Kind Athletes

I’m my own person, and although I love being loved, I don’t need other folks to validate my existence.  Having said that, I still have heroes.  Most of them are humanitarians, such as Martin Luther King, but some are from the arena of sports.  For me, there’s something about striving to the depths of your sinews to get the job done on the ice, on the tennis court, or on the playing field.  I love the instant replays of sweet passing plays, great saves or the long home run ball.

But there’s something else.  I so much want my heroes to be nice people.  I want to imagine feeling comfy while having a coffee with the Dalai Lama, Meryl Streep or Dave Keon.  I want to know that they’re “just folks”, not some highfalutin’ celebrity full of themselves.

This morning I was reading the sports section of The Toronto Sun.  And I came across words that made me smile.  Larry Walker was an outstanding baseball player with the old Montreal Expos team.  Pedro Martinez, a Hall of Fame pitcher, was talking about why Larry too should be in the Hall.  Beyond the man’s performance stats was this:

Your boy was the best guy, the most outgoing veteran, the easiest to deal with.  He was like a big kid all the time.  He was always playing and trying to make you smile.

Okay, there’s a fellow I’d like to know.  Anyone who can augment the world’s output of smiles is just fine in my books.  The great plays are to be applauded but so is the kind heart.

Another article spoke of Rasual Butler, a retired player from the National Basketball Association.  Rasual and his wife were killed in a car crash a few days ago.  Sadness has flowed through the NBA this week.

He was a wonderful young man, a pure heart.  That’s why people felt about him the way they did.  He was genuine.  There was no fake about him whatsoever … The news hit Lowry hard, reinforcing how fragile life is and how every moment must be cherished. 

Ahh … to have a giving heart, one that continually reaches out while not sacrificing one’s own well-being.  And to know that the person isn’t putting up a wall, that he or she is giving you all of them.  Oh yes.  I’d love to sit in Tim Hortons with such a one.

I still love the highlight reels and the world records.  But a quiet word with a full human being is even better.

Team

On Sunday evening, I stood in Maple Leaf Square with thousands of other Toronto fans.  Inside the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs were battling the Washington Capitals in a National Hockey League playoff game.

When Auston Matthews scored for the home team, we went nuts, waving our white flags and jumping up and down.  I was so happy.

But that joy pales in comparison to yesterday afternoon.  I was watching the Grade 6 girls from South Dorchester School play in the finals of a basketball tournament.  The score was 9-8 with about two minutes left.  “Monica” was well outside the foul line when she launched a ball skyward.  A sweet touch on the backboard and then nothing but net.  Ecstasy coursed through my arteries and veins.  I stood and cheered.  After a few close calls at the other end, the whistle blew and there was a mass of hugging 12-year-olds.

The difference was love.  I know those youngsters as human beings and I care deeply about them.  Oh, I say I love the Leafs but we all know that’s a junior version of a very fine thing to feel.

The image staying with me is all the jump balls that were called.  Two girls would have their hands on the basketball and wouldn’t let go.  Sometimes they’d be rolling around on the floor, still hanging on.  Go South Dorchester!  You girls are fierce.  I loved seeing your energy – pushing the ball up the floor, falling down and getting up, missing a shot and keeping your head high.  Wow.

My wish is that twenty years from now, when you think of yesterday, the first thing you’ll remember is your teammates – how you hung in there together, patted each other on the shoulder when things were bad, high fived each other when things were good.  You gave it all for your friends.

So this is what walking on air feels like.

A Tale Of Two Pubs

Last night, it was Babe’s Macaroni Grill and Bar in Utica, New York.  I had a burger and fries.  Tonight I tried Mingo’s Sports Bar and Grill in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  In the interest of consuming a wide variety of food, I had a burger and sweet potato fries.

Last night, I told my bartender friend Michelle about the silent meditation retreat I’ll begin on Wednesday.  She was fascinated about longterm meditation.  I told her about falling in love on my last long retreat (a mistake), about the peace I felt in the meditation hall, about the Dalai Lama telling an interviewer “My religion is kindness”, and my opinion that the truest realm of spirituality is in the real world when I’m one-to-one with another human being.

Michelle told me about the Grafton Peace Pagoda, erected in the 1990’s by a Buddhist monk as a monument to world peace.  And guess what?  Grafton, New York was on my route to the retreat.  This afternoon, I climbed the steps of the pagoda – a giant white dome shining in the sun, way out in the woods.  A large statue of the Buddha was inset in one wall.  Plus carvings depicted the demon Mara tempting the Buddha with power, glory and pleasure while he refused to abandon the peace that had enveloped him.  All this majesty spread before me on a sunny winter’s day.

