IN A BIG COUNTRY

Scotland votes on Thursday whether to leave the United Kingdom.

This made me think of two things.great britain

First, I was on vacation with my family in Africa last year.  I didn’t have anything to read to my son at night.  We were at a supermarket near Mombasa.  There were metal detectors at the entrance.  Randomly, one item for sale was an unabridged copy of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The same guy wrote Treasure Island.  I figured Kidnapped would be a good adventure story.

Kidnapped was published in 1886

Kidnapped was published in 1886.  It doesn’t hold up

In fact, it was an impenetrable mass of 18th-century Scottish politics, with just enough adventure tossed in to keep the reader slogging through historical events such as the Jacobite Uprising and the Appin Murder, plus a baffling array of places such as Essendean, Erraid, and Ballachulish.

I was so confused by the various places and clans, I resorted to Wikipedia.  Which in turn told me about the independence referendum slated for September 2014.

And here we are.  The time has come.

Scotland makes up about one-third of the land mass of Great Britain.  Roughly 5 million people live there, compared to the 52 million who live in England.  Scotland is already its own country, but has been a member since 1707 of the union of countries known as the United Kingdom.  That’s 307 years of partnership.  Thursday, it could go kaput.

Current polls show the vote as a dead heat.

the Scottish flag

the Scottish flag

The other important thought which floated through my mind this week was … the Scottish rock band Big Country.

What ever happened to those guys?

The song I remember, “In a Big Country,” was a rousing number with soaring guitars, a martial beat, and the occasional shouted interjection, “Shaaa!”

The band performed the song on Saturday Night Live in December 1983.  The Smothers Brothers were hosting.  I was a 10th-grader sitting in my kitchen in Maryland.

Great band, raucous performance.  The singer slammed on his guitar pedal and triggered a huge, careening bagpipe sound which sent the whole edifice careening toward disaster.  As Scottish art went, it certainly beat the crap out of Kidnapped.

I am sad to report that the band’s dynamic lead singer Stuart Adamson (a native of Dumferline in the Fife region of Scotland) was later undone by alcohol.

adamson

Adamson, in happier times

He died alone, by his own hand, at a Best Western hotel in 2001 in Hawaii (itself a former kingdom).

Major bummer about Adamson.  And with no direct bearing, I will grant you, on our chosen topic.

I myself am 25-percent Scottish.  My late grandfather David Brown was from Glasgow.  He arrived in Massachusetts as a child.  His dad went to work in the mills around Lowell.  Young David turned out to be a talented student and ran away from home at 16 to attend college.

He went on to become an English literature professor, including a stint at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately he died in his late 30s from a bleeding ulcer.   It was the fall of 1941.  My mom was just seven years old.  The family was living in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.  The widow and her two young daughters moved back to Nebraska to live with relatives.

The untimely death of my Scottish grandfather still ripples down through the generations.

Several years ago, I realized that my main feeling, upon the respective seventh birthdays of my kids, was relief.

Okay, at least I lived this long.  At least they’ll have their dad longer than Mom did.

When combing through family records, I once found a report card from my mother’s grade school.  A faded note in lovely cursive said the teacher was really hoping that with the arrival of springtime, Sally’s asthma would subside, and she would feel okay to join the other children at recess.

When I showed the note to my mother, her eyes welled up.

This was after her father died, she said.  She remembered her sadness.  She remembered a boy from France who was at her school.  He was equally miserable that winter.  He and my mother would sit inside at recess while the others played.

On the same topic of untimely parent deaths, there is a beautiful song on U2’s new album called “Iris (Hold Me Close).”

U2 and Apple caught flack last week for sort of jamming the album down people’s throats.  The music was released for free, which was nice.  But it was also automatically uploaded onto many iPhones and iPods whose owners didn’t want it.

Big deal.  Delete it.

It’s a wonderful album, and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a moving song about the death of Bono’s mom when he was 14 years old.  She died of an aneurysm suffered during the funeral of her father (Bono’s grandfather).

Yes, I realize U2 is from Ireland, not Scotland.  But no one delivers an anthem like U2.  And indeed when Adamson, of Big Country, died, one of the performers at his funeral was the guitarist from U2.  (I still can’t bring myself to use the guitarist’s nom de guerre, The Edge.  It’s a tribute to U2’s music that it gradually obscured the ridiculousness of their stage names.  Bono Vox?  A singer ought not name himself ‘good voice,’ even if it’s disguised in Latin.  Total non-starter.)

Scotland is known for its lochs, castles, bagpipes, Highlands, and ancient clans

Scotland is known for its castles, Highlands, ancient clans, bagpipes, philosophers, and the Loch Ness monster

I suppose there is a spectrum of parental absence, from premature death down through divorce or out-of-state residence, to a parent who is physically present but emotionally absent.

The lyrics of “In a Big Country” include several repetitions of the exhortation to ‘stay alive,’ a plea which any child surely understands at his core.

The song also includes the line, Take that look out of here/It doesn’t fit you.  It could be the admonition of a flinty Scottish parent.

And this line from “Iris (Hold Me Close):”  Iris says that I will be the death of her.  A harmless idiom, but one which could get stuck in the psyche of a grieving child, to wit, the child’s helpless rejoinder, It was not me.

The singer recalls a moment years earlier when the burial ritual was played out in reverse on a beach.  Iris playing on the Strand/She buries a boy beneath the sand.

The mother’s death shaped the singer.  The ache in my heart/Is so much a part/Of who I am.  

But her absence is neither complete nor permanent.  Something in your eyes/Took a thousand years to get here.  More simply, I got your life/Inside of me.

In Kidnapped, the hero David Balfour is just 16 years old when he becomes an orphan and leaves home.  He faces the journey stoically, telling the town’s minister:

Essendean is a good place indeed, and I have been very happy there; but then I have never been anywhere else.  My father and mother, since they are both dead, I shall be no nearer to in Essendean than in the Kingdom of Hungary.

