Reinventing Myself, Growing Stronger in Spirit

Women'sBasketball_Mar1978_K29V-3-78_ACCESSAs a child in the Land of Lincoln, I grew up emulating Wilt the Stilt, the 7-foot African American NBA star, and dreamed that one day girls would be allowed to play basketball. As a first generation Title IX athlete, I came of age in 1972 along with the law that revolutionized women’s sports by mandating equal opportunity for girls in publicly funded schools.

I fought so hard to be recognized as an athlete that it didn’t seem fair that my professional team in the USA declared bankruptcy, my French club banned foreigners, and when I finally found a home playing ball in Germany, a car accident ended my career in instant.

I have fought back from broken bones, shattered dreams and dashed hopes and cried a river of tears over lost abilities. I never ran down court again; instead, I paced on the sideline as a coach.

When I was growing up, I dreamed of having five children, a whole starting line-up.  I carried two babies safely into the world, but lost three en route.  Instead of becoming bitter, I did what my grandfather and father did, I coached other people’s kids.

When my professional basketball career ended, I intended to run marathons, climb mountains, sail the seas, but with busted knees, a wrecked back and bad karma, my body failed me.  So instead I teach teenagers, read books, navigate the Internet.

And I rewrite my story. One. Word. At. A. Time.

I intended to conquer the world straight up, instead I spend an inordinate amount of time flat on my back. I can no longer run, jump, play, but ever the athlete, I still walk, swim, stretch.IMG_2184

Every morning as I face a new day, I pray for strength, patience, resilience, faith, and hope. Faith abides. Hope trumps all. Hope endures.

Pain makes me set my jaw, as my eyes become glassy with anxiety. How long will it last? How can I minimize the intensity? Pain interrupts my best-laid plans and interferes with my long held dreams. Pain rules.

Yet I roll out of bed every morning and move. One. Step. Forward.

Chronic pain may subside temporarily, but it comes back to haunt me. Over time it wears down resistance, breaks spirit, zaps energy, steals joy, robs the soul.

With pain as a partner, only a fine line separates triumph and despair. A warm hug, a strong handshake, a kind word makes all the difference. I reach out to my global community in Switzerland for inspiration drawing strength from the student who greets me with a genuine grin, the colleague who offers a cup of tea, the sister who calls long distance just to say, “thinking about you today.”

Endurance is an attitude. In spite of setbacks and losses, I am in this for the long haul. Instead of focusing on myself, I concentrate on others. I write a note to the friend who lost her mother, I cheer for the girl who made a basket, and I console the student who failed his math exam.

Every time I am knocked to my knees AGAIN, I pray for the courage to keep on, keepin’ on.  I whisper my worries to the wind and shout thanks to the skies because I know without doubt,

“My peeps, got my back!”

Bring it on, LIFE!

The girl who dreamed of slam dunking, now lives above the rim, suspended in air over the Atlantic with one foot in both worlds.Image 33

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World’s Largest, Oldest International School Provides a Global Education

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courtesy of Ecolint

Too tall, too smart, too athletic as a girl I felt too big to squeeze into the gender constraints of the 60s until Title IX (1972) opened doors providing equal opportunity in education and sport in America’s schools. In pursuit of a dream once denied in my homeland, I moved abroad three decades ago. After a globetrotting athletic career, I found a home at the world’s oldest and largest international school at the Ecole Internationale de Genève (Ecolint), a bilingual school with instruction in French and English.

Founded in 1924, the school grew from its humble beginnings of 8 students, 3 teachers and a rabbit to  3 large campuses: La Grand Boissière and Campus des Nations (2005) in Geneva, and La Châtaigneraie (1970) in the Canton Vaud. Our 4,380 students represent a world record of 135 different nationalities speaking 84 different mother tongues.

“In 1920-1921, the League of Nations and the International Labour Office (ILO) established their headquarters in Geneva with staff drawn from many countries. This created the need to cater for students with a diversity of cultures preparing them for university education in their home countries.”

Our tenets are imbedded with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) theories of education.

Arthur Sweetser, an American war correspondent during WWI, who became the unofficial ambassador to the League of Nations (1919-39), advocated for international education in conjunction with Adolphe Ferriere and Elisabeth Rotten. Dr. Ludwig Rajchman (Poland), William Rappard, Rector of the University of Geneva, and Sir Arthur Salter, a senior official of the League of Nations were also involved in the creation of the school.

