Another Birthday, Another Ball Game, Another Big Reminder

image1Why is it the older we get the less we feel like celebrating our birthdays? We knock ourselves out planning parties for babies who have no clue what is going on and then when we reach those senior age milestones when we really should be rejoicing at reaching another year, we downplay the idea trying pretend we are not aging, not a day over 40something.

When you feel like you have been granted 9 lives, birthdays feel like a blessing. The earliest birthday I recall is when my mom made me a bunny shaped cake covered in coconut. Growing up celebrating with my lil’ sis whose birthday is March 1st only doubled the fun. And who can forget those slumberless parties as teens when friends gathered in your basement giggling and offering earrings that turned your newly pierced ears green. Ah, part of the joy was picking out that perfect present at the brand new Northland Mall.

But wB-partyhat I associate most with my birthday is ball games because my birthday always fell during the height of basketball season. In the day before Instagram, I freeze framed those priceless moments in my mind when my folks came to my game carrying a cake and teammates gathered round in a corner of the gym to celebrate. Regardless of the outcome of the game, I felt like a winner.

What makes birthdays so meaningful is not really the fanfare, cards, or cake –although I do LOVE cake – it is knowing that family, friends, colleagues, teammates, and players want to commemorate the day you were born.

So how am I celebrating this birthday? I’ll be in a bus on a road trip to Zurich to coach my team in a Swiss basketball tournament. We will laugh and sing and share chocolate cake and Cutie Pies and I will feel like a kid again. We will enjoy being together, sharing the moment, knowing that we will never pass this way again.

From the surprise party my husband threw me in a Swiss wine cellar, to the unexpected cakes appearing in my classes, to the time my friend and her daughter decorated my homeroom, bringing cheesecake for breakfast, the birthday memories blur. The place and party may change but what remains the same is the date on the calendar, and the way the people around you fill your heart, the touching little ways they remind you they are happy that you are still around to celebrate.

Oh yeah, even though my back may be breaking, my knees aching, my legs quaking, I am dancing today!

In Team Sports Girls Win Even in Loss

I am sure a lot of people back home wonder why I am still coaching in Switzerland, the land of ski, where basketball is a minor sport at best. Facilities are limited, practices sporadic, and talent questionable.

But I still get a kick out of coaching the varsity girls. Last Thursday after teaching until 5 pm, the team and I hopped on 2 different buses and 3 different trains, to travel to Zug to compete in an international SCIS tournament. We lost every game except one, but the results don’t tell the whole story.

When we were down by 20 points against the American School of Vienna, who went on to win the tournament, we came back within a couple baskets. We fought intense battles, losing by a point or two in other games.

Sometimes you play your hardest and still finish next to last. Normally I would be frustrated, but after our final game, I felt content. Our losing tournament was really a success. My players bonded together, improved with every game, and built long lasting memories. They learned to play all out every game even when falling behind.

Though I hate to lose, winning is no longer the be all of my existence. One becomes wiser with age; I know that regardless of the score, the value of team sport is immeasurable. Team competition helps girls grow stronger and healthier, better prepared to negotiate conflict, overcome set backs and believe in themselves.IMG_6207_copy

This year, my players are going through tough issues that come with adolescence. During a scary time period where terrorist attacks, date rape, and random violence reign, they take those tottering steps toward adulthood. They face challenges with heartache and tears: break ups with boyfriends, friends falling out, college rejections, academic pressures, poor grades. But when they come to practice, they run hard, forget their troubles and giggle again.

They make up crazy systems of attack with even sillier names, like double D – sounds like a bra, not a double pick, high post play – Quiznos, peanut butter, and Dani boy.

Towards the end of one game earlier in the season, when we were ahead by 20 some points, our point guard called out, “Mississippi.” I watched in disbelief as all my players sat down on the court except for our point. While our opponents froze in bewilderment, stunned by our bizarre, sit-down offense, our guard dribbled right up the middle of the key for an easy lay.

And I laughed. Gotta love Swiss basketball.IMG_6214

This would never happen in America.

Though I am still every bit as competitive; I still study the game, call crucial time outs, diagram perfect plays, I am more mellow about the outcome. I understand that by just competing and being part of a team even my least talented players will learn lessons lasting lifetimes.

Opportunity to Honor Women Who Shaped Lives

IMG_1387_copyThe worst part about living abroad is that I can never be two places at once. Due to the logistics of a 7-hour time difference and 4000 miles distance, I grieved alone the passing of my grandparents and celebrated solo the accolades that mean little to folks here in Europe. Of course, I know better than most that all of the hardware in the world can’t help you get up and walk again, but after growing up in the shadows, it is humbling to be in the limelight.

