In High School Basketball Friendship Wins, Cancer Loses

I spent the first half of my life fighting to be allowed on the court and the second half learning to graciously cheer for others when I could no longer play the game I loved.

ISG teamEven though I can’t drive the baseline anymore, I get a kick out of seeing the players I coach at the International School of Geneva make a perfect pass, hit a jumper, and run a fast break.

Teamwork is a beautiful thing. I love watching well-balanced WNBA teams like the Minnesota Lynx run the floor or the precise passing of the UWSP college women. None of that coast-to-coast garbage.

But high school basketball is best. Players put their heart and soul on the line every week in front of the family, friends and community that shaped them. They play, not for money, or prestige, but for the camaraderie and love of the game. Most of these young athletes won’t make the college roster; even fewer will sign a pro contract. But the lessons learned on the hardwood during their chaotic, fleeting adolescence last forever.

Not a day goes by where I don’t wish I could still play basketball; not a minute passes where I don’t forget how lucky I am to be here wishing just that, because I could very well be 6 feet under. I am grateful to be in the game even if only from the sidelines. I love giving halftime talks, drawing up last second plays, and encouraging kids to gut it out in tough circumstances.

If I ever forget the gift of “overtime” on my own game clock, a twinge in my back, an ache in my shoulder, or a pain in my skull – repercussions from my accident – remind me of the other option. Life took on new meaning after I came so close to losing mine.

Fortunately, rarely is a young athlete confronted with his/her mortality.

Some win. Some lose. Some survive. Some die. Cancer, a formidable foe, strikes down opponents indiscriminately, but the loss is particularly painful when the disease steals the life of a child.

Hopefully most teenagers won’t be confronted with cancer, but they have all faced hard times which were made easier with the support of that special parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, teacher, coach or friend. When an innovative basketball coach at Bishop McGuinness High School in Greensboro suggested that his players dedicate the game to someone who had influenced their lives, he never expected his idea to go global.

One of his players, Spencer Wilson dedicated his game ball to an inspirational friend on the cancer ward, Josh Rominger.

On January 24th in that North Carolinian gym filled to capacity, a boy made a 50-foot last second shot to win the game in memory of a friend and found the courage to carry on.

Sooner or later, we will be faced with those defining moments when our best laid plans and deepest hopes are derailed by injury, illness, accidents and unforeseen disaster. Do we give up or go on?

We get one chance. To give it our best shot. To dedicate our game.

Bad stuff happens. So do miracles.

Friendship is eternal.

Keep fighting.

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Swiss Champions U21 – June 2008
Christoph Varidel,Paul Costello, Nicolas Lechault, Michael Shumbusho, Alex Gromadski

Together.

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Congratulations, Debbie! Your name was selected in a random drawing of commenters to receive a copy of my memoir, Home Sweet Hardwood: A Title IX Trailblazer Breaks Barriers Through Basketball.

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Little Free Libraries Bring Books to Your Neighborhood

First_Little_Free_Library_-schoolhouseWhat an innovative idea to promote reading. In Hudson, Wisconsin, in a tribute to his mom, who was a book lover and a teacher, Todd Bol built a miniature little red school house, stuck it on a post in his front yard, and filled it with books to share. Since its inception in 2009, ‘The Take A Book, Leave A Book’ movement, which took off especially in the Upper Midwest, has gone global.

The goal was to create over 2,509 Little Free Libraries to exceed the number of large libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie from 1883 to 1929. It also commemorated a courageous librarian, Miss Lucie Stearns, who between1895-1914 brought nearly 1400 little traveling libraries to different parts of Wisconsin.

IMG_4348_copyMy sister, Karen, told me about a Little Free Library (LFL) located a half a block from her house in Golden Valley, Minnesota. While visiting her, we ventured out on the coldest day of century because I couldn’t wait to see it. Under a cobalt sky, the snow-covered, rooftop of a dollhouse-sized hut, brimmed full of books. I would have loved to browse and pick up a book for my flight home, but my fingers froze merely posing for the photo. What an honor to discover that Karen had tucked a copy of my book, Home Sweet Hardwood into her neighborhood library.

I shared the gift of reading, a love passed on from my grandparents and parents, with my children. While growing up, my kids read under the bed covers, in the bathtub, and even à table. During dinner, they sneaked peeks at their books hidden under the dinner table to avoid their father’s scowling eyes. The ultimate taboo in a French family to focus on anything other than food while dining!reading on the lake

Though reading may seem like a lost art and books sales have dropped, surprising The Little Free Library movement is booming. All 50 states and 40 countries have been involved. Grass roots movements to bring books to remote parts of the world and help produce literacy in India and Africa have grown. Hudson High School (Wisconsin) students built mini libraries and shipped them to Africa where local Rotary Clubs installed them. LFL has also partnered with Going to School, an organization which brings books to schools in India. All across the USA schools are joining, like in Minnesota, where the Minneapolis School District, LFL, and local sponsors have combined to bring 100 Little Free Libraries to Northern Minneapolis.