Tonight my companions were sports fanatics.  That’s okay.  So am I.  “Go, Leafs, Go!”  (That’s the Toronto Maple Leafs in the National Hockey League.)  The bartender was waxing poetic about football’s Super Bowl.  Next Sunday, he’ll be experiencing spasms of delight or agony while I’ll remain blissfully unaware within the grounds of the Insight Meditation Society.

Next to me at the bar was a fellow watching a women’s basketball game between the Universities of South Carolina and Tennessee.  “Which team are you cheering for?” I asked.  “Neither.  I’m scouting South Carolina.  They play UConn in thirteen days.”  The gentleman has been a University of Connecticut basketball fan for thirty years.  They’re the top women’s basketball program in the nation.  I learned about their marvelous coach and the factors that have made UConn the best, such as conditioning and defense.  I marvelled at this man’s universe, about which I knew little.

Such different conversations one night to the next.  But just like the burgers, they were somehow the same.  Human beings reaching for the sun.

In The Arena

Many years ago, Jody and I went to a Toronto Raptors basketball game.  It was at the Air Canada Centre.  Last night I retraced our steps.

I walked in the door, escalated myself to the heavens, and then proceeded even more upward to the very top row of the ACC.  Way below me were an array of red and blue ants, otherwise known as professional basketball players warming up.

Directly ahead of me, about twenty feet away, was a large screen hanging from the ceiling. As the game unfolded, I forced myself to watch the ants rather than lapsing into TV mode.  I’d glance up occasionally at a closeup of a player taking a free throw but mostly I was faithful to the “here and nowness” of it all.

A Raptors game can be a full body experience.  Employees roamed around with heavy cameras on their shoulders, watching for fans jumping up and down, smiling, laughing, hugging and in general having a good time.  Although I suspected that part of the fervor was an effort to get oneself on the big screen, it was still great fun.  Kids bouncing, arms of all ages in the air, mouths agape … go for it you Raptorites!  Children especially were totally themselves.  Their friends and their parents shared in the joy.  So very cool.

Adult moving and grooving seemed to peak when the team’s dancing girls bounced up the stairs with t-shirts to throw.  There even was a multi-barrelled gun on the court, sending a rain of shirts skyward.  But who cares about the motivation?  Give me an event with happy faces and I’ll be happy.

I loved the energy of cheering fans in their thousands.  I also love the energy of sitting with one person, talking about our lives.  And the energy of silent aloneness, watching the tapestries of life parading behind my closed eyes.

I love it all

 

TFC

That’s as in the Toronto FC soccer club, part of the best professional league in North America.  Last night was the semifinal game in Toronto with 36,000 rabid fans expected.  I just couldn’t stay away.

The bus dropped me off about a ten-minute walk from BMO Field.  That was around 7:20, with the game having started at 7:00.  Toronto gridlock strikes again.  All around me were power walkers, apparently each faster than me.  As we got closer to the bright lights of the stadium,  quiet rhythms became medium chanting became a wall of sound from high above me.  So cool.

Inside the building, nature called, and so did Chicken and Kimchi Fries, a whopping pile of the stuff.  I maneuvered my way to Section 205, Row N, Seat 4, balancing my styrofoam container with immense aplomb.  My seatmates made way and I sat down, surrounded by Toronto supporters.  Often they would stand, spread their arms wide, yell “TFC” and clap three times.  Whoa!  More energy than my gourmet meal.  A Montreal goal bowed the heads and terminated the applause, while above me a small section of Québecois picked up the pace.  “Allez!  Allez!  Allez!”  “Courage!”  Oh, they gave ‘er.

Only the occasional local gave the opposition fans grief.  Mostly the cheers got our juices flowing again.  A few minutes of mourning gave way to “This is our house!”  And then a corner kick zoomed towards the goal, ready for the foot of TFC’s Armando Cooper.  The world lifted beside me in decibel squeals, while I lowered my nose towards the fries.  I cheered in vertical seclusion.

Later, my appetite vanquished, I was up with the rest of them, moving and grooving.  More Toronto goals, more bouncing on the spot, hugging my neighbours, high fives all around.  If folks were talking to me, I couldn’t hear them.

The Montreal folks chanted right to the end, even with the game lost.  I respected them for that.  Once, though, there was a commotion two rows behind me.  I turned to see a police officer holding a Montrealer in a headlock, while another was holding back the punch that a Torontonian was brandishing.  Lower down, a third officer was restraining a male fan whose face brimmed with hate.  I don’t believe I’d ever seen hate in real life.  Scary.

