Rooting for the Underdog

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This year’s NCAA basketball tournament results were a mixed bag for fans of the underdog. While reigning women’s behemoth UConn was dethroned by Mississippi State, the perennial top seeded North Carolina Tar Heels once again won the men’s championship title.

Unless my or my husband’s alma mater is involved, I am almost always for the underdog in sports. I love to see a scrappy team without much prestige or many resources fight its way to victory. Some recent triumphs of the underdog include the 2014 Dayton Flyers upset of Ohio State and the little known University of South Florida Bulls making it all the way to the third round in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

As a perennial champion of the underdog, I am well placed living in Chicago, the home of shattered hopes and dreams. Whether it be our post-Michael Jordan Bulls or the ever-disappointing Bears, I can commiserate with my fellow Chicagoans and pray for the demise of the hated New England Patriots or Miami Heat.

Which brings me to my dilemma: how to handle the World Series champion Chicago Cubs? The “lovable losers” finally won it all, so where does that leave this fan of underdogs? As baseball season begins, the Cubs have some pretty high expectations riding on their shoulders. Record-breaking crowds watched them warm up at spring training camp in Phoenix, Arizona, last month. No doubt Wrigley Field will be sold out for every home game this season.

I must confess that last fall, when it looked as though the Cubs were going to lose the World Series to the Cleveland Indians, I consoled myself with the fact that the Indians are also underdogs who have not won a title since 1948. Notwithstanding their terribly racist logo, Chief Wahoo, I would not mind seeing the Indians get another chance at the prize this year.

Meanwhile, I can enjoy seeing the young, talented, and entertaining Cubs players display their skills at the ballpark. I will certainly root for their victory, but if they don’t make it all the way to the World Series, I will cheerfully philosophize, “Wait ’til next year!”

A New Spin on Curing Cancer

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170211_115416When I signed up to participate in Cycle for Survival, a “spin marathon” to support cancer research, I didn’t have a solid answer to the question on the website: “Who are you riding for?” To be sure, I have known many friends and family members who have been touched by cancer. I have friends and family who are cancer survivors, as well as loved ones who died of this terrible disease. Certainly, I would be riding for them. However, I didn’t know that I would find a much more urgent reason to put the pedal to the metal.

My daughter has been leading a team for Cycle for the past three years in New York City. Her involvement was the result of a very dear friend’s loss of her mother to cancer. I am so proud of my daughter and the support she gave her friend throughout the horrific ordeal of her mother’s cancer and death. That support led my daughter to action that may save the life of someone else’s mother:  involvement with Cycle for Survival.

Cycle for Survival is a nationwide fundraiser for Memorial Sloan Kettering  Cancer Center in New York City. Through the support of Equinox gyms across the country, riders have raised millions of dollars that have gone directly into research and treatment of rare cancers at MSK. Rare cancers are difficult because there is often no protocol for treatment and usually no organization to advocate for each particular type of cancer. Naturally, I’ve supported my daughter’s efforts emotionally and financially over the years. This year, however, my daughter assembled a team here in my hometown of Chicago, where she is currently attending business school. So she invited me to get off my duff and sign up to ride one of the dozens of stationary bikes at Equinox downtown.

There was a lot of energy and heart-pounding music when I arrived at the gym with my younger daughter and a friend. I remarked to my friend, “This place is like a bar without the alcohol!” My older daughter greeted us and helped us get set up on the bikes. Before our cycle session started, though, a young man stood up to speak. He told the story of his sister, a cancer survivor, and how she had gone on to marry and have a baby. Now, however, her infant son is in a battle of his own against cancer and is currently undergoing treatment at MSK. Through my tears, I started to pedal, knowing I had a new focus and an imminent reason to ride.

This disease is so hideously indiscriminate and unfair. What united all of us at Equinox gym yesterday, and what spurs the efforts of so many people across this country in events like Cycle, is that we have all been touched by cancer. It’s up to all of us together to help doctors and researchers wipe out this terrible scourge.

If you are interested in learning more about Cycle for Survival or contributing to this cause, please visit my page at: http://mskcc.convio.net/goto/maryrayis. One hundred percent of all donations goes directly to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

A world without cancer: That is truly something worth spinning for!

 

Patriots Day

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The New England Patriots may have won the game, but the real Patriots of the 51st Super Bowl were the advertisers.

While conservatives were publicly fretting over what political diatribe Lady Gaga might subject them to at halftime, Coca-Cola, Apple, Budweiser and the like were quietly subverting divisive rhetoric with their commercials steeped in positivity and inclusion. Ads depicted people from all walks of life peacefully mingling, whether at a bar, the gym, or the city streets. Anheuser-Busch made a pointed commercial about the two German immigrants who met by chance and created one of America’s great breweries. Even the NFL aired a commercial stating that no matter their differences, players come together “within the lines” of the football field to reach a common goal.