And with that, he departs.  This is the first page of the book — the jumping-off point for David, not the end.

Fun Facts About Scotland Upon the Eve of the Independence Vote

1.  The official flower is the thistle.

2.  The motto is Nemo me impune lacessit, which means “No one attacks me with impunity.”

Robert the Bruce is almost as dumb a name as The Edge

Robert the Bruce is almost as dumb a name as The Edge

3.  Scotland won independence from England in 1314 with Robert the Bruce leading the way against superior numbers at the Battle of Bannockburn.  The same event is chronicled in the movie Braveheart, which is considered one of the most historically inaccurate movies of all time, but is also a rollicking good time.

4.  Scotland has produced philosophers and thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, as well as the writers Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling, and okay, fine, Robert Louis Stevenson.  Other great Scots include: Alexander Fleming (discovered penicillin); Alexander Graham Bell (invented the precursor to the iPhone); Andy Murray (first native Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years); and the actors Sean Connery and David Niven.

5.  Another great tune by Scottish rockers is the 1988 song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers.  The band (identical twin brothers) are from Auchtermuchty, which is in the same Fife region as Adamson’s Dumferline.

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7-STEP GUIDE FOR EXTREME HOCKEY GRIEVING

With only two teams left in the NHL playoffs, a growing number of friends and relatives are dealing with the heartbreak of their favorite teams being eliminated.cry

Myself, I watch from greater emotional distance this year, since my own favorite team, the Washington Capitals, didn’t even make the playoffs.  (Which is embarrassing enough, given that half the league makes the playoffs.)

As I was consoling friends from Chicago last night, it occurred to me that I have, over the years, developed a fairly solid program for hockey grieving.  It’s a seven-step plan.

Step No. 1  PRETEND IT DIDN’T HAPPEN

Your team didn’t lose last night.  You didn’t stay up past midnight to watch the opponent score on a double-deflection in overtime.

You don’t care about sports in general.  You damn sure don’t care about hockey.denial

Hockey doesn’t exist.

Canada doesn’t exist.  Just woods up there.  Woods and snow.  No people.   No pucks or skates.  No glorious hulking silver trophy which will be handed off to some OTHER team in a matter of DAYS.

To keep yourself from checking the internet or discussing hockey, put a thick rubber band around your wrist.  Whenever you find yourself reading or talking about the forbidden topic, snap the band as hard as you can.

Not unlike a laboratory rat, you will gradually be reconditioned.lab-rat

True, the rubber band becomes less effective, and incredibly painful, if you have children who play ice hockey, and who practice four days a week at a rink where hockey is constantly discussed.

But you still need to wear the rubber band and snap it hard every single time.  It’s a mandatory step.

Step No. 2  EAT YOUR ANGUISH

Dull the pain by eating constantly and voraciously.

In the spring of 2009, I ate an entire chocolate pecan pie in the 12 hours after the Capitals lost Game 7 to the Penguins.pie

By the time I finished the pie, I felt bloated, disgusted, ashamed, and mentally weak.  But I survived those 12 hours.  I didn’t jump off a roof.  Which is amazing, considering my team’s performance in Game 7.

Step No. 3  YOUR OPPONENTS WILL ONE DAY DIE

This step is not the most enlightened or compassionate step.

But it’s vital to surviving those first few days.

Remember that the players on the other team — the guys whose very names make you want to smash windows or vomit into your breakfast cereal — they will each one day go the way of all mortal flesh.  They’ll croak.  Some will even suffer long horrible illnesses.  (Which they semi-deserve, if you think about it, for not folding under pressure and for not GIVING AWAY THE DAMN GAME LIKE, OH, I DON’T KNOW, A CERTAIN TEAM WHOSE NAME RHYMES WITH APPITALS?)

Step No.  4  YOU TOO WILL ONE DAY DIE

Sounds like a bummer, right?  Seems like a counterproductive thought.

It’s actually liberating.  Remind yourself repeatedly that you will one day die and that when you do, you won’t have to keep re-playing over and over the moment Pat LaFontaine scored in QUADRUPLE OVERTIME of Game 7 to knock the Capitals out of the 1987 playoffs. pat-lafontaine-easter-epic

Nor will you need to obsess about Sergei Gonchar bobbling the puck against the Penguins (it’s always the Penguins) and gift-wrapping an overtime goal for Martin ‘May His Name Be Eternally Damned’ Straka.

When you are dead, you won’t replay those moments in your head anymore.  Because the moments will not exist.  Because you will not exist.  And neither will Martin Straka, thank God.

Step No. 5  THINK ABOUT BANGLADESH

In the midst of your misery, it’s helpful to think of faraway lands where clean water and regular meals are scarce.bangladesh-traite-vipez-flickr

I’m talking about grinding poverty.  I’m talking about India, Africa, and rural China.

I’m talking about places where people do not give a RAT’S ASS who won the conference finals.  Where people don’t know Nick Leddy or Nick Backstrom or Nick Lidstrom or a single hockey-playing Nick.  Where the fact that the Rangers – the Rangers! – might win the Stanley Cup this year doesn’t cause immediate heartburn, tightness in the chest, and rapid, shallow breathing.

People in Bangladesh don’t give a shit.  They have bigger problems.

Admittedly it’s hard, in your current state, to imagine a bigger problem than Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell suddenly deciding NOT TO SCORE A SINGLE MEANINGFUL GOAL, EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE PAID MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO DO PRECISELY THAT.

But bigger problems exist.

Supposedly.

In India, Africa, and China.

Think about those places.

Step No. 6  THINK ABOUT THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

If your mind keeps drifting back to hockey, if you find you really couldn’t care less about Bangladesh, shift your thoughts to those less fortunate than you within the hockey world.  Believe me, there is always some other team which crapped the bed even worse than your team did.

And yes, I’m speaking specifically here about the Maple Leafs blowing a 3-goal lead last year against the Bruins.Toronto_Maple_Leafs2

And the Bruins blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers in 2010.