I wasn’t there for my induction into the Illinois State University Hall of Fame in 1984 for basketball because I was living in Paris at the time, still recovering from a car accident and caring for a new baby. Nor was I stateside for my induction into the Illinois Coaches Hall of Fame in 2005. But my favorite all time coach, my dad, stepped in for me.

I wasn’t back on campus to receive the highly coveted “I” letter for participating in varsity sports. Prior to 1989, female athletes were not awarded Varsity Letters at ISU. Legendary basketball coach, Jill Hutchison, women’s advocate extraordinaire, righted that wrong. She initiated the Letterwinners’ Recognition Banquet February 8, 2003 to honor female athletes who in early and pre Title IX years never received that honor. Though I wasn’t physically present, my words – a column I wrote about the event -circulated to all the alumni. At the time, I was in my own gym at the International School of Geneva coaching my daughter’s team to their 5th consecutive European International Schools Sport championship.

A part of me feels undeserving of the honor to speak for my generation at an NCAA Final Four. Why me? For years, I stuffed down the ridicule, the snide remarks, the insults and kept dreaming. That little girl scorned is afraid to stand tall and shine. Yet, I will rise to the occasion.IMG_0767_copy

Because ultimately, I wrote Home Sweet Hardwood, not for my own bragging rights, but to pay tribute to the silent generation of women who fought so hard for the privileges we are have today.

Countless times when my spirit was broken, when I felt like giving up, when my legs no longer held me upright, my sisters lifted me to battle on and off the court. If I am triumphant today, it is because of the efforts of the mothers and grandmothers of yesterday. If my daughter rises in glory tomorrow, it will be due to the generations of women who have risen before her in pursuit of their dreams.

Historically, women have taken a back seat. Yet, it is women who have worked so hard behind the scenes to help us reach our goals, beginning with the mothers who believed in us from the day we were born. Pause and pay tribute to the women who guided you. Repeat their names out loud. Make a call, write a letter, send a prayer. Then continue doing what we do best, extending a helping hand, supporting one another, passing it on, and paying it forward.

When I step up to the podium at UWSP, I will speak in the “mother tongue” of our ancestors, representing those who came before us, honoring those who sacrificed in the past to create the opportunities we enjoy today.

Coach Hutchinson, coach Egner & Nat_copy

Jill Hutchison, Shirley Egner, Nathalie Lechault
3 generations of fighting women

Thank you: Sue Westphal, Karen Carlson, Betty McKinzie, Martha Olson, Lenore McKinzie, Jill Hutchison, Linda Herman, Shirley Egner, Nancy Lo Patin, Pat Summitt, Vivian Stringer, Kay Yow…

 

 

 

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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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When A Bear Comes to Your Front Door

I have fed chipmunks peanuts from my palm, stalked beaver around the lake in a canoe, tossed bread to wild ducks from the dock, caught and thrown back more fish than I could count. I’ve admired the flight of a bald eagle, a great blue heron and a twittering hummingbird. I’ve seen porcupines shoot quills, white-striped raccoon tails glow in the dark and deer dart gracefully through the woods. Part of the appeal of the North woods is this privileged relationship one develops with the forest animals. Living so closely to wildlife teaches respect, but in all my summers spent in Wisconsin, I’ve never considered what to do if a bear comes calling at my cabin door.bear

The locals at Summit Lake recount bear sightings every summer, but we had heard it so often, it sounded like folklore, the bear being like the Hodag, the mythical beast of the old lumberjacks of Rhinelander.

Still when living in the woods, bear is always in the back of your mind. When I grill out and hear a thrashing in the forest, I think, “Bears, burger, me…dead meat.” Just as I turn to run, I’ll see a white tail flip up in the green brush and a deer dart across the path.

So one drizzly afternoon, when my mom exclaimed, “Oh my, there’s a bear!” at first it didn’t register. I reluctantly put down my book and looked out the picture window in front of the lake. Not more than 15 feet away, a bear stood on his hind legs sweeping a clumsy paw at the bird feeder. His black coat was sleek and glossy from the rain and made him look slim. He had a cute, round snout and beady, black eyes. Standing five feet tall, he didn’t look that big or that bad. Before I could grab a camera, he lumbered back into the woods towards the lake leaving us with nervously reassuring one another we weren’t hallucinating.

“I thought it was a big, black squirrel climbing the tree!” my mom said in disbelief.

“Are you sure it was a bear?” my daughter asked skeptically.

“We couldn’t all be wrong,” I answered, pointing to my parents and sister who looked a bit shell-shocked from the sight.