After the offenders were whisked away, the first fellow in handcuffs, we were back to the run of play.  Cheers and cries and moans flowed among the stands.  I was being held in an ecstasy of energy.  Almost all of us were standing.  And this was completely new in my life.  I was lifted up, time and again.  Guess I’m a crowdaholic.

By the way, Toronto won, and that was sort of important to me.  But the energy?  Worlds beyond the score, rampant with bliss.  I’ll have some more, please.

Home In The Arena

I made it to Erie, Pennsylvania in just under five hours.  The US customs guy told me to enjoy the game.  Just what I was planning.

After a brewski and sandwich at the Erie Ale House, I walked towards the arena.  Just like in London, fans were streaming in from the side streets.  People were excited.  I sure was.  I couldn’t wait to sit beside Erie fanatics and tell them I was from London.

And that’s what happened.  I sat beside John and Sharon from Jamestown, New York.  Just in front of me was Sondra, a cowbell-ringing season ticket holder who was taking in the game with her husband.  All four of them were decked out in bright Erie Otters jerseys – red, yellow and white.

I told my cross-border friends about Canadians singing the American national anthem on Friday.  Her response?  “We always sing ‘O Canada’ at the games.”  (Almost all of the teams are Canadian.)  So I decided to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” two nights in a row.  An awesome quartet led us in the songs but we five gave ‘er too.  Great fun.

My companions razzed me about the London Knights always getting favorable calls from referees.  I told them I was deeply sorry that Erie would be relegated to second place after London whipped them.  Back and forth with the banter.  Most importantly, back and forth with the smiles.  When Erie was struggling in their own zone, Sondra would yell “Get it out!”  Naturally I countered with “Keep it in!”  Oh we laughed.

Erie scored the first goal.  All around me Erieites leapt to their feet and poured out the contents of their lungs.  I sat and gave a good pout and in return was offered a high five … which I accepted.

Then London scored!  I too was up like a shot, cheering and waving.  I looked around at my neighbours.  Most were smiling at me.  I didn’t want to be an ugly Canadian but I did want to celebrate.

Erie’s arena seats 6500, smaller than London but at least equal in energy.  How they love their team.  The Otters beat the Knights 4-2 last night, scoring an empty net goal in the last few seconds.  Erie Insurance Arena erupted in an orgasm of delight.  I just loved being there.  Human beings caught in the throes of joy, at least about 6480 of them.

This afternoon, I drive those same five hours back home.  Am I disappointed we lost the game?  Yes.  Does it matter?  No.  People matter and I met some great ones yesterday.

Waiting with You

Jody had a hankering for Chinese food yesterday and one of our PSWs recommended a restaurant in London.  So off I went to gather in some breaded shrimp, Oriental noodles, chicken fried rice and lemon chicken.  Other than my bike rides every second day, I don’t leave our home very often, usually just to get groceries and meds and then scurry back.  I used to like writing about my adventures out in the world that day, but it hasn’t happened much lately.

After I gave my order to a most delightful hostess, I plopped down in a chair, and saw that I had company in the takeout department.  Near me sat a woman in her 50s, deeply tanned and sporting an exotic hairstyle – lots of curls here and there.  In the other direction, a grandma and her perhaps six-year-old grandson faced each other across a small glass-topped table.

“What should we do while we wait, grandma?”

“Let’s play hockey.”

“Okay.”

With that, the woman pulled a quarter out of her purse and instructed the young man about the rules of the game.  Finger on the coin at the near edge of the table.  Brush it forward towards the far side, where the other person is waiting, holding two fingers up as goalposts.  Either you score or you don’t.  Then it’s the other person’s turn.  The woman suggested that the boy be Canada and she’d be the USA.  The fellow heartily agreed.

So back and forth they went.  Lots of cheers and groans.  And I didn’t have to pay for a front row seat!  At one point, grandson said, “Isn’t it time for the Zamboni to clean the ice?”  (For those of you unfamiliar with hockey games, the Zamboni is a vehicle that melts the surface of the ice, making it smooth for the next period’s play.)  Grandma sighed, and told the boy that unfortunately the restaurant didn’t come equipped with a Zamboni.  “Let’s keep playing.”  And they did … until a brown paper bag and a smiling hostess appeared in front of them.  Game over.

As they headed towards the door, I asked grandma what the final score was.  She smiled with her whole body and said “5-2 Canada”.  Well done, young man.