As of January 2014, an estimated 15,000 Little Free Libraries exist worldwide. To find one in your neighborhood, consult the index. LFLs can be found in England, France, Italy, and other European countries, but as far I know none exist in Switzerland yet. However, if I can get past the bureaucratic red tape, I am building one in my front yard, modeled like a miniature Swiss chalet, natürlich.

Join the movement. Take a book, return a book, meet a neighbor, make a friend, build a library, create a community.DSCN1346_copy

In support of Little Free Libraries worldwide, I am giving away a copy of my memoir Home Sweet Hardwood to a commentator whose name will be selected in a random drawing. The winner will be announced next week.

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Minne-SNOW-tans’ Winter Survival Tips

J&LWear fur lined Grumpy Old Man hats with ear flaps down.

Get a dog to warm up the end of the bed.

Wear plaid, panel lined jeans.

Tuck hand warmers in mittens.

Eat soup.

Carry a corn sack –fill a flannel bag with field corn, microwave 2 minutes, take it to go.

Melt frozen pipes with a hair dryer (actually recommended by my brother-in-law’s plumber friend and it worked like a charm for the Carlsons!)

Embrace the season. Bundle up and play outside!IMG_3200_copy

Take up ice fishing. After freezing your fanny on a frozen lake, home feels like  a sauna.

Read a book –curl up under a duvet and read a good book. You’ll become so engrossed in the story, you won’t notice the weather outside.

Stoke up the fire. Warm your tootsies, melt you heart, and mellow out while flame gazing. Enjoy the show.

Kizzie 2Wear boots! Heavy, lined, and laced up! Off you go!

Sip a hot drink –cocoa, cappuccino, apple cider, flavored tea, Glühwein, hot toddy, Irish coffee, grog, Wassail, whatever as long as it is hot, hot, hot.

Layers. Layers. Layers. Start with undies, the ultimate chill chaser Cuddle duds !IMG_3216_copy

Savor a steaming hot wholesome meal. Go for those extra calories. Winter is no time to diet.

Celebrate! Set out The Red Plate and engage in the time honored custom of our ancestors. American pioneer families acknowledged when friends and loved ones deserved praise or special attention by serving them on the red plate.

Hug a lot. Laugh a little. Love each day.IMG_3889_copy

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Home Improvement Beats Post Holiday Blues

IMG_4366_copyAfter the letdown of the holidays, I decided to beat the blues with a little home improvement. Nothing kicks winter doldrums like a change in décor. With a bee in my bonnet (British expression) in manic mode, I insisted, “Let’s rearrange the living room.”

A half day later, we were still on our hands and knees, snapping at each other.

Moving furniture meant revealing a decade’s worth of grime. In the past, my mess was limited by frequent relocations. We’ve lived in our present home for a record length of time, so now I’m busted. Loopholes in my if-you- can’t-see-it, it-ain’t-dirty, dysfunctional cleaning policy are exposed.

What a revelation! I never realized that dust could inhabit so many places- ledges of drawers, behind chair legs, under the coffee table. Like trapeze artists, spiders swung from lamp fixtures, bookshelves, and window ledges.

A women’s prerogative can be so annoying. I couldn’t visualize the new furniture arrangement; I needed a trial run. Ze Frenchman pushed, pulled, and turned tables, couches, chairs for my viewing pleasure. In the end I didn’t like the new look, so we started over again.

Our writing desk/armoire, too heavy to lift, had to be emptied first. Sorting through drawers was like strolling down memory lane of my children’s life. I discovered souvenirs from every adventure– badges from the Grand Canyon, Kandersteg camp in the Alps, and Jim Peck’s Wildlife Park in Wisconsin. I journeyed across Europe sifting through mementos from school trips to the Camargue, Venice, Strasbourg, Florence, Paris, and Barcelona. I relived games when I uncovered certificates and medals from each of their teams. Like a kid on a scavenger hunt, I found silly putty, magic pens, a set of acrylics, a stack of cards, five kinds of tape and coins from fifteen different countries.IMG_4367_copy

What bliss filling the recycling bins! I pitched a phone book collection, dating back to 2005, and papers galore: college applications, chemistry exams, history notes, math graphs, and English essays. I discarded broken flashlights, old cassettes, sticker books, yoyos, Legos and marbles.

While my husband moved furniture half a dozen times, I remained glued to my desk drawer, lost in the past until he interrupted my reverie, shouting,

“Aspi!”

Aspi is short for aspirateur (French for vacuum cleaner.) Don’t you love the image – aspirating, sucking up a decade of dirt.

Naturally “remodeling” included relocating the TV/VCR/Home Video System to the opposite corner of the room, which meant rewiring a beehive of cables. As Gerald raged, shouting expletives, I thought, ‘oh goodie another French lesson for me.’

Finally I stopped cold when ze Frenchman threatened to bring home his new, young secretary and solicit her advice because he insisted, “SHE is also an interior designer.”

“Not in my house! Nooo, way.”

His ploy worked; I quit nagging in time for him to collapse into his chair to enjoy his favorite sports program. Well, I’ll be darned! Where did I relocate the remote control? Frantically, I repeated my clean sweep in reverse to see where I had inadvertently misplaced ze Frenchman’s favorite toy.