And the Sharks doing the same thing this year against the Kings.

And the Capitals doing pretty much all these things, over and over, year after year, for 40 straight years.

Important clarification:  by suggesting you think of others, I am not suggesting you feel compassion for them.  That’s a lot to ask of you right now.

You can think of these other teams with scorn and derision.  The point is, at least you’re thinking about them, not your own pathetic band of overpaid candy-asses who couldn’t be bothered to set up shop in the crease, or create a single headache for the opposing goalie, or SCORE ONE PATHETIC GOAL WHEN IT REALLY MATTERED.

As long as you are focused on the Maple Leafs, you don’t have to contemplate any of that.

Unless of course you’re a Leafs fan.

In which case, you should think about the Blackhawks losing last night on a weak, double-deflected wristshot from the left point.  The puck deflected off Tyler Toffoli’s stick and then Nick Leddy’s arm before fluttering, slowly, agonizingly, over goalie Corey Crawford’s shoulder.

At least it didn’t happen to the Leafs!

Yes, the Leafs failed to make the playoffs.  But that humiliation happened weeks ago.  That’s ancient history during the playoffs.

Step No. 7  SNAP AT YOUR LOVED ONES, OVER AND OVER, FOR NO GOOD REASON, FOR DAYS ON END

Yes, this step will be rough on your loved ones.  But screw your loved ones.  You don’t love them, or anyone, or anything, anymore.  You’re all done with love, hope, trust and charity.

You sure as hell don’t believe in hockey anymore, nor the importance of helping your child with homework, nor the value of throwing the baseball with your daughter or preparing lunch for her, because LaFontaine – it had to be the golden boy! – put a weak-ass shot past Bob Mason in the fourth overtime at 2am on Easter Morning in ’87.  Four overtimes.  It was the next day when the stupid game ended.

Maybe if your loved ones could understand this for a second, could wrap their feeble, non-hockey oriented brains around the concept of such an atrocity, perhaps they wouldn’t keep bothering you with mundane, annoying requests.

Like being picked up from school.

Or having their heavy suitcase carried upstairs after a long business trip.

Are your loved ones totally unaware that Sami Kapanen’s goal against the Capitals in 2008 shouldn’t even have counted because his Flyer teammate Patrick Thoresen straight-up shoved D.C. defender Shaone Morrisonn into netminder Cristobal Huet, knocking Huet well out of the goal?  What in the actual hell?  That was goalie interference.

Sami fucking Kapanen

Sami fucking Kapanen

Are your loved ones blissfully ignorant that the Capitals capped their thrilling President’s Trophy season in 2010 by blowing a 3-1 series lead and collapsing in the FIRST round of the playoffs against a Montreal Canadiens team whose average rostered player appeared approximately 5’1” and 120 lbs?

Really, if your loved ones cared at all about you, they would be brooding about these same cosmic injustices, instead of making insane demands such as ‘Please walk the dog,’ or ‘Can you pass the salt?’

When such requests are made, you should erupt with volcanic anger.istock_000015070417xsmall-dad-yelling-at-daughter  This is an important safety valve for you.  It will speed the grieving process.  It will make the whole household run more smoothly.

You may say:  What about my child?  He roots for the same team I do, and so he’s grieving, too.  I can’t yell at him.

Sure you can!  Extreme hockey grief is like a sinking ship.  It’s every man for himself.  You need to be selfish and ruthless to survive.  Do not wait in line for a lifeboat.  Knock over everyone smaller than yourself to procure a lifeboat.

Plus, if you don’t yell at your child now, how will he learn the family tradition of hockey heartbreak?  How will he pass along the 7-step program to his own children?

You may say:  I actually feel guilty.  My kid only roots for this team because I do, and now he is going to bed in tears every other night because the team ALWAYS SUCKS.

Such feelings of guilt and shame are natural.  The most effective way of coping with them is to tamp them down and suppress them very tightly.  Pack down the feelings until they are the same approximate consistency as the vulcanized rubber of a hockey puck.

This too will help build the foundation for your family’s annual experience of hockey bereavement.

 

 

 

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BOLSHY, DOUGHTY SWEDES

The grandparents were in town last weekend.

They always inject some unpredictability into proceedings.

265

Omaha natives Tom and Sally Troyer

For instance, I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of my 79-year-old mother’s attention to the NFL Draft Combine.

For those unfamiliar with the Combine, it’s a highly ritualized, somewhat absurd showcase for college football players hoping to be drafted into the NFL next year.

Without pads or helmets, the players are put through the paces and tested for speed, strength, size, agility, and skill, under the watchful eye of coaches and general managers.  And it’s all televised.

janis

decent speed for a big man

My 10-year-old son was watching, which didn’t surprise me.  But Grammy Sally didn’t miss a moment, either.

She was a big fan of Jeff Janis, a 6-foot-3 wide receiver from Saginaw Valley State University.  She was impressed he could run the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds.  She thought he might look good in a Washington Redskins uniform.

de'anthony

sweet moniker

She also liked Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas.  But it had nothing do with his 40-yard dash.

“I like the apostrophe in the middle of his name,” she said.

Mom had thoughts on other topics, too.

First, she taught us two words.

Bolshy

I guess this adjective derives from the term Bolshevik, and was used, at least in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, to refer to a disobedient or rowdy person, especially a child.bolshy

My mom is from Nebraska.  Her friend Judy is from Kansas.

‘Bolshy’ was the word for rule-breaking kids in Kansas when Judy was young.

Doughty

doughty

he looks brave, i guess

This word came up during the Olympics.  One of Team Canada’s hockey players was defenseman Drew Doughty from the Los Angeles Kings.  Mom made a comment about the meaning of his last name.

I thought she was talking about “dowdy,” which means ‘having a dull or uninteresting appearance.’

But she was talking about “doughty,” which means ‘brave, strong and determined.’

