and express it in the way that is best for you.
I do not judge those who stay silent.
I do not judge those who only tell family members and close friends.
I do not judge those who go to HR.
I do not judge those who left the business.
I do not judge those who stayed.
I do not judge those who are angry and want more.
I do not judge those who come out and tell the world and scream their truth.
I do not judge. I support all.
I demand change for all women in business. I want change. I have tried to be part of the change in my industry through AWSM and making things better where I can.
So that’s long answer to a great question, but it’s not the final answer.
Let the good people prevail. And the strong survive.
I listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton, pretty much on repeat, during a good chunk of the final writing and editing of Back in the Game. Jamming out to the hip-hop tale of a murder, the Revolutionary War, and that wacky English King probably doesn’t sound logical. But it worked, and the words went where they needed to go.
Back when I was listening to “My Shot”, I couldn’t allow myself to daydream about the wonderful moments to come, starting Sept. 1, 2016: holding the hardcover of the book in my hands – it was real; doing our first interviews, and seeing the book resonate with the public; our first book signing and meet/greet; talking to the first parent who thanked us for writing the book because it changed their child’s life….
As Lin-Manuel Miranda is fond of saying, “A bit of a day…” to describe amazing and overwhelming things.
Being an author isn’t easy. Getting your book noticed isn’t easy. Cutting above the noise of a Presidential Election like no other, a Presidency like no other, floods, terrorist attacks and the crazy swirl of the world isn’t easy.
I’ve gotten smarter all around – writing, editing, researching, being on the other side of the media and having reporters interview you, public speaking, marketing, and just learning how to be patient. You do your best, put it out in the world, and pray it works.
And I feel Back in the Game works. We’re the 2017 Clarion winner for best non-fiction, we’ve helped educate people about concussions, and most importantly, we did the very best we could with the very best intentions.
All good. So thanks. Thanks to everybody for their support. Friends, family, Oxford University Press, Craig our editor, co-workers at The Sports Neurology Clinic and Michigan State, and all the great book sellers and schools who have hosted us!
When you are a kid, you cannot wait for summer to start. The holy grail of vacation comes with countdowns, the easing up of school, and hopefully, the dreams of doing cool stuff with all the free time. Summer seems endless.
And then you grow up, BOO!, realizing that summer does not sadly last forever and God damn it, now you have to work. (Or a better rephrase, thank God I have a job, but oh how I wish I could be outside….)
I have been always so lucky that my “job” as a journalist has let me be outside, be traveling, be part of the world. If I was trapped in a cubicle, which has happened, I know my spirit would slowly die. So been lucky to be able to jump on planes and see the world.
I just got back from Berlin, after speaking/presenting at the International Association for Conflict Management’s 30th anniversary conference. It was a great opportunity to mix with scholars and professionals in areas that I am not normally immersed in. And if this world needs anything…it’s people that understand conflict and how to fix it. Discussing how the media works, fake news, social media and the acute need for news literacy was a wonderful challenge, as it pushed me to be more involved and evolved in my thinking about my field. Why do we do what we do? What are anonymous sources? Getting to explain media/journalism, and then take questions, from audience of end-users is hugely instructive. You see what they see, which may be different that what we meant. So thanks #IACM2017!
It’s a pretty wild time to be a journalist, heck, seems like wild times for all of us in this country these days. What I am learning – and seeing – in ways I didn’t before is the change in media literacy in our society.
I have people, in casual conversation, tell me about something outrageous they saw on TV or Facebook. “How can the media do that?” Or, “Reporters are terrible because…”
I go and find out what they are talking about and it is either A) straight up opinion or commentary (aka not journalism that is reported, fact-checked, etc.) or B) the garden variety fake news click-bait shit.
When I try to explain those nuances, to people I consider decently well-informed and capable of critical thinking…I get crickets.
Media is media is media. TMZ = New York Times = Joe the blogger = fake Twitter account = responsible journalist = responsible blogger.
Which is like saying fast food = home cooked meals from Mom = going to a 5-star restaurant.
Some of these things are truly not like the other.
But for some reason, the swamp is all the swamp. Media this and that.
As always, there are great journalists, mediocre ones, terrible ones who mean well, and straight up bustas. Like any profession.
Unfortunately, the stakes are always higher for us, because poor journalism can hurt people, start rumors, damage lives and institutions. And it can take down corruption, save lives, enlighten and be a force for good when done well by strong practitioners.
But the swamp has all of these journalistic creatures living in it these days, and I am getting tired of the poisonous snakes ruining it for all of us. I tell my students at Michigan State, who also see this and are getting concerned, that the only way we win the war of credibility is by witnessing and being the truth. No short-cuts, no trolling, no clickbait.
Hopefully they carry that with them into the real world, and the rest of the community will take a finer-tune on what they consume and judge it harder.
Now seriously, can we take a moment to reflect on the sageness of Ferris Bueller? He was right in 1986. And he’s still right in 2017. (I am a bit relieved that Matthew Broderick, who is now 54, seems to look like he is 35, and not 16 – which he did for most of the last 30 years.) Anyways.
Still on the speaking/appearance path with Back In the Game, thanks to the continued demand. We’re thrilled about that, as it is not about us – it is about elevating the discussion about concussions and youth sports, and also helping parents and coaches be informed. We can clearly see the impact of those conversations and it is humbling. We are happy to be here as a resource. And we are also here to listen too – it is a confusing time for parents and coaches, who want to do the right thing for youth athletes. We want the same. (And if you would like to have us come to your association/school/etc. to speak, let me know.)
I realize it’s a sign of me getting older, but time really does fly. Good times, bad times, boring times, all seem to fly faster and faster. Seems like it was just the start of 2016, and there was so much work ahead on various projects.
Now it’s 2017. And I can say the same thing, some for new projects, some for continuation of others.
The year 2016 was particularly a roller coaster ride, both from what was happening in the world, and life. I am choosing to focus on the good, remembering the time spent in Paris, Rome, Miami and with family and friends, the release of Back in the Game and all the amazing opportunities to learn and grow from it, and the chance to continue to have an impact with my writing. Getting to discuss concussions, youth sports, safety, science and medicine has been a joy, and I have truly appreciated every chance to be with the public. There is a thirst for responsible concussion information for youth athletes, and I am so heartened to see the global discussion swinging back to medically-grounded thoughts instead of solely emotion.
Wishing everybody the best in 2017!
There is more to come with Back in the Game, with several more appearances planned! Follow us on Twitter!