“I don’t know,” Nat speculated. “How good are your eyes – you  all wear glasses.”

Next morning, my sisters and I were apprehensive when we walked down our wooded lane, stopping to chat with our neighbor the local woodsman.

“Nothing to be afraid of,” Steinie said. “Those are black bears, not grizzlies. Won’t bother you. Just give a holler. Tell ‘em to git and they’ll go on home.”

Yep, July 19, 2001, the day a bear came to call was etched in my memory. Over a decade passed before I saw another one. Sure enough Dad and I did a double take as we watched a smaller black bear look right as us then amble back into the woods.

Since ghost walks and flashlight tag were now out of the question, we spent summer evenings peering out the window. Every shadow looked like a bear. When it was too dark to see, we recounted bear stories over again as if to reassure ourselves that it wasn’t just some apparition of our imagination.

A lot of folks tell tales of hitting deer darting across the highway, but leave it to a Frenchman to boast of being hit by a bear. My husband swears that a big ol’ black bear ran right into him after he swerved on highway 64. Of course, the only witness was the bear, so we’ll never know for sure.  Sounds like one of those fishing stories where the catch gets bigger every time you tell the tale. But it could be true. One neighbor asked for advice on how to shoo a black bear out of his garage with a yard rake. My sister, Karen, was sitting on the dock admiring the lake when a bear ambled out of the woods aiming to hang out at our house until her dog, Kizzie barked.

It is one thing to see bears in a zoo, but another to see them in your front yard. I know what a caged animal must feel like. While our bear roamed around his woodsy world in freedom, I stared at him from behind our glass cage. It was a humbling experience, a vivid reminder that I am just one little creature in God’s great kingdom.

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Mürren Switzerland, Last Stop Before Heaven

IMG_3617_copyIn a country where every mile is beautiful, it is difficult to choose a favorite spot, but Mürren rates at the top of my list. Perched precariously on a narrow balcony 5,397 feet above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the highest resort village in the Bernese Oberland offers the best view of Switzerland’s most famous trio, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Mürren is as close to heaven as it gets.

Part of the splendor is the journey upward on the Lauterbrunnen to Grutschalp funicular. Opened in 1891, it was once the steepest funicular in Switzerland until they replaced it with a gondola. After riding up a sheer incline, we stepped out into a station and boarded a train that crept even higher until the line ended in Mürren.

At first, British tourists invaded Mürren, accessible only in summer months. As early as 1869 a British visitor complained, “It is crowded to excess with English.” Archbishop of Canterbury was appalled to see people playing tennis within view of the Jungfrau. He considered it sacrilegious to participate in such an artificial activity when surrounded by such a spectacular natural sport arena.

In 1910, the hotels persuaded railway lines to open lines for winter season. In 1928, the first Inferno Ski Race from the summit of Schilthorn mountain (9,744 feet altitude) put Mürren on the map. Mürren has also been associated with ballooning since the 1910 crossing the Alps ended in Turen.

Sports enthusiasts aren’t the only ones to enjoy Mürren, one of the larger car free resorts. Every day tourists love strolling through one long main streets where bakeries, boutiques, hotels and resorts perch on a ledge of Switzerland’s most famous Alps. Every 50 yards, red benches beckon gawkers and walkers to sit a spell when the panoramic views take one’s breath away.

One step out onto the terrace of our Hotel Alpenruh overlooking the tips of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Munch in full splendor and felt like we’d tumbled into Heidiland. Several hiking trails offered excursions. We chose the children’s adventure trail, which required more dexterity than my old body could muster. Even with my adjustable walking sticks with three different tips for snow, mountain and road surface, I struggled to maneuver the sheer ledges.

We climbed up a peak where half a dozen chalets – abandoned in offseason -looked like a mountain ghost town. The trail disappeared again in heavy wet snow. The only way back was straight down a sheer drop off that even a skilled skier would have trouble descending. Never daunted, my husband bounded ahead sideways like a billy goat and forged our own trail. My knees screamed in pain each step downward, but I pushed ahead fearing that if I misjudged one step, I would roll into another valley and be lost forever.

We finally saw the village below although it took another 2 hours to reach it. Once back at the hotel, I collapsed on the trundle bed under a fluffy duvet enjoying my hiker’s survival high. I admired the show outside my window as the setting sun illuminated the rugged mountain trio in various shadows and shapes. Meanwhile, much to my chagrin, my husband watched a football (soccer) match on a mini TV. In a land offering this kind of splendor just outside one’s window, television, like tennis courts, should be banned.

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