(Neither of these words, by the way, is to be confused with ‘doubty,’ a more obscure modifier which means ‘full of doubt.’)

The Olympics also gave Grammy Sally a chance to explore ethnic stereotypes.

We were discussing the Swedish national hockey team, including Nicklas Backstrom.

Grammy Sally brought up the opinions of her own grandmother, Gaye, who helped raise my mom and aunt after their dad died young.nicky b

Apparently Gaye had little use for Swedish people.

“No good words ever came after ‘Swede,'” when Gaye was talking, according to Grammy Sally.

This struck me as odd, since Swedes seem about as unobjectionable as possible.

But I guess Gaye, of Irish descent, found the many Swedish-Americans in Nebraska to be, hmm, I’ll just say, “the strong, silent type.”  She preferred a bit more chatter and poetry in her companions.

Personally, I’ve always liked Swedes.  My favorite hockey player growing up was Bengt Gustafsson.  One of my favorites today is the above-mentioned Backstrom.zyrtec

Sadly, Backstrom was kicked out of the Olympics on the eve of the gold-medal game against Canada for taking Zyrtec D, an allergy medication which contains pseudephedrine.

So I guess we can add “hopped up” to the stereotypes about Swedes.  (No wonder they beat the Finns in the semifinals!)

bikes 2

riding under the influence?

Incidentally, only a member of the eternally cursed Washington Capitals could play for a silver-medal winning team and come home without a damn medal.  Jesus.

Backstrom didn’t appear altered when he arrived for a game earlier in the tournament with his teammate Marcus Johansson.  They were wearing suits and riding bicycles.  They looked like missionaries.

swedes on bikes

available for purchase at Russian Machine Never Breaks website

One can already buy a t-shirt which memorializes the eco-friendly arrival of these two Swedes.

The other time Grammy Sally went off script this weekend was when we pulled up at the ice rink in Valencia for Lulu’s game against the Jr. Flyers Pee Wee A team.

We parked beside a pick-up truck which had a window decal.  It showed a boy in an Uncle Sam outfit urinating on the word, “OBAMA.”

Grammy Sally objected to this sticker, as did my daughter Lulu.peeing

“Some people don’t like the president,” my mom told Lulu, “BECAUSE HE’S BLACK.”

I said there could be other reasons why a voter disliked President Obama, so we shouldn’t automatically assign racism as the motive.

But the two of them didn’t listen.  By the time I exited our minivan, my mom, with her cane in one hand, was using her other hand to try to peel the decal off the pick-up truck.  She was being cheered on by her granddaughter.

The attempted petty theft alarmed me since:  a) it was against the law; b) it was a bad example to set for a girl who is already bolshy herself; and c) it seemed like a good way to start a parking-lot altercation. venn

In fact, if you do a Venn diagram of ‘pick-up truck drivers,’ ‘youth hockey parents,’ and ‘owners of anti-Obama, urination-themed bumper stickers,’ I am pretty sure the people in the middle are big-time bolshy.

I managed to shoo away Grammy Sally, so we didn’t get the crap kicked out of us.

Then we went inside the rink, where Lulu’s team got the crap kicked out of them.

After the game, Grammy Sally wanted to take a second crack at the Obama sticker, but the truck was gone.

As of today, the grandparents are gone, too.  We are back on script, as a household.  It’s a lot less entertaining.

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LULU’S VEGAS INSTRUCTIONS

Dear Lulu:

Whenever Mom worries aloud about the amount of time you and your brother spend playing ice hockey, I always tell her the sport is valuable for more than just exercise. 1013992_10201481246328726_1203287173_n

It teaches discipline, hard work, and getting up off your butt when you are knocked down.

It teaches you to take care of your body and your hockey equipment.

It teaches you to be part of a team.

So, during this trip with Mom to the tournament in Las Vegas, please show her that I was telling the truth, and that you picked up some of these lessons.

Do NOT make mischief at the hotel.elf

Do NOT light up all the elevator buttons like a Christmas Tree.

Do NOT tie together all the towels and toss them in the pool.

Do NOT throw ice off the balcony.

For christ’s sake, act like you’ve been there before.  You know?nagano

In 1998, the U.S. men’s hockey team played at the Olympics in Nagano, Japan.  They played like crap.  They lost.  And then they got drunk and ruined their hotel rooms.  It was embarrassing.  It was an international incident.  That’s the only thing the team is remembered for – being idiots and losers.

Don’t get drunk and ruin your hotel room.  Don’t cause an international incident.

If you are a pain in the butt during this tournament, it will sour Mom permanently on hockey.  I guarantee it.

Do NOT be hard to reach on your phone.  Keep your phone charged up.  Don’t lose it.  When you’re not with Mom, check your phone regularly to see whether she is trying to reach you.stink

Your hockey gear.  It reeks.  This is not a reflection on you.  All hockey gear reeks.  You and I don’t notice it anymore, but Mom definitely will.  It’s essential that when you finish your games and return to the hotel room, you hang up your gear to dry.

Otherwise, the inside of your bag will turn into a rank cesspool of sweat, grime, bacteria and wet, moldy padding.  Don’t be that kid.  Air out your stuff, girl.

Equally important, when it’s time to re-pack everything and go to the rink, re-pack EVERYTHING.

You know how I occasionally have left behind a key item of your gear, and when we get to the rink, you want to rip my head off?

From now on, it’s going to be up to you.  You’ll be in charge of your own gear.  Your brother, too.

You guys already tie your own skates, and have done so for a long time.  We’re overdue for you to pack your own bag.  Stay on top of it.  There’s no worse feeling than showing up at the rink and seeing that you forgot elbow pads.  Or skates.  Or gloves.

floodgatesI used to have anxiety dreams about this as a kid.  In my dreams, my skate laces were always missing.  And I didn’t even play ice hockey as a kid!

Floodgates.  After a bit of a scoring drought, you potted a goal last week against OC Hockey Club.  In fact, you almost scored two more after that.

