Thursday, February 28, 2013

Naughty Kona

I love my dog. I love him absolutely, unquestionably and adoringly. He was, however, a very bad boy today and I’m going to tattle.

Grandmother Wentworth – most of you know her by now – sent me home on Monday with a wonderful German chocolate cake. My family likes cake but they don’t eat it quickly. They do eat cookies quickly and on a good day would make Napolean’s Ziggy Piggy look down right weak and slow. I digress; we were discussing cake. I share their cake eating speed so that you will know and understand – by Thursday, we still had a large portion of that cake left. It had been sitting on the counter, unharmed and happy. Until today.

I had my teeth cleaned this morning, which left me in a dynamite mood. I’m not joking – I like getting my teeth cleaned almost as much as getting a massage because it feels good and allows me to take a nap during the process. Yes, I am a freak. I share this to let the reader know my day started out on a good note.

After said teeth cleaning, I moseyed on over to Grandmother Wentworth’s house, where we giggled over how sweet Eddie was behaving. He was tuckered out after the hospice nurse’s bath and, much like me when getting my teeth cleaned, somehow managed to sleep through an entire bowl of oatmeal. Grandma would say “Eddie, open your mouth!” and he would open his mouth, eyes still closed, chew up his food and swallow, all with a peaceful curve to his lips.

I left there laughing and content and headed to Houlihans where I had lunch with my favorite cousin Sarah, who I call with deep affection “Baby Saffa”. She used to hate it as a child, when it was said with annoyance, but has accepted that it is a deep and enduring term of endearment now. Say that five times fast. After failing to resist the warm chocolate chip cookie they give you at the end of the meal, I told myself it would still be absolutely acceptable to have a slice of German chocolate cake after I got home. The cookie was, after all, absolutely puny in size.

I should’ve realized there was a problem the minute I opened the door. Kona slipped by me without so much as a lick, and sat down at the end of the driveway. Sideways. With his head held low, peeking at me. Normally, he races out of the door, runs back for licks and pets, runs around the side of the house and does several circles in a spastic show of energy. When I called to him (I’m a little slow on the uptake), he then proceeded to lay down on the driveway, still peeking at me. It was then, as they say, that the light bulb went off.

I didn’t have to wonder WHAT he had eaten. I’m schooled in the art of making sure there is never any bread on the counter. He is partial to carbs. I’m quite accomplished in the art of making sure there is never a bag of chips on the counter. Again, he likes carbs….and oil. Fruit is safe. Canned goods are safe. Boxed goods are safe. Not that he hasn’t tried to eat cereal before, but he’s rather lazy and after finding several boxes on the living room floor with teeth marks in them, we discovered he lacked the intestinal fortitude to do what had to be done to get them open. Kona is very partial to casseroles, we discovered. He once broke my Pampered Chef deep dish baker after somehow pawing it to the end of the counter, and then onto the floor, while we were in the basement watching a movie and letting the turkey tetrazzini cool off before putting it in the fridge. Yes, he exhibited the same “what, I didn’t do anything, I’m just sitting way over here in the corner looking at you out of the corner of my eye” behavior. This time, he continued acting as if he’d done nothing wrong. I thought about giving him the benefit of doubt, even after finding the pan on the kitchen floor licked clean. I was willing to consider that maybe that damn Christmas Elf we paid $30 for at Barnes and Nobel had come back to life and been misbehaving, even after finding a shmear of icing on the living room carpet next to the licked clean piece of tin foil. I was even willing to keep the incident to myself and not involve Brian, who’s OCD truly comes to life when he finds out the dog has been licking our kitchen dishes, until proof positive left me no other choice.

Once I had cleaned up the carpet, the kitchen floor, the kitchen counter, and the cake pan, I invited Kona over for some love….after he felt safe enough to come in from the drive. Seriously, one would think we beat him with a belt or something, as dramatic as he was acting! The invitation involved some gentle talk and assurances that I wouldn’t tell Daddy about this incident if he promised to never do it again. As if!! Then I noticed the “stuff” on his ear. And on his chin. And on his neck. All it took was one smell and I knew there was no way I could protect the poor little puppers. He’d been caught red handed with his proverbial paw in the cookie jar. Sorry Kona, there is no mistaking the smell of coconut. My beautiful black goldendoodle had somehow managed to flip pieces of icing all around his furry face and I’m still finding stray gooey slivers of coconut in his beard. He’s always been a messy eater, sigh.

I could try to wash it off, but it smells pretty good. Brian has a nose like a bloodhound and there’s no way Kona is going to be able to get out of this one. That’s okay, though. He can keep snacking on coconut icing in lieu of dinner. Little shit.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Three Marys

Life is weird. Yes, I know I’m preaching to the choir. How we start, the path of our journey, and where we end up, though, is often a fascinating study in human behavior. I’ve been given recent reason to ponder the issue of paternity and to reflect upon my own amazing story. Since this blog is my release and my therapy, I’m going to share.

A man named Gary was my biological father. At least that is what my birth certificate reflects. He is my older brother’s father, after all, and we shared the same last name of Lindsly. He and my mother were divorced, but he faithfully fulfilled his obligations to my brother by paying child support and taking advantage of visitation when able. I remember vividly watching out the door of our apartment when he pulled up to get my brother. I recall running up to him, wrapping my arms around his leg, and feeling him kick me aside without a word. I don’t share this for pity, rather, but to paint a picture of a girl who was told this was her father and that he didn’t want her.

