Two Human Beings

The top photo shows Leylah Fernandez from Canada.  That’s Angelique Kerber of Germany in the bottom one.  They’re both professional tennis players.

Before I reveal my tennis fandom, however, I’d like to return to the days of yesteryear and my passion for golf.  I could glue myself to the TV set with the best of them, and the object of my adoration was Mike Weir, a Canadian professional golfer.  Mike stood 5 feet 9 inches and was a masterful shotmaker.  Speaking of which, he won the Masters tournament in April, 2003, an event that many people consider to be the most important in men’s golf.

Even before the Masters, I lived and died with every tee shot, praying that it would find the fairway, not the rough.  I’d watch Mike’s long irons soar towards the green, groaning if the ball flight seemed to be veering far away from the pin.  I held my breath as a long putt slid towards the hole.  Would the curves of the green take it to the bottom of the cup, or would the ball lip out?  I was a fanatic.

As I look back on my marriage with Jody, I feel remorse about a few things I did.  One of my most vivid pains comes from a vacation we had in Montreal in August, 2003.  On the final day of the PGA tournament, Jody wanted to go exploring.  I wanted to see Mike play in the last group.  I won.  Through a mean display of willpower, I cajoled my wife to hang around the hotel while I lived and breathed Mike Weir.  (Sigh)


“What happened to tennis?” you ask.  Two years ago, Bianca Andreescu came into my TV life.  Essentially, change the details of the sport, insert “Bianca” for “Mike”, and you have the story.  My fanaticism included the purchase of a red t-shirt online, honouring my heroine: “She The North”.  Sadly, Bianca’s been injured for more than a year, so I had to find a new shining light.  Enter Leylah Fernandez, an 18-year-old Montrealer.  It was easy to transfer my fervour to her matches on TV.

A few months ago, I looked in the mirror and saw some things:

1. I need heroes
2. I cheer for you if you’re Canadian
3. I cheer for you if you’re young and therefore an underdog
4. I cheer for you if you seem to be a nice person
5. I cheer against you if you seem to be a mean person

So I cheer for Leylah.  But what about point number five?  During one tournament, Bianca was playing Angelique Kerber, a pro who’s been near the top of the game for years.  Bianca had one or two medical timeouts to deal with an emerging injury.  At the end of the match, which Bianca won, the two players approached the net.  Angelique told Bianca “You’re the biggest drama queen ever.”  That was it for me and Angelique.  I’d always want her to lose.


Fast forward to yesterday.  “What’s happening, Bruce?”  Leylah’s match against Maria Sakkari from Greece was about to begin.  But my head was spinning.  I looked at Leylah on the screen, and yes, I wanted her to win … but it was no big deal.  I was loving Leylah, but not in the sense that if she does what I want her to do (win), I’ll be happy.  My love was vaster.  I simply wanted her to be happy.  And wonder of wonders, I wanted Maria to be happy.  I wanted both of them to make great shots.  I wanted long rallies.  I wanted the back-and-forth adventure of three sets, ending in a tiebreak.  I wanted to hear “Match Point” for one player and then the other.  I didn’t care who won.  And I felt immense sadness when Leylah played poorly, and Maria dominated the match.

I’m sitting here a day later … stunned.  Where did my partisanship go?  I still love it when Canadians excel on the world stage but there isn’t a need there.  How did this shift happen?  I certainly didn’t grit my teeth and start willing a new attitude.  I didn’t do anything.  But here I sit, enamoured of tennis, of each player giving her all, of each one pushing the other past supposed limits, of each one being happy.  It feels good.

Tonight Angelique Kerber plays Maria Sakkari.  I’ll be there with a smile.  May the match be epic.

Day Twelve: Les Jeux

Ahh … the games people play, in Toubacouta and around the world.

In the evening, after the heat of the day has floated away, the folks come out of their homes to be with their friends. In Canada we have the sport of curling, where large round stones slide down a sheet of ice towards a bullseye. In Senegal players loft heavy metal balls into the air, with backspin, trying to get close to a target rock. The atmosphere is intense. No smiles, but plenty of furrowed brows. As the game wound down, the young man in the picture made a brilliant shot, knocking his opponent’s ball away from the rock. There was no cheering … except for me. The grim intensity wore on.

Farther down the street, I came upon a game of checkers, or was it chess? Actually it felt like something different. Silence from the players and spectators hung in the air. All were focused on the wisdom of the next move. Strategies swirled in the space. I leaned closer, and at one point, reached toward a piece on the board. Truly a dumb move, designed solely to bring attention to myself. The gentleman on the right in the photo shot me a withering glance, and I slunk off to the edge of the gathering. The game continued amid a flurry of brain activity, with nary a muscle moving.

How about a shark face to lighten the proceedings? I had told the kids in Belmont, Canada that last December I’d played soccer with some children, using an empty peanut butter jar. Sophie, an 11-year-old student, suggested I buy some beach balls at the Dollar Store, and inflate them in Africa. Great idea! So I did.

As I lifted this ball to Nima, her face shone. She held it to her chest with such love. It was hers. Nima experimented with throwing it way high and especially liked tossing it backwards. It didn’t matter that her skills were marginal … the smile said all. I loved seeing her chase down the ball when it bounced away.

Now it was time for the Nima and Bruce show. High throws, bounces, wild kicks, rebounds off foreheads … we did it all. Just a simple beach ball was spreading the joy. Really playing the game was just a convenient excuse for laughing together. Nima and I were really good at that.

O Senegal … thanks for allowing me to be with you.

B-ball Lessons

I watched the Grade 5/6 girls basketball team today.  They were in another school against two opponents.  I was thrilled to see them play after being on the west coast for nine days.