Now I am settled in my nice, clean salle de sejour (notice I did not say house) so from my living room to yours best wishes for 2014.IMG_4365_copy

Thanks for following my exploits. Stay with me… the New Year promises more adventures from X-pat.

Warmhearted Minnesotans Take the Chill Out of Wintery New Year

My New Year’s resolution: never let the weather get me down. Celebrate each season. Even winter. That said, I struggled to step out the door when staying at the Carlson’s in Golden Valley, Minnesota in early January. My first achievement in 2014, surviving the Deep Freeze.

While visiting my Big Kids, nieces, sister and brother-in-law in the Twin Cities, I experienced those record breaking frigid temperatures that made even European news channel headlines.IMG_4236_copy

My niece, Hannah, told me that it was so cold that if I threw a glass of water outside, it would turn to ice before it hit the ground. Exposed skin would be frost bitten within 5 minutes. Sure enough, when I walked out the door, the cold felt like dry ice peeling the skin off my cheeks. Yet, Karen and I made it around the block on foot during the coldest day of the last decades.

Weather advisory – stay indoors. Even residents accustomed to long, harsh winters headed to the grocery to stock up on staples, just in case. Shops closed early. Sporting events were postponed. My folks in Illinois said even church was cancelled.

Due to extreme cold, the Minnesota governor mandated statewide school closing prolonging the holiday. Karen, a teacher, screamed with joy, « youpie another pajama day. »

We made the most of our moments together. We spent a super special Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field via satellite, enjoying spicy chili, nachos and cheese from the comforts of the Carlson’s living room. My first time tailgating indoors in Siberia!IMG_4342_copy

Like I reminded my sister, who begrudges the long winters, « it’s a healthy cold. » Unlike Switzerland where the mountains lock us in a fog trap of pollution, when I stepped outside the door in Minneapolis-St. Paul, my lungs felt invigorated from the pure air. The dazzling sun, reflecting off snow under cobalt skies, created an extraordinary light.

IMG_4340_copyIt is no surprise that so many Scandinavians settled in Minnesota. Folks up North come from a hardy stock used to harsh elements. Youngsters sledded, teens played ice hockey, couples skated, and « cheerful » ol’ men ice fished. Dick took us for a spin in his jeep on frozen Medicine Lake where we admired elaborate ice shanties and peeked through the lit up windows of the lake front mansions.

While the atmospheric pressures created record-breaking cold temperatures in North America, warm currents blew across Europe. Back home people were out and about in shorts and shirtsleeves enjoying a balmy 50F. Arriving in Geneva airport, felt like landing in Florida.

We never begrudged a minute of our holiday on ice because warmhearted northlanders magically thaw winter souls by welcoming travelers into their homes and hearth with open arms and a joie de vivre. Gotta love Minn-A-so-Ta. You betcha.

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Best Gift Ever– A Flight Home for the Holidays With My Baby

baby NatHome for the holidays takes on new meaning, when you live 4,000 miles away. Never has my longing for America been greater than after the birth of my daughter in Paris. The expatriate craves the loving cradle of family most during moments of great joy or sadness. Within the span of that year I had endured my fair share of despair. I struggled to recover from an accident that ended my athletic career, and a miscarriage that broke my spirit.

That winter of ‘84, I courageously tucked my 10-day-old daughter into a kangaroo pouch, navigated through the crowded Metro station and waited at the American Embassy for my baby to be issued her first U.S. passport. Just a short time later, with even greater trepidation, I swaddled my seven-week-old in a hand-woven blanket and carried her solo across the Atlantic aboard a 747.

At O’Hare airport, my sister’s and parents’ smiles lit up the universe as they welcomed the newest member to the family with tears of joy.

Outside the family homestead, light snow dusted the open fields and colored lights glittered, while inside, an aroma of gingerbread wafted through the air, a newborn’s cry rose above my brother’s piano rendition of Silent Night and my mom hung her handmade first grandchild ornament on the Christmas tree.

From Cleveland, to Omaha, to Chicago, to Eureka, to Sterling my siblings and grandparents coordinated the time and distance between a dozen careers, three states and two countries to be home for the holidays. That Christmas, I dressed as a svelte French Papa Noel to pass out presents.

But the greatest gift was not under the tree.

In the early years of marriage, we could not afford a cross-Atlantic flight, so in a gesture that showed incredible generosity and profound compassion, my Frenchman along with family contributions, gave me a round trip Air France ticket Paris-Chicago, so that the McKinzies could meet baby Nathalie.

This Christmas gift symbolized my husband’s love for his firstborn, his foreign wife and his American in-laws. By sacrificing his own holiday time, he acknowledged the importance of fostering family ties and respecting one’s cultural heritage in a mixed marriage.

The magic of those shared moments is engrained in my heart forever.

This December, that precious baby, now a dedicated doctor, offers another selfless gift. She sacrifices her family time to spend Christmas Day in the Children’s Hospital, taking care of kids too sick to go home for the holidays.Nat & dad

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