Another American, Robert Leach (1916-2004) a social studies teacher, became the father of the International Baccalaureate designed to help students develop their intellectual, personal, emotional, and social abilities. The acclaimed diploma, once considered a pie-in-the-sky idea, is now recognized worldwide. One million students are enrolled in its programs and over a 100,000 students sit the exams. Yet, few schools can match our school’s 96% graduation rate.

The Ecolint code we uphold that speaks loudest to me is Article 4 point 4 of our charter.

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courtesy of Ecolint

“The activity of school in all fields and especially in the field of pedagogy shall be based on the principles of equality and solidarity among all peoples and of the equal value of all human beings without any distinction of nationality, race, sex, language or religion.”

As Vicky Tuck, our General Director, states on our website, “We seek to give all our students the opportunity to experience a unique international education and to acquire the personal attributes, outlook and knowledge that will equip them to play an active part in the construction of tomorrow’s world.”

Many of our former students went onto make a global impact in the arts, sciences and diplomacy such as Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) former Prime Minister of India. Michael Douglas, an Oscar-winning and Emmy Award-nominated American actor and producer, Elizabeth Frank, Pulitzer Prize winning author: Norman Schwarzkopf  commander in chief of US and coalition troops, Operation Desert Storm, and Joakim Noah – NCAA division 1 basketball MVP of the final four 2006 and NBA star for the Chicago Bulls for the past 4 seasons, all have made an impact in their fields. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations and Macalester College alumni, served on the Ecolint board from 1981-83.

Each day as I walk into a classroom filled with students reflecting faces of the world, I am humbled by the magnitude of our mission. Though I am the teacher, I learn just as much from by my global-minded students, who speak multiple languages, carry several passports and have lived on different continents before entering secondary school.

Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas meet on the campus' court

Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas meet on the campus’ court

As a Norwegian-American married to a Frenchman, raising our kids with an international education in the bucolic countryside of a neutral country was idyllic. Like so many of our alumni, my own children, one a pediatrician advocating for healthcare for underprivileged children in the St.Paul-Minneapolis area and the other an educator in the making, pay it forward in their own lives. Unlike students who attend school in homogenous communities, international education taught tolerance by exposing them to pupils of other cultural beliefs and traditions, who then became friends. Today, Nathalie understands her Somali refugee patients, and not only because she speaks French. Nic is especially sensitive to the needs of his African American, Hmong and Latino students.

Ecolint sets high standards for its staff and students in an attempt to uphold such lofty ideals in a tenuous time of world unrest and conflicting ideologies. We do our best to meet the challenge of contributing to a better world, one child at a time.

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Volunteer Nurse’s Mission Trip to the Dominican Republic

Image 2_copyMy niece, Hannah, a nurse in training at Creighton University, joined a medical service project in Dominican Republic where she dedicated 5 weeks to helping treat impoverished Dominicans as part of Institute for Latin American Concern Program (ILAC). During the week volunteers from the center in Santiago went to work in campos where they were housed by locals and treated like royalty. Host families insisted on providing the best they could offer and showed their gratitude in countless ways by making special treats and cleaning their guests’ clothes.

My niece’s host family, Madeline, and her husband, Chico, niece Saira 9, and daughters Maireli 4 and Mailesi 3 months lived in a tiny house smaller than Hannah’s two car garage back home in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

“The living room was tiny with a small TV. Curtains separated three small bedrooms. The bathroom, connected to the house, had a toilet that didn’t flush, and the shower was a bucket of water with a drain,” Hannah explained, “The kitchen has a mini fridge, counter and stove. The dining room had a table, chairs and a china cabinet, but no china.”

Hannah, who studied at a Spanish Immersion School in the Minneapolis area until high school, found that her background in Spanish was invaluable. She interacted with the locals and took medical histories, urinary samples and treated minor illnesses with minimum equipment in rudimentary facilities.

“While another nursing student took vitals, I did the intake form, figured out the chief complaint and symptoms and did any other translating. We saw lots of skin rashes, kidney infections, colds and body aches from all the work the Dominicans do.”Image 5_copy

The most striking difference was the extent of poverty and lack of modern health care and medicine.

“Even in the best hospital in the country, everything is open – doors, windows (without screens,) and the units in ER (diabetes, labor, trauma.) There are no monitors except for ICU/NICU. Restraints are by rope and heavy weights.” Hannah wrote in her journal. “Patients were pushed around ER with entire families following and holding medical supplies. (If a patient needs medicine, a family member must purchase it outside the hospital.) Floors were torn up, paint chipped off and I never saw a nurse in a patients room.”

There were many cultural differences from diet to lifestyle. The volunteers joked about the leisurely pace of Dominican time – which meant a few hours late.