Once a person finally scores, sometimes the goals flow easily.  This is called floodgates.

Keep going hard to the net with your stick on the ice.  Look for garbage goals.  Use your size and spirit.  There may be more goals where last week’s came from.

And then you can give Timmy D. that shooting clinic you promised him!

4th-Line Minutes.  It doesn’t matter whether you play 20 minutes per game, like Ovie, or 6 minutes per game, like Caps rookie brawler Tom Wilson.  Skate each shift as if it’s your last, as if it’s your final tryout for next year’s team.willy

As Coach Joe says, give your coach no choice but to put you on the ice.  Move your feet.  Skate hard.  Hustle, hustle, hustle.

As soon as you’re tired and the puck isn’t in your own end (and, ideally, when the puck is moving into the other end), then head to the damn bench for a change.  You don’t have to wait for the coach’s call.  You can get plenty done in 45 seconds or 1 minute.

If you’re heading off for an early change, and no one on the bench notices, bang your stick on the ice.  Let ‘em know you’re coming.

Coaching.  For this tournament, the head coach is Dylan’s dad, Brian.  (Coach Joe will be in Detroit.  Coach Daniel will be in Boston.)

Brian is a highly qualified coach.  He is from Canada.  He coaches a high school team.  You see how his son plays; his son already knows how to hit, even though it’s not legal yet at your age.

Listen carefully to Coach Brian and follow his directions.  Same for assistants Jacob Stusser and Chris O’Hara, if they help out.87

Let the coaches coach, and the refs ref.  You are a player.  You just play.  Don’t worry about how anyone else is playing.  Never, ever put out your hands to protest a call by the ref.  It comes across as whiny and lame.  Like you-know-who on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Stupid penalties.  Don’t take them!  You can protect yourself and your teammates just fine without punches, late hits, or dangerous cross-checks near the boards.  Battle for the puck and for position.  Only throw a shove or cross-check if an opponent gets seriously out-of-line with your goalie.

During this trip, show Mom you’re mature and independent.  Show her that you arrive on time and that you stay out of trouble.

If you do, you may just buy yourself another year of hockey.

Don’t act your age.  Act older!

There will be downtime during the weekend.  Remember to ask Mom what she wants to do.  Don’t just tell her what you want to do.

Say yes, please, and thank you.  Hold the door open for someone.  That is what hockey players do.  I’m serious.

During your downtime, do some homework.  Get rest.  Eat a decent meal.

Act like a pro, okay?  Don’t be like the guys at Nagano in 1998.

Call or text me if you have any questions.

Love, Dad

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ALEEN MARRIED A FLINCHER, or How I Learned to Break Rocks and Love Kenya

Our family recently returned from southeast Kenya, where we helped work on a new dormitory for a rural, all-girls high school.

Because I have no skills in construction, I was worried I would be useless.

But our hosts found a job for me – smashing rocks with a sledgehammer.smash2

Even after I demonstrated mastery of this task and expressed interest in less strenuous assignments, such as mixing concrete, I couldn’t seem to shake loose from smashing rocks.

I  thought this was because I was so good at it.

My children explained it was because the other dads actually knew how to mix and pour concrete.

My wife was the one who came up with the Africa idea.  She wanted us to help people less fortunate than ourselves.

I pointed out we could just drive 25 minutes to East L.A. or Compton.

“Charity starts at home,” I said cheerfully.

She shamed us into going

She shamed us into going

But she was adamant.  She wanted us to go outside our comfort zone.  She wanted to remove the kids, at least temporarily, away from their privileged, suburban routine, which was increasingly dominated, she complained, by youth ice hockey.

The last laugh was on her.  The charity which runs the school, Free the Children, is based in Toronto.  Three of the families in our group were from Canada.  We talked hockey the entire time.

Here were some revelations from our journey:

KENYANS ARE EXTREMELY FRIENDLY

As we bumped along in our jeep each day on the way to the building site, or to visit a local health clinic, kids would come running up to the road screaming “Jambo!” and waving at us with both hands.

“Jambo” is Swahili for “hello.”

goat

one seriously frightened goat

In one commuity, the whole town turned out to meet us.  They sang and danced, and grabbed us to join them.  They gave us necklaces.  They even gave us a goat.

I had been worried about this goat.  It was tied to a tree during all the dancing and speeches.  It was bleating and complaining, pulling at its tether.  Then the men gathered around it, untied it, and lifted it up.

Uh-oh… 

I figured we were about to witness its ritual slaughter, and then we would be invited to feast upon it.

My kids are not well acquainted with the spectacle of slaughter.  (Nor are they adventurous eaters, for what it’s worth.)

Luckily the goat got a reprieve and was placed into the arms of a kindhearted Seattle woman on our trip named Marylou Brannan.

MY SOCCER SKILLS ARE RUSTY

Lulu & friend

Lulu and friend

On this same outing, we were invited to play soccer against boys from the local school.

A bull was grazing in the field.  It was led away before the opening whistle.

The goals consisted of long branches, stuck in the ground at roughly the correct distance from each other.  No nets.

I got started by whiffing on a ball in long grass and smacking an African boy right in the face while swinging my hand behind me.

This was especially unfortunate because the injured boy had just scored a goal against us.  So it kind of looked like I was targeting their best player.

Which was untrue.  I didn’t start targeting that guy till LATER, after he scored a second goal.

For my act of colonial-style violence, I was awarded a very solemn, imaginary yellow card, to the great amusement of the Kenyan players.

We ended up losing the game, 2-1.  But we got to keep the goat.

Brushing my teeth Kenya-style, with the gnawed-up end of a spicy tree branch

Brushing my teeth Kenya-style, with the gnawed-up end of a spicy tree branch

When I wasn’t punching African children or smashing rocks with a sledgehammer or receiving livestock as a gift, I went with our group to the world-famous Masai Mara Game Reserve.