Basking in the glow of this lovely encounter with professional athletes, I said hello to the woman with the tan.  She smiled back and mentioned the sunny fall weather we were having.  I agreed.  She talked about the tough winter we’d had.  My response?  “I like weather.”  Seeing an opportunity for storytelling, I told my new friend about the time I’d spent Christmas in Honolulu, and how seeing wizened little Christmas trees, and Santa in shorts, just seemed … wrong.  I had asked one Hawaiian gentleman what the weather was like in March or August, and he had replied, “Oh, about the same”.  And that had made me sad, leaving me longing for snow, blasting winds and tingling fingers (but not quite freezing rain).

The lady asked me about Hawaii, what I enjoyed about it. “Waikiki Beach was cool, although it was very crowded.  The best, though, was Hanauma Bay, where I walked knee deep into the water and found myself surrounded by all sorts of colourful fish.”

And then … another bag.  Another moment with the gracious hostess.  It was my turn.  Story over.  My weather companion and I smiled at each other and said goodbye.  Truly, a good time.

 

Notes from the Golf Course

I don’t get out much because Jody’s been so sick.  Today was my day.  I went to the women’s professional golf tournament in London.  Here’s what I noticed:

1.  Even before I hit the links, I hit the restaurant.  At 6:00 am I strolled into Harry’s with my sports section, prepared to savour bacon, poached eggs, hash browns and whole wheat toast.  I know it sounds ordinary but for me it was a delicious celebration of normality.  During two-and-a-half cups of coffee, I read about the Canadian golfers I’d be following for eighteen holes.  How easy it’s been for me to forget the usual rhythms of life.

2.  On the course, I was surrounded by people who were walking.  Big crowds.  At home, it’s been Jody in bed or a wheelchair, with one of our PSWs and me.  In malls with Jody, I haven’t paid much attention to how people walk, but out there on the grass today I sure did.  Many folks, old and young and in between, moved gracefully, sort of caressing the grass.  Some limped.  Some walked very tentatively.  And many took off like a bat out of hell to get ahead of their favorite player and see all the shots.  “Let’s give ‘er!” some guy yelled, and he and his friends started running.  I noticed times when I too was trying to catch all the action, speeding up to an unnatural pace.  Finally I noticed what I was doing, and settled back again.

3.  I don’t need to pile up the spectacular golfing moments and count them at the end of the day.  A few instants of grace will do nicely, such as watching a golfer’s face as she holds the follow through of the swing – a timeless image.  Or registering the smile between competitors when one of them makes a spectacular shot.

4.  At one point, I was talking to a marshal about the number of great young Canadian golfers who were doing well these days.  She was just inside the ropes and I was outside.  We paused our conversation while a golfer hit her ball.  Then I turned back to her … and she was gone.  Sigh.  We had been together for a minute of two, and then she ended it.  Without a goodbye.

5.  I watched the relationship between golfers and caddies, such as the player who handed the club she had just used to her caddie without even looking at him.  One caddie, probably the golfer’s father, was on her just about all the time, with opinions and proddings.  He even stopped her once while she was waggling her club pre-shot.  Other caddies seemed to offer advice only when asked, but did give lots of encouragement.

6.  Just before a player hit her ball, marshals held up white paddle-type signs which said “Quiet, eh?” a fun reference to our Canadian lingo.  The message was gentle, certainly not “Quiet!”, which would have brought back childhood memories of Saturday matinees at the Park Theatre, where a matronly-looking woman patrolled the aisles, snarling “Less noise!”

7.  I sauntered up hills and dales, feeling light on my feet for awhile, positively youthful.  This compared to a tournament a couple of years ago, when my ballooning leg had me going slower and slower … until I gave up after walking just eight holes.  I was very sad back then.  Happy today.

8.  Humidity.  It rolled over us in a cumulative way.  And eventually I started feeling some of that old fragility.  Too much sun.  Too tired.  Time to go home after watching my Canadian gals finish their round.  And that was okay.  Quite human, I’d say.

Life … Golf
Golf … Life

The Arc of Life

It was June, 1962.  I was in Grade 8.  We were playing a game of softball at lunch recess (the version that’s now called fastball).  The diamond was in a corner of the property, with the three-storey school at an angle, so that its left end was closer to us than the right.  Beyond the outfield grass was a wide cement strip that butted up against the building.