As the games ebbed and flowed, I saw 12-year-old kids that I love rocket down the court – sometimes making great plays and sometimes messing up.  I realized that I wasn’t attached to the transcendent moments.  My love especially extended to errant passes, missed free throws, “losing the handle”.

The NBA is full of astonishing athletes.  Years ago, Michael Jordan could do seemingly impossible things with the basketball.  But I didn’t love him, nor the other stars.  Today was different.  You go, girls!  You gave it all you had … and I cheered.

Game Number One was with a less skilled team.  The score quickly mounted to 12-0 and my thoughts turned towards the other folks.  Being so outplayed can be such a blow to the ego, but these opponents kept holding their heads high, grabbing the ball after we scored a basket and motoring towards our end.  We intercepted passes, blocked shots, and got in their faces, but those “others” didn’t give up.  I was so proud of them.  When they eventually scored a basket, the cheer from their fans was the biggest I heard all afternoon.

The final score was 28-7.  We didn’t gloat.  They didn’t slump.  Two teams gave ‘er.  In the large scheme of things, it didn’t matter that one team performed far better than the other.  Everybody got to play, and play hard.

Game Number Two had us up against a school that has three times the number of students that we have.  Our girls didn’t believe the stats.  We had hands up in the opponents’ faces.  We fought under the basket for rebounds.  All of our missed shots didn’t slow us down a bit.  At one point a player on the other team broke away towards the basket.  One of our girls raced back and swatted the ball away as she was starting her layup.  Brilliant … worthy of TSN’s Sportcentre highlight show!

The opposition featured powerful players and a stifling defense.  But no heads hung low for us.  We were behind 6-0 and then roared back.  In the final minute of a 10-8 game, we must have had four shots, and none of them found the net.  Still, the fury of our press to tie was a joy to watch.

Win one, lose one?
On the surface of things … yes

Fully alive for two?

Traffic Jammed and Released

It took me a long time today to drive from London, Ontario to Toronto.  Near Kitchener and again while approaching TO, it was often bumper to bumper.  No big deal … I’ll get there when I get there.

I was creeping forward in the middle lane.  Ahead of me a semi-trailer on the right jerked wildly to the left, causing the car already occupying that space to slam on the brakes.  Yuck!  That’s how people die out here.  Peace withered away as I blasted the trucker from the safety of my insides.  Just like that, I had created an enemy.  What a dumb thing to do.  Maybe he or she was having a body reaction that caused the sudden movement.  Or the boss had blasted them an hour earlier.  But empathy didn’t seem to be my strong suit today.

Enemies need to be defeated, I reasoned.  The driver was back in the right lane and the seas suddenly parted for anyone over there.  Those folks sped ahead of those of us who were crawling in the middle or left.  Grrr.  (Look how easily my equanimity can be replaced by battle mode.  So humbling.)  Minutes later, the truck reappeared on the right, gradually being pulled back to me.  My heart soared.  Here was the true meaning of life – beat the other fellow.  All of my sinews thrilled as I edged past the bad guy.

And so went our slow motion back-and-forth tussle.  I bet it took me forty-five minutes to realize that I had given all of my power to Mr. Trucker.  His ebbing and flowing was controlling my life.  Why, oh why, didn’t I see this right away?  Guess it’s just my rampant imperfection.

Finally, I let the fellow or gal go.  I let the contest go.  They were just doing their job, probably being pushed by some supervisor to get from A to B 10% faster.  My body calmed.  My soul smiled.  Let’s be friends.

Ten minutes later, I was still in the middle and the trucker was on the right, virtually even.  And then … poof! … they were gone.  In my rearview mirror, I saw the truck pull off on the shoulder, flashers on.

I looked back and I was sad
Goodbye, companion of the road
No more waging war
Fare thee well

Singing and Crying

I love golf.  I love women’s professional golf.  Yes, the women are pretty but more importantly they let themselves be human beings on the course.  Many of them smile, celebrate and interact with the fans.

Last week I learned of an event that started in 2014 and is played every two years: The UL International Crown.  Women pros have a world ranking system.  In July, the four best female golfers from each of the best eight countries will compete against each other near Chicago.  If the Crown was held today, the countries would be South Korea, United States, Japan, Taiwan, England, Sweden, Thailand and Australia.

There’s never been a competition like this in professional golf, where you get to represent your homeland.  In the men’s game, there’s the Ryder Cup every two years in which teams from the United States and Europe face off.  In the alternate years, the President’s Cup pits the US golfers against “International” pros, who come from countries outside of Europe.  But apart from the Americans, you don’t hold the banner of your own land.

I read about the inaugural edition of the Crown, which was held in Maryland in 2014.  On the first day, on the first tee, the four Australian golfers stood next to the team from South Korea, and the two national anthems were played.  Soon thereafter, competitors from Thailand and Spain heard their own beautiful music.

Karrie Webb from Australia sang “Advance Australia Fair”.  Good for her.  In a foreign country, surrounded by hundreds of fans, and by no means a professional musician.  It was expression, not performance.

Belen Mozo didn’t sing the Spanish national anthem.  She cried.  I saw the video.  How lovely.

During the competition, flags were waved, cheers were cheered, golfing compatriots were hugged, smiles were beamed, more tears were shed.  The videos blew me away.

I decided last night to be a part of this in 2016.  So I’m going to drive from Union, Ontario to Chicago (about eight hours) on July 20.  I’m staying in the Super 8 Motel in Gurnee, Illinois for five nights.  And I’m going to be walking the golf course with the competitors for four days.

Bring on the joy.  Bring on the anguish.  Bring on the music.