HYENAS ARE GNARLY-LOOKING SKULKERS

Hyenas are up to no good.  You can tell.  Just look at the picture.

They appear to limp as they run, due to length differential between front and back legs.  They won’t look you in the eye.  They mark their territory using their anal glands.  Just awful.

You can’t even tell what the things really are — cats?  Dogs?  Some mixture of dog, cat, and bear?  I wasn’t a fan.

hyena 3

Good-for-nothing hyena, being photo-bombed by Cape Buffalo (photo by Karen Bank)

LIONS AND CHEETAHS RULE

Big cats, on the other hand, are majestic.  Much better in person than in pictures.  Low body-fat, not a care in the world, feared by all.

photo by Karen Bank

photo by Karen Bank

Grazing animals such as wildebeests and zebras really freak out when a cheetah is on the scene.   Anxiety City, up and down the line.  Wildebeest sentries stand guard.  Zebras trot nervously to and fro.  Gazelles, topi, and elan all freeze in place, riveted by the distant cat.  And all this was caused, on the day we were there, by a cheetah which was mainly just napping.

ELEPHANTS, GIRAFFES, AND OSTRICHES ARE ABSURDLY LARGE

Elephants, giraffes, and ostriches look like pieces from the wrong board game which were accidentally dropped down in the middle of our Planet Earth game.  Way off-scale.  No reason for them to be this big.  Clearly a mistake by our creator.

Supposedly giraffes kick so hard, they can decapitate a lion.  That news was impressive enough.  But it triggered a conversation among teen boys in our jeep about the hairy frog in Cameroon (trichobatrachus robustus).

Apparently the hairy frog breaks its own foot when attacked, and then stabs its attacker with the broken bone.

disgusting creature

We didn’t see this gentleman because we weren’t in Cameroon

This revelation produced an awed silence in our jeep.

The teen boys on our trip were informative in other ways, too.

During Q&A’s on African culture they inevitably reverted to the same topic — polygamy.

They wanted to know how many wives, max, a Masai tribesman might be allowed to have?

During one trip to the game reserve, we watched two jackals chase a rabbit across a field.  They caught the little guy down in a bush-choked ditch.

We listened to the bunny’s final plaintive cries.  Disney could not have made up a more pathetic noise if they assigned 10 guys in sound production.

Speaking of the circle of life, it turns out a bunch of the names in The Lion King are Swahili words.  Rafiki is friendSimba means lionNala means gift Pumbaa is stunned or slow-wittedShenzi means savage.

CATTLE OWNERSHIP IS A KEY INDICATOR OF WEALTH

Cattle are a big deal in East Africa.

One tribeswoman offered condolences to my wife when she found out we don’t own a single cow back in L.A.

In the old days, the Masai tribe came up with a great rationale for stealing the cattle of neighboring tribes.

“We believe God gave them to us” originally, said the Masai warrior Wilson Meikuaya.

When raids were conducted, he said, “We were just taking them back.”

KENYAN ROADS ARE HORRIBLE

Lulu getting her hair braided

Lulu getting her hair braided

Bone-jarring doesn’t begin to describe the roads.

Kenyans circumvent the problem by walking everywhere.

Some kids walk two hours to get to school and another two hours to get back.  Tell this to your offspring next time they complain about homework.

MASAI WARRIORS ARE MOVING AWAY FROM SOME OF THEIR MORE HARDCORE TRADITIONS

The Masai are phasing out ritual circumcision for teenaged boys.

Circumcision was done without anesthetic.  If the boy screamed or flinched or even breathed heavily during the procedure, then he was up shit’s creek.

Wilson Meikuaya

Masai warrior Wilson Meikuaya

“Nobody wants to marry a flincher,”  Meikuaya told us.

My wife promptly turned to our group and informed them:  “I married a flincher.”

Which I thought was unfair, in light of my rock-smashing prowess.

The Masai have generally stopped killing lions, which used to be another rite of passage.  They have stopped because of the animal’s decreasing numbers, we were told.

Masai children can now become warriors by demonstrating aptitude and diligence in school.

However, the Masai are still pretty hardcore.  Warriors subsist on a diet of meat, milk, and cow’s blood.

When herding animals in remote locations, warriors can get sustenance by nicking a cow’s artery, drinking its blood, and then patching the beast back up.  Which is disgusting, but also awesome.

Jesse getting a lesson in Masai archery

Jesse getting a lesson in Masai archery

Overall, it was humbling how generous and open-hearted the rural Kenyans were, especially given their extreme poverty (and despite me having punched one of them in the face).

Jesse carrying water from the Mara River

Jesse carrying water from the Mara River

They did not approach us with their hands out, asking for gifts or money.

They helped us build the school dormitory.  They showed us how they carry water from the river each day, how they make rope from sisal plants, how they bead jewelry.  They showed us how they use various trees and plants as medicine, food, firewood, and construction material.

We had been told many Kenyans would want to know what we thought of President Obama, whose father was Kenyan.  But I guess the novelty has worn off.  No one asked us about the guy.  A few voiced irritation that he had just wrapped up a trip to Africa without visiting Kenya at all.

No one cared

No one cared

Malaria was not a problem.  Most of the time we were in the Mara region, at elevations around 5,000 to 6,000 feet.  We saw very few mosquitoes.  (There were some HUGE spiders, but they left us alone, thank God.)

There is an animal called a bush baby, or galago.  It is roughly the size of a raccoon and has huge eyes.  It makes the loudest, most disturbing sound at night, way out of proportion to its size or situation.

Basically it sounded like a baboon was being torn limb from limb outside our cottage every single night.

noisy little bastards

noisy little bastards

Luckily I was so tired from my chain-gang work, I slept through the nightly shrieking of the bush babies.

PEOPLE ON THE COAST WEREN’T AS FRIENDLY

At the end of our trip, we spent two days on the Kenyan coast.  We boarded a tiny plane to get there.

It was my wife's turn to flinch when we boarded one of these bad boys for the coast.