There was a gentle, optimistic tone to the advertising this year. It was as if to say, We don’t endorse the hateful rhetoric of our recent presidential campaign or the exclusionary policies of our new administration. We can not only get along, but are made richer by our differences if they are directed toward kindness and good will.

The most controversial ad was by 84 Lumber, and it depicts a mother and daughter from south of the border trying to make their way to America. The ending, which depicts a massive wall such as the one President Trump insists he wants to build, was never aired because Fox decided it was much too political.

But most of the commercials were not overtly political. My favorite was the Coca-Cola ad, which features people of different ages, races, religions, ethnicities, and even sexual orientations singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages. The messages in these ads give me hope that Americans can see past the divisions being fostered by our political climate.

As for the dreaded Lady Gaga performance? She let her lyrics, the diversity of her dancers, and her own soaring vocals speak for themselves.

Next Year Is Here!

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The reality has not quite sunk in. I saw that game, but I can’t quite believe that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series. After decades of being the underdogs and the butt of jokes, the Cubs are bringing home the world championship trophy from Cleveland.

After seven games slugging it out against the Cleveland Indians, with game seven delayed by rain and forced into extra innings, I admit that I was getting poised to repeat that Cubs fan mantra, “Wait ’til next year.” That wistful saying has been part of my life since childhood, and along with it, the disappointment tinged with eternal hope that was the lot of fans who gave their hearts to the north side team.

Over the years, the Cubs’ status as permanent underdog has been blamed on the famous Billy Goat Curse and memorialized in music and theater. Steve Goodman’s song, “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” was a sarcastic lament about the team’s certain failure year after year. It was made poignant only by the fact that Goodman wrote it while suffering from the leukemia which would take his life some years later. Meanwhile, Chicago theater luminary Joe Mantegna conceived a play titled Bleacher Bums about the less than well-mannered behavior of people in the cheap seats at Wrigley Field.

In the past two years, the excitement built for a young team loaded with talent and expertly led by Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. The “W” flags started appearing much more frequently over Wrigley Field and in the windows of Chicago homes. People jumped on the Cubbie bandwagon, and team merchandise popped up in stores all over Chicagoland. “Go Cubs, Go,” a much more hopeful song penned by Steve Goodman, became the unofficial anthem for our beloved baseball team.

I cried when the Cubs won the World Series. I was thinking of my father, a die hard Cubs fan like many of his generation, who never got to see the Cubs win a World Series. My dad took us to games at Wrigley Field, taught us how to fill out the scorecards, bought us Frosty Malts, and took us on marathon marches back to where our car was parked after the game let out. I’d like to think he’s smiling down on his favorite team right now and singing along with fans, “Go Cubs, go. Go Cubs, go. Hey, Chicago, what do you say? The Cubs are gonna win today.”

It may be hard for Cubs fans to adjust to cheering for the winning team. Our status as dejected losers is so ingrained. Oh, well. I guess there’s always the Bears to keep us humble.

 

Stand and Deliver

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I get it, Colin Kaepernick. It’s a free country. You have a First Amendment right to express your disgust with the United States of America by sitting through the national anthem before a football game. But you still should not have done it.

There are many situations in which people are called upon to show respect for another person, a country, a faith tradition, or an ideal. They may not love everything that person or country or religion stands for. They may even hate it. But it is incumbent upon civilized human beings to respect others’ long-standing traditions. (Don’t get me started on the “burkini ban” in France!)

For example, women who visit the Vatican cover their shoulders. Women in many parts of the Middle East, even Western visitors, show respect by covering their heads. Men remove their hats in places such as churches, schools, and work places. In any country, it would be expected for people to stand respectfully while that country’s national anthem is being played. In the U.S., many people also place their hands over their hearts.

It is a simple matter of respect to do so, and fans are justifiably outraged at Kaepernick for his protest statement. Furthermore, if Kaepernick wants to protest racism in America, there are much more meaningful ways to do so. He could join a #BlackLivesMatter protest. He could use his public persona to speak out on issues that he cares about or get fellow NFL players together to lobby Congress for meaningful legislation to combat the inequities he sees.

In an interview, Kaepernick said he thought his move would open up dialogue on the subject of race in America. But all it has done is cause fans to burn his jersey and post outraged memes on Facebook comparing him to Tim Tebow. And as much as I may agree with his belief that racism is a major problem in our society, it’s hard for me to sympathize with a guy making millions of dollars. Maybe if he were using those millions to promote change in society, I would give his protest more credence.

So stand or don’t stand during the “Star Spangled Banner,” Colin. Just don’t be surprised when your fans boo. They are exercising their free speech rights too.

Going for the Gold

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The pomp, the pageantry. The inspirational stories of hardships overcome. The athleticism. The greed, the corruption, the doping, the showcase for dictators and scandal-plagued nations. Such is the state of the modern Olympic Games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is supposedly a non-profit organization that runs the alternating summer and winter competitions every two years. Yet recent investigations have revealed a pattern of corruption and failure to address cheating on the part of Olympic athletes.

