Best Laid Plans

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For the past nine days, I have had the privilege and the pleasure to accompany my son and his college football team on a tour of Ireland and Scotland, complete with a visit to the iconic Guinness Storehouse and a friendly game of American football against the Scottish East Kilbride Pirates.

I have nothing but admiration for the logistical and sheep-herding talents of our tour guide, who has been responsible for getting 50 people on and off our motor coach for visits to five different cities on two different islands. We have seen everything from the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher on the southwest coast of Ireland to the awe-inspiring Croke Park, one of the biggest sports arenas in the world, to the charming and ancient city of Edinburgh, Scotland, a city with its very own medieval castle. We have been fed, housed, and otherwise looked after with consummate professionalism and unfailing friendliness.

The ancient lands from which my ancestors descended are some of the loveliest places I have ever seen. The verdant fields dotted with peacefully grazing sheep. The mysterious islands shrouded in fog. The mountains and rocky coastlines. The charming little rural cottages and the Georgian row houses in the big cities. The rivers winding through these tiny countries that formed the lifeblood of commerce and sustenance for the people, as well as made them bombing targets during the World Wars.

We have had the good fortune to learn from our history buff of a tour director so much about the past that has formed the British Isles into what they are today. It was one thing to be somewhat aware of the sectarian violence that has marked many periods in Irish and Scottish history. But it was quite another to see in person the partitions that still separate Catholics from Protestants in Belfast, Northern Ireland – or to witness the Orange marches asserting Protestant dominance in Glasgow, Scotland. Such estrangement reminded me of the political divisiveness in the United States these days and makes me realize that all countries have conflict and strife of one kind or another.

Yet this trip has been a unifying and bonding experience for us. My husband and I have met and gotten to know so many of my son’s teammates and their parents. We have had great fun with their coaches and joined in on their good-natured teasing of each other. Was some of this camaraderie fueled by pints of Guinness? Maybe. But I have been so gratified to know that my son is living and working among good young men with good people as their role models.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” But in the case of this wonderful tour, those plans have been executed flawlessly to create an experience that will give us memories to last a lifetime.

 

In the Scrum

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18157322_1591400950892487_212723468669144388_nLast weekend, I had the opportunity to watch my son and his team compete in the Rugby National Championship in Denver, Colorado. Four top teams from small colleges across the country met to battle it out on the field in a sport that is unfamiliar to most Americans.

Until my son started playing rugby in his senior year of high school, I was unfamiliar with such terms as “line out,” “ruck,” “knock on,” and “scrum.” Fans at his games were mostly mystified by this sport that looks like football but is so different from that iconic American game. Luckily for us, our announcer would explain each referee call and other action so that, slowly but surely, we are learning the ins and outs of a game developed in the UK during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

My son’s success in rugby is not at all a surprise to me. When he was four years old, he told me he wanted to play that game where “all the guys pile on top of each other.” Sure enough, by age 10 he was playing tackle football and enjoyed laying out his opponents from his spot on the defensive line. Total fearlessness made him an excellent defensive tackle. He had the good fortune to be accepted into a great college in California where he continues to play American football and his more recent passion, rugby.

Over the weekend, I was able to see the camaraderie of the young men both on and off the field. And as I watched the odd formation known as the scrum, I saw it as a kind of metaphor for the relationship and purpose of these boys who are quickly becoming men. In the scrum, teammates literally hook themselves together in a unit, bearing down and pushing against a group of opponents, both sides attempting to move and gain possession of the ball. It’s a moment of intensity and even intimacy, as the teammates are joined in a single goal.

The Claremont Colleges Rugby Football team became the National Champions in a resounding victory of 65-0 against the Tufts University Jumbos. Words can’t express how elated my son’s team was at their tremendous feat. During the awards ceremony, they were irrepressible, cheering each other and teasing, clearly a band of brothers. But what meant the most to me was the award my son received: one for being the heart of the team off the field. Knowing that he means this much to his fellow teammates and coaches is to me the most meaningful thing to come out of his rugby experience.

Long after these young men hang up their football and rugby cleats, they will be out in the world working, raising families, and contributing to society. After seeing how they have connected with each other and how they have committed to being the best at something tough, gritty, and fierce, I have no doubt they will do great things. And I am so very grateful that my son is a part of something bigger than himself, something that will serve to make him more selfless, determined, and bonded to others as he continues on his journey to adulthood.

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.