It was my wife’s turn to flinch when we boarded this bad boy

The coastal residents were friendly enough, but there was none of the Beatles-at-JFK mania we experienced in the country’s interior

People were more jaded, from centuries of watching tourists roll into town, get drunk, hire prostitutes, get sick, become lost, hire prostitutes, and so on.

Plus, we weren’t building a free school for them.

There was a heavy Muslim presence in Mombassa, an ancient seaport which has hosted travelers and traders for 2,000 years.433

We went for a boat ride on a traditional dhow boat.

The boat operator started by asking our trip leader Cameron Kennedy if he wanted to buy marijuana.

Cameron said no.

Later, the man asked if we wanted to pull over at a riverside encampment for homebrew alcohol.

Again Cameron declined.

004The boat pilot’s third piece of communication was to inform us that the boat was now leaking.  Which it was.  Seriously leaking.

And his final cheerful offering, when we returned to dock just in time to avoid sinking, was to ask if he could have Cameron’s shoes.  Cameron again declined.

Cameron was kind of over the boat operator by this point, honestly.

Wouldn't part with his shoes (or his sweet Winnipeg Jets lid)

Wouldn’t part with his shoes (or his sweet Winnipeg Jets lid)

MY WIFE WAS RIGHT, THE TRIP WAS WORTH IT

Ultimately, the highlight of our trip was the Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School.

The students were extremely impressive.  All were attending on full scholarship.  They had been top students at their respective primary schools.  They were confident and ambitious; they were strong public speakers.  They woke up each morning at 5 am to begin their studies.  They even petitioned school officials for the right to wake up earlier.  (Denied.)

These girls welcomed us to their school so warmly and were clearly working so hard at their studies.  It was a pleasure to help build their new dorm.  Or to smash rocks while others helped build their new dorm.

The school alone was worth the trip.  The animals, and everything else about Kenya, that was just a bonus.

436Free the Children (FTC) is a Canadian non-profit organization which supports education in Kenya, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, India, and China.

Trips to some of these places are offered by FTC’s sister company, Me to We, which donates 50 percent of its profits back to the charity.

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FUN FACTS ABOUT KENYA

The outsourcing didn’t work.  Bangladeshi workers did not write a single blog entry for me in the last seven months.

This is extremely disappointing.  That these workers lacked access to computers, the Internet, or basic details of my life is no excuse.

There is much to report.

My dog, who had chased squirrels for six years without success, finally tracked one down in the front yard of a neighbor.

unholy scourge

unholy scourge

I became aware of this because I heard the bloodcurdling screams of my neighbor.  She was alerting me that:  a) my dog was not on a leash; and b) my dog was KILLING A SQUIRREL ON HER FRONT LAWN!!!

From the volume and urgency of the shouting, I thought maybe Boomer was killing a child, not a rodent.

Upon closer inspection, he was not even killing the rodent.  He was soft-mouthing it.

Because the neighbor was screaming bloody murder, and because I did feel a trace of compassion for the trapped animal, I made one of the dumber decisions of … the last few months anyway.  I reached in and tried to rescue it.

For my trouble, I was rewarded with a quick, vicious bite by the terrified squirrel.

I let fly with a loud F-bomb, and yanked back my hand.  This caused my neighbor to re-double her caterwauling.

Bad dog.  Jumped in the pool AND ruined a football.  AND got me in trouble with the neighbor.

Bad dog. Jumped in the pool AND ruined a football. AND got me in trouble with the neighbor by attacking a squirrel.

Instead of ignoring the woman and letting nature take its course, I reached in again, and this time received an even harder bite.  As I withdrew my hand, I could see there was both good news and bad news.  The dog no longer had the squirrel.  But the squirrel was now attached by its teeth to the tip of my bloody finger.

I used my free hand to pry loose the tiny jaws.  (A more difficult task than you might imagine.)  Then I put the squirrel on the pavement and squished its skull under my heel.

This, too, failed to calm my neighbor.

Nor did it please my dog.  Boomer looked baffled, and vaguely embarrassed, by my handling of the situation.  And suddenly he was showing no interest in the squirrel, now that it was inert.

When I got home, my wife directed me to drive immediately to the hospital.  There the wound was cleaned, and I was given a tetanus shot and a prescription for antibiotics.  I don’t want to say I was the laughing stock of the E.R.  But let’s put it this way, my tale seemed to put everyone in a good mood.

If anyone is looking for a birthday gift for me (Oct. 26), I suggest this t-shirt.squirrel shirt

In other news, speaking of wild animals and tetanus shots, the wife, kids and I are going to Kenya this summer!

My kids, 9 and 11, are SUPER excited about this.  They are especially excited that TODAY they’re going to the doctor’s office to get shots for yellow fever, typhoid, and whatever else Africa has waiting for us.  My kids love shots!

You may ask, ‘Why Africa?’

You may say, ‘Kit, it sounds like you are getting plenty of wildlife experience right there in your own neighborhood!’

Well, my wife and I decided (okay, she decided) that it would be good for our children to see another part of the world, experience another culture, and, let’s be honest, realize how spoiled they are.  (Hard to see why the kids are unenthusiastic about the trip.)

So we will spend one week on safari and one week doing charitable activities, specifically building a school for girls.

I have never built a single thing in my whole life.  But now that my hand has healed up, I will forge ahead and see what I can do.

In the meantime, as the departure date approaches, I have been trying to get the kids pumped up.  I have been printing out FUN FACTS ABOUT KENYA each day and posting them around the house.kenya1

THERE ARE 42 DIFFERENT ETHNIC GROUPS IN KENYA, EACH WITH THEIR OWN LANGUAGE OR DIALECT!

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S FATHER WAS KENYAN!

TO SAY ‘HELLO’ IN SWAHILI, YOU SAY, ‘HUJAMBO!’

But as the kids pointed out, the postings were not uniformly cheerful.