And so the stage was set for Roger Mount.  He scared me – all musclely, loud and aggressive.  I was a timid little kid, of the striking out variety.  Thankfully, Roger and I were on the same team, so I was standing near him when the moment cracked open my reality.  Roger was at the plate, waiting.  The pitcher was ready.  He zoomed a fastball over the plate, and Roger met the pitch with the sweet spot.  The ball took off, climbing and climbing towards left field.  My mouth dropped open.  The ball kept going up, impossibly high and far.  Left field was but a memory, as was the cement.  As was the three storeys of elementary education.  Finally the sphere started falling, and then it …

disappeared.

Onto the roof.  Roger had done something that most likely had never been accomplished in the history of Bedford Park Public School.  On the field there was silence as he rounded the bases.  We were in the presence of God.  Fifty-two years later, I’m still there.  Roger is right now.  Eternally.

***

Sometime in the 70s, I went to watch Jack Nicklaus play a practice round at a golf course near Toronto.  One of the best golfers in the history of the game.  And I got to be within ten feet of him, in the first row of spectators behind the tee of a par four hole.  A creek crossed the fairway left to right about 200 yards off the tee.  There was a wide stretch of fairway beyond, but then it turned sharp right and paralleled the creek till it reached the green, far to the right as we viewed it from the tee.  The kicker was that there was a row of tall deciduous trees on the far bank  of the creek, starting from the open fairway straight ahead of us and continuing all the way to the green, protecting the hole against any insane golfer who wanted to try a short cut.

Nicklaus took one look at the situation and said to his caddie, “Why not?”  He teed up a ball and pointed his body towards the green.  I gasped (very quietly – golf is a polite game).  My fellow spectators froze as well.  Jack waggled his driver, stared down the trees, tilted his head to the ball that was about to go for a wild ride, and swung.  The thwack of a real wooden club crushing a dimpled white sphere.  A climb through space as if seeking the Godhead.  Up and up and up and up and …

over the trees.

Jack’s ball came to rest on the fringe of the green.  He turned around, smiled at us, and said, “Don’t think I’ll try that again.”  His words were the only sound on the tee.  Maybe two hundred of us had witnessed the power of a deity.

***

I love the flight
I love the reaching up to God
I love the going up and the coming down

Better and Worse

Yesterday I worked myself through five sports sections of the London Free Press – Tuesday to Saturday.  I had finally caught up enough in my PVR viewing of the World Cup to do the deed.  (I still can’t look at the Monday, Tuesday and now Wednesday editions since I haven’t seen the championship game.)  What strangeness to pick up the paper from the mailbox, fold it in half and then religiously avoid looking at any print as I walk up the driveway. Inside the house, I stuff it under some other papers to make sure I don’t see any headlines.  And then all the personal support workers in our home need to be coached about never leaving the sports section exposed on the dining room table.  Such a lot of work!

My conclusion has been that it’s better for me to not know who won a certain game.  The surprise moments need to be experienced.  It’s not good enough for me to enjoy the flow of the game, armed with knowledge of the result.  But maybe I’m wrong.  What does it do to me to walk around with a “this, but not that” stance in life?  Well, for one thing, I know it can create some horribly tense moments.  One of out PSWs walked in a few days ago with a big smile on her face.  “The only thing I’m going to tell you is that Brazil plays Argentina today.”  Reaction inside the bod: “No!”  Outside: “Oh.”  Just that dissonance is enough to rip a guy apart.

So I immediately launched into a series of calculations that led me to an inescapable conclusion – both Brazil and Argentina lost their Semi-Final games and would have met in the third place game this last Saturday.  Grrr.  Dear PSW, how could you ruin my day like that?  Eventually, I watched the Argentina-Netherlands Semi-Final, and guess what – Argentina won at the very last moment with their final penalty kick.  All this angst about someone blabbing a soccer result … and she was just kidding!

“How do [I] do what [I] do to me?  If I only knew.”  So goes the song, sort of.  Then there’s my forays out into the community, committed to not knowing.  Yesterday was the dentist again, and the first thing I said to the sole occupant of the waiting room was “Please don’t tell me who won the World Cup.”  He smiled and said “I won’t.”  And this was 48 hours after the game had been played.  In the examination room, my first move was to ask for the remote.  No news station for me, with its twelve discreet bits of information staring at me every second … I retreated to a cartoon channel, where happily the characters didn’t mention soccer at all.

Last night, as the freezing started coming out, I was pretty groggy.  Of course, three fillings and a cleaning had their effect, as did the bike ride I went on in the morning,  but a basic choice I’ve been making was in the mix too.  All that psychic energy expended, all that contraction, all that strategizing … no thanks.