“Beautiful girls with model figures came into the clinic asking for ways to gain weight,” Hannah said. “In their culture being overweight is a sign of wealth, but we tried to tell them they were perfect as they were.”

Biggest challenges that volunteers faced included communicating with the language barrier, feeling comfortable in a different culture, and adjusting to living with lower standard of hygiene.

“Even though I never felt clean,” Hannah said, “I learned how to co-exist with spiders the size of my hands and lizards in my bed, how to throw rocks at trees to get mangoes down and how to take a bucket shower with 3 small scoops of water.”

I felt privileged that Hannah shared her journal of events with me. Even reading it made me feel ashamed. I was spoiled with riches that I no longer noticed or appreciated like indoor plumbing, running water and electricity.

Life, when stripped to bare necessities, seemed purer. Good health, family, and community matters more than material goods.Image_copy

After meeting a prosperous land owner and visiting his rice plantation, Hannah, unimpressed, wrote in her journal, “I hope that as times change and technology advances in the DR that the people will stay the same: doors are always open, people are always outside talking with neighbors, the community is your family and sometimes you sleep at your neighbors because it is just like sleeping at your grandmas.”

“All the Dominicans were so hospitable, they would do absolutely anything to make us feel comfortable and happy,” Hannah said. “They showed me how to appreciate time with people rather than things, how to slow down and how to make the most of each day.”

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Summer Memories Last A Lifetime

It is that bittersweet time of year when school starts and we must bid a fond farewell to summer. 2013 will be marked as one of the finest even though I am exhausted from the whirlwind of festivities.

  • Book tour in my hometown where I saw old neighbors, teachers, friends who touched my life at each stage of my childhood.
  • The wedding of my best friend’s daughter, a cosmopolitan girl that I taught, coached and mentored, the beautiful, marathon running, Community Wellness Director who married a charming dairy farmer in Winona Minnesota.
  • Special guest of the McKinzie family in Shaker Heights – my brother provided fascinating tours of Cleveland as he chauffeured me to my Senior National Games speaking engagements.
  • Connecting with basketball playing and promoting aficionados across the continents – NSWBA, NOVA United, NSAA – and the chance to be a part of the Senior National Games even though I am no longer physically able to compete.
  • The craziness of running a B & B on Summit Lake that caters to special diets, erratic schedules and the idiosyncrasies of 5 families, 3 generations and their various friends.
  • Endless hours swapping stories around a campfire, floating on the raft, sharing meals, laughing at Kizzie’s antics, reconnecting with loved ones and creating lifelong memories.
  • Swimming to the island with my 22 year-old-son and his college mates. Woo hoo, I can still keep up with the kids!
  • Commemorating passages, the loss of a dear family friend, a carpenter extraordinaire, who bought my grandparents ol’ boys camp preserving its history with every log.
  • Enduring ze Frenchman’s middle age crisis – the purchase of a new (used) boat, so he can ski with the kids. You go, G-Man.
  • Sixtieth wedding celebration of Jim and Lenore, a remarkable couple who I am blessed to have as parents.
  • The 50th anniversary of Little Camp Ney-A-Ti, our family cabin, a magical playground in the Northwoods where we put aside our problems to share the beauty of nature, the bond of family and the blessing of friendships.

As I look back on an extraordinary summer, I want to shout out my gratitude to family, friends, and folks who went out of their way to make my stay in the States so special.

The best part about living between worlds is that even though my heart is filled with sadness as I say farewell to folks back home, I can hear the mountains calling, see my students smiling, and feel my international community’s warm embrace. Welcome back to Switzerland, Missy Ex-Pat.

Granny’s Got Game

The real reward in speaking at the National Senior Games in Cleveland on behalf of the National Senior Basketball Association was not the chance to tell my tale, but to hear everyone else’s story.

One of the other speakers also was Angela Gorsica Alford, who played for the top-ranked women’s basketball team at Vanderbilt (1994-1997) and represented USA Basketball in international tournaments. She began her career as a software engineer for Motorola & Sony-Ericsson, and re invented herself after her children’s births by starting her own video production company in 2007.  A year ago, she launched Granny’s Got Game an inspiring documentary about the Fabulous 70s, a competitive senior women’s basketball team in North Carolina that battles physical limitations and social stigma to keep doing what they love. Who says girls can’t play ball? These grandmas defy age and gender stereotypes by dishing and driving into their seventies all the while racking up medals every step of the way. Liz still has an unstoppable, quick first step and Mary’s mastered a deadly left-handed hook.