THE MASSAI DON’T BURY THEIR DEAD.  THEY BELIEVE IT’S BAD FOR THE SOIL.  THEY LEAVE THEIR DEAD OUTSIDE TO BE EATEN BY ANIMALS.

HALF OF KENYA’S 43 MILLION RESIDENTS LIVE IN WHAT IS CONSIDERED ABSOLUTE POVERTY.

DURING CONSTRUCTION OF THE TSAVO RIVER RAILWAY BRIDGE IN 1898, AN ESTIMATED 35 TO 100 WORKERS WERE STALKED, KILLED, AND DRAGGED FROM THE WORKSITE BY A PAIR OF MALE LIONS.

My kids took to altering my bulletins and scrawling “NOT SO” in front of ‘Fun Fact about Kenya.’kenya2

In still other news, in Jesse’s fourth-grade class this month students have been asked to prepare a presentation in which they teach classmates how to perform a task.

It can be anything – cooking a meal, making origami animals, whatever.

Jesse is having a hard time thinking of something he knows how to do.

He knows how to build a campfire, shoot a BB gun, and play ice hockey.  But I told him none of these activities would work well on school property.

It got me thinking about a book review I read last year in the New Yorker magazine.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

In 2004, Carolina Izquierdo, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, spent several months with the Matsigenka, a tribe of about twelve thousand people who live in the Peruvian Amazon. The Matsigenka hunt for monkeys and parrots, grow yucca and bananas, and build houses that they roof with the leaves of a particular kind of palm tree, known as a kapashi. At one point, Izquierdo decided to accompany a local family on a leaf-gathering expedition down the Urubamba River.

A member of another family, Yanira, asked if she could come along. Izquierdo and the others spent five days on the river. Although Yanira had no clear role in the group, she quickly found ways to make herself useful. Twice a day, she swept the sand off the sleeping mats, and she helped stack the kapashi leaves for transport back to the village. In the evening, she fished for crustaceans, which she cleaned, boiled, and served to the others. Calm and self-possessed, Yanira “asked for nothing,” Izquierdo later recalled. The girl’s behavior made a strong impression on the anthropologist because at the time of the trip Yanira was just six years old.

I cannot overstate how often I think about this article.

Whenever I feel like a failure as a parent, which is not infrequently, I always circle back to this annoying little crab-boiler.  Damn her.  Damn her cheerful, quiet self-reliance.  It took me nine years to teach my kids how to tie their shoes.452556-002

On the other hand, if we do survive the trip to Kenya, and if there are no further tangles with neighborhood rodents, I believe I’ve found our next destination — the Peruvian Amazon.

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VISUALIZING FAILURE

Sometimes I wonder if my kids are aiming high enough.

Last week I was helping Jesse tie his skates before an ice hockey game against his sister’s team.

I noticed his eyes were closed.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Visualizing the game.”

I was impressed.

“Great idea,” I said.

“Amanda has gotten past me twice,” he said, eyes still closed.

“Huh?”

“I’m playing defense. Amanda got past me twice.”

Uh, okay.

When he said he was visualizing the game, I figured it was a more of a guided visualization, one more oriented toward, say, success.  But no, he was just watching the action unfold, as if it were on TV.  And it wasn’t going all that well.  Apparently his team was already down 0-2, in his mind.

This wasn’t the first time I noticed him setting his sights low.  When he was 5, his older sister announced she would grow up one day to be President of the United States.

Jesse said he would like to be Governor of Montana.

Nothing against the Big Sky State, but who dreams of being in charge of it?

hopefully her visualization goes better than his

For her part, my daughter is not immune to bleak visions.

Out of the blue one day, she asked me, “Dad, are you allowed to take showers in prison?”

Now there’s a conversation starter.

But I decided to go with it.  Maybe there was a recent crime I didn’t know about.

“Of course you can shower in prison, honey.”

“Do they give you soap?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“But do you have to shower with other people?”

“Yeah, probably,” I said.  “Why do you ask?”

“That would be kind of gross, right? Showering with other people?”

“It wouldn’t be ideal.”

“A bunch of strangers. Guys with tattoos.”

“Well, if you were in prison you’d be in a female facility. You’d be with other women.”

“But they’d be dirty.  They’d have tattoos.”

“I guess.  But if you wound up in prison, maybe you’d have your own tattoos by then.  Maybe it wouldn’t bother you.”

“I don’t want to shower with other people.”

“Look, I don’t want you showering with other people either.  I was just saying.  About the tattoos.”

Other parents will recognize this type of conversation.  It’s the kind where you reach the end, and you say, Wait a minute, how the hell did we wind up here?

My 11-year-old daughter was picturing life in prison.  She wasn’t objecting to being there. She was just concerned about bathing arrangements.

It’s possible my children inherited their worst-case thinking from me.

Sometimes I catch myself contemplating a holiday trip or child’s slumber party, and thinking, Okay, if I can just get through this.

As if I’m starting basic training at Fort Bragg.

Maybe this cast of mind comes from being a defense attorney and regularly asking myself questions like these:

What if my client doesn’t show up for trial?

What if my client commits another armed robbery?

What if my client is armed right now?

What if my client shaves his head and gets a facial tattoo right before trial?

Or maybe my daughter was thinking about prison that day because I had recently mentioned arson.

At school drop-off, I said to her, “Please don’t set anything on fire today.”

And the reason I said that was, well … here was our email exchange from two days earlier:

Fire in cafeteria microwave … very serious … tell you later  (2:20pm)

Uh-oh.  Did you cause it? (2:22pm)

Yup.  (2:24pm)

With your stinky Armenian cheese?  (2:25pm)

No, with seaweed wrapper. APPARENTLY you aren’t supposed to microwave tinfoil or it catches on fire.   (2:35pm)

So this is where we are, as a household.  Starting out the day hoping we don’t set fire to a building, or wind up in prison, or get beaten by Amanda in ice hockey.

SOS, Deepak Chopra.  Our visualizing needs work.

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