For instance, the competition among cities to host the Games has been riddled with payouts and lavish perks for members of the IOC – in short, bribery to get the hosting honors. Currently, investigators are looking at the process used to award Tokyo with the next Summer Olympics venue. Furthermore, the IOC has allowed despotic regimes to host the games in order to rehabilitate their questionable reputations on the world stage. Most recently, this involved looking the other way when rampant doping on the part of Russian athletes should have come to light.

There have been scandals involving judges and broken promises to host cities, whose citizens are usually worse off after holding the games. This year’s Olympics are no exception, with Rio de Janeiro being the dubious choice for an international celebration of peace and excellence. Brazil’s economic woes have only been exacerbated by the expense of building the structures and providing the security necessary for the games to go on. Along with the threat of the Zika virus, the host city has been plagued by political corruption, crime, violence, pollution, and inadequate infrastructure. Not a very charming venue to showcase the world’s best athletes.

The problem with the modern day Olympics is that it has become big money, mostly for corporations, star athletes, government officials, and members of the IOC itself. The revenues generated from ticket sales are nothing compared to the advertising revenue paid to NBC and the endorsements enjoyed by the most famous Olympic athletes. Such money encourages corruption, whether it be bribes to officials or illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes eager to cash in on Olympic glory.

Let’s face it. The so-called goal of “Olympism,” as the IOC refers to it, is world harmony and peace. Instead, countries compete to see how many medals they can rack up for the glory of their own country. (NBC encourages the jingoism by regularly posting the number of medals each country has won.)  As one writer pointed out, a few days after the Sochi Olympics ended, Russian leader Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea. So much for international cooperation.

It also seems a bit strange to have the world’s strongest, fittest athletes being sponsored by Chicken McNuggets. Somehow those Olympic-based ads with their inspirational soundtracks ring hollow against the backdrop of cheating and sheer commercialism. Even Simone Biles’ impressive athleticism and winning smile don’t quite overcome the hypocrisy of the modern Olympic Games.

Some have suggested that a permanent site be built in Greece to host the Summer Olympics every four years. This would eliminate some of the financial burden a city takes on by having to start from scratch building facilities that will go virtually unused after the games move out of town. The IOC wants to build an Olympic museum, and Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, would be the logical location for such a paean to athletic excellence. Revenues from the games could be used to maintain the facilities, and tourist attractions could become part of the draw of the Olympic Village in off years. A similarly iconic location could be chosen for the Winter Games.

I love watching the Olympics. The athletes’ awe-inspiring abilities are given an impressive stage, and it is thrilling to see records broken and hardships overcome. Of course, there are other world athletic competitions out there. But just as with the Oscars telecast, there is nothing quite like the Olympics. The goal of the IOC and the world athletic community should be to return the games to their golden glory, untarnished by scandal and waste.

 

What a Way to Get Your Kicks!

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It’s a blisteringly hot week in Blaine, Minnesota, with temps expected to reach the high 90s. My sister, who has lived in the Minneapolis area for 43 years, told me that this week in July is known historically as being one of the hottest in the area every summer.So naturally, Schwan’s Food Company is hosting its annual USA Cup international youth soccer tournament this week.

Tuesday night, thousands of kids on teams from across the United States, as well as such far flung countries as Argentina, Sweden, and Japan, crowded the stadium to kick off the extravaganza of soccer and sweat.

Now I love my child, but I’ve got to be honest. There are dozens of places I’d rather be than sitting in the blazing hot sun and watching girls run around battling for a soccer ball. In between games, I’ve been going on Facebook and jealously noticing pictures of my friends on family vacations. But for reasons out of my control, my husband and daughter are obsessed with her soccer development. So traveling out of town to tournaments constitutes a vacation in our family.

Today the games were moved up earlier because the mercury is supposed to climb up to 97 degrees. We just beat a team from Iceland, a country with summer average temperatures in the mid-50s. I guess you could say we Midwesterners had a home field advantage, the opposite of the one that the Chicago Bears enjoy when they play Miami at Soldier Field in January.

Okay. I admit it. It was a lot of fun watching my daughter and her team, the Wizards, dominate the field today. Our daughter had some spectacular plays and looked a bit like a sleek thoroughbred filly sprinting down the field. And our defender had an amazing goal from midfield on a foul call. I enjoyed hooting and hollering along with the other Wizard families.

There are worse things than seeing 13- and 14-year-old girls be fierce, athletic, and competitive. They have a great camaraderie and are learning some important life lessons about teamwork, effort, and fair play.

I guess a family vacation revolving around soccer is not so bad. And lucky me. After the tournament is over, we will be staying on to watch our girl on the court in an AAU basketball tournament.

I predict we will have a ball.