“Just like so many younger sports teams, this one includes a bossy captain, a guard who never runs the plays correctly, a tentative post-player, and a bench warmer who wants to play more than anyone. As teammates and friends, they support each other off the court through the difficulties that accompany aging, such as breast cancer and widowhood.”

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Rose Boyd, Marilyn Asay, Bev Beck,Mary Ellen Philen, Brenda Taylor, Linda Burke

But the ladies I found most enchanting were the North Carolina women in the 65-69 category whose claim to fame was that they served as practice dummies for the fabulous 70s team featured in Granny’s Got Game.

« We helped them get good, » forward/center Marilyn Asay said.

In the gym, I watched the Scrappy Swishers from Raleigh fight. They had to be scrappy; they had no height.

The Swishers battled it out with the best of them even though one player (also the Fabulous 70s team coach) missed part of the basketball competition because she was off placing 3rd, the bronze medal in 65+ golf this year at the national games.

Members of the Swishers attended high school from 1958-62 (pre Title IX) and played 6-aside, 3 on each end of half court and were limited to only had 2 dribbles before they had to pass or shoot. A player was designated either a guard (defense) or forward (offense.)

« We resumed our basketball career after retirement at age 65 years. We hadn’t played for approximately 40 years, » Marilyn explained. «We are geographically ecumenical- Swishers recruited 2 players from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, who play with the team at local and state competitions. »

And get this.

« Two teammates host the team’s BBC (Beach Basketball Camp) twice each year, » Marilyn says with the enthusiasm of a teenager at a rock concert. « Our motto is fun, food, fellowship. Oh, and also practice, sun, sand, and surf.

During one of the Swishers games against the powerful Maine team, I watched Bev Beck all of 5-foot-2, 100 lbs. set a pick on a center twice her size for 72-year-old Marilyn who cut backdoor to the basket. The ladies huddled around Coach Angela at the time out and the referee gave also offered pointers. Every action reflected the spirit of the games. Fun, fitness, friendship, competition, comraderie, community.

While our present day sport stars are making the front page for domestic disputes, betting scandals and alleged homicides, our real heroes are playing ball in the shadows after having contributed to society as mothers, educators, hard workers, and beloved community members.

Like the filmy subtitle claims, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”

Give me five, Granny. You may be wearing support hose, knee braces and platinum hips, but you still got game!

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Happy 60th Wedding Anniversary Jim and Lenore McKinzie

Six decades ago, what started as a simple wedding in Chicago between a man and woman created a circle of love that goes round the world. J&L wedding

Your love taught us to honor our elders. As children we watched how you helped your parents age with dignity. Together, you kept the Wisconsin retreat a lasting legacy of Grandpa Mac and Grandma Betty McKinzie’s love of nature and people by welcoming family and friends. You made Grandma Olson part of your community when she moved from the East coast. Together, you rediscovered our missing Norwegian heritage on trips to Norway and connected us to fjords filled with cousins and a rich ancestory. IMG_2014_copy

Your example of love showed tolerance for the differences in others. You were the first to acknowledge and accept my uniqueness. When my unusual talents drove me overseas in pursuit of a professional basketball career, instead of disowning me, your love followed. You opened your home and heart to guests of every nationality and all walks of life including accepting your French son-in-law as your own.

Your love was selfless in time and money. Though as children, we drank powdered milk and shared rooms, we never went without hugs and praise. You forfeited expensive dinners and extravagant presents in order to save for children’s college educations. When your four children became self- sufficient, you started bank accounts for your six grand children. You shower your grandkids with gifts – the greatest being time. Time to read books, play games, toss balls and create memories.

Your love is resilient. You withstood the trials of demanding teaching careers, rose to the challenge of raising four children five years apart, coped with aging parents, fulfilled community obligations, adjusted to changes invoked by illness.

Though your love for one another always came first, there was always enough left over to give to others. Those around you bloomed in the warm glow your love effused.

Your grown children looked to your relationship for inspiration in their own marriages and child rearing. As adults, we appreciated even more the power of your love. A love that never gave up when times were hard. A love that never turned away when money was short. A love that never wavered in life’s transitions. If I have been able to overcome the obstacles of living in a foreign country, raising two children abroad, while struggling with chronic health problems, it is in great part because of your love. A love that made me respectful, tolerant, selfless, resilient, compassionate and, most of all, strong. IMG_3067_copy

Through your children, grandchildren, countless friends you supported and all the “adopted” others that you nurtured, your love now spans two continents and four generations. We, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, American and European – the links to the circle you started together 60 years ago today – celebrate your love, a love that graced our lives.

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