It never made sense, but then again, I chose not to question it either. When, at the age of six, my maternal grandparents physically removed me from my mother’s home, my brother went to live with his father. With that one act, the course of my life was set. My future and my emotional health were guaranteed to be secure and blessed; not a day goes by that I do not thank God/Allah/Jesus/Buddha…..whatever name the ultimate spiritual power prefers……….for saving me and keeping Gary from claiming me as his own.

There were teenage years of confusion, when I could become angry and emotional, wondering “why he didn’t want me”. One time, in a fit of rage after hearing my brother rail on his treatment at the hands of his father, I tracked down Gary’s phone number in Wichita and called him. The conversation went something like this:

“This is Marlys. You may not claim me or take responsibility for me, but your son is hurting and needs you”, said this passionate 16 year old girl.

Gary’s response, I recall, went along these lines: “Um, yes, okay, well, thank you for the call. I’ll talk to him.“

I remember a number of throat clearings as well and I’ve never been hung up on so quickly in my life. I was panting, shaking, crying, and utterly terrified yet exhilarated at the same time. I felt, in my heart, that I had finally let him know, in no uncertain terms, that I KNEW he had shunned and denied me.

I will admit, in hindsight, to some emotional scarring but feel compelled , for the record, to state that I would’ve been a much bigger mess as a teenager and college student had it not been for the love and support of my Grandparents. My mantra has always been “I didn’t need him! Delbert was my real father!” It was if any admission of pain or humiliation would somehow be an indictment of the care provided by my grandparents. Never, in an eternity, would I have wanted them to think they hadn’t done enough or been enough for me.

My personal journey would lead to a strong marriage and two beautiful children. It was then, almost two decades after the above mentioned phone call, that it occurred to me I might want some more information on the man who provided my DNA. So began the questions. It didn’t take long to get answers and, I must say, I was quite taken aback at how quickly they came. Sitting at my Aunt Steph’s kitchen table, I brought up the issue in front of her, Aunt Debbie, Aunt Becky, and my Grandmother Mary Jean, who must have been appalled. I’m ashamed to admit that it never occurred to me my questions could hurt or embarrass her. I wanted answers, damnit, and I was going to get them. It does occur to me now, while writing this, that the details COULD hurt my mother. As such, I think I’ll be brief and simply say that by the end of the conversation I knew where my search needed to begin. With Ed and Mary Wentworth, whose son Ray was the number one suspect.

Ed and Mary, I discovered, were still living in the same home they had owned in 1969, the year I was born. I attended their church one Sunday in 2007, on the arm of my Grandfather Delbert, who had lovingly offered to go with me on this quest for answers. Our families had been friends, you see; my grandparents were active members of the First Baptist Church of Overland Park back in the 60’s and early 70’s. Ed and Mary were members of this church as well. I couldn’t have scripted it better. Ed and Mary were there that Sunday. They were thrilled to see their old friend Delbert. When he introduced us, I was overcome with impulse and while shaking Mary’s hand blurted out “I’ve been thinking about your family and wondered if I could call you some time.” Mary held my hand tightly, looked me straight in the eye, and said very calmly “I would love it if you called me. Here is my number!”.

My stomach was in knots. It took me until Thursday of the following week, and continued gentle but loving urging at the hands of a very special cousin named Sarah, to finally have the guts to pick up the phone and dial. I said “Hi Mary, this is Marlys. I’m not sure how to say this, but I have a feeling you might know why I’m calling.”. She replied quickly “Oh, I think I might have an idea”. I launched into a prepared speech, but was blown away when she said kindly, and with a smile in her voice, “we always thought you might be ours.” She offered to call Ray and ask him to submit to a blood test as confirmation. For those who know me well, I can say with my own smile, “the rest is history.”

There were a few more stories along the way, like a trip to the lab to submit blood for the DNA test. I had both of our kids with me. Marah was maybe six at the time and Brody was three. When the technician came into the waiting room, she looked at them and said “which child are we testing today?” I was apoplectic, practically yelling to the entire waiting room “it’s ME we are testing, uh hm, family secrets, you know?” The first time I spoke with my biological father was to ask him to please quit dragging his feet and get to the lab. He was easy to talk to and told me he didn’t think we needed a DNA test because he had always wondered as well. As an aside, I discovered during this first phone call that my father is a passionate WWII enthusiast. Can you say DNA?

Speaking of my father, you are probably thinking “what is the story there?” The story is simple: he was a freshman at KSU and my mother was in the middle of a divorce. 1969 was a time when out of wedlock pregnancies were still an embarrassment and she chose to protect Ray, their families, and her honor. He did what any normal 18 year old college boy would do: uttered a massive sigh of relief and went on with his life.

All of this brings me to today, roughly six years after discovering my true paternity. I have three new half siblings, all of whom are amazing and unique in their own right. I have a five year old nephew, eight cousins (all of whom I’ve met, with the exception of one), two aunts, and a grandmother and grandfather I’ve grown to love deeply.

Sometimes, these things don’t work out, which would indicate the connection I’ve made with my Grandmother Mary is an amazing one. The irony….or beauty, if you will….. of her name being the same as the grandmother who raised this child is not lost on me. It is my first name as well. In all honesty , however, there are still moments of doubt when it comes to where I fit in. You see, there are benefits and costs to every decision we make. The benefit, for me, was always Delbert and Mary Jean. The costs, well, those are harder to gauge. Gary Lindsly, whose name I legally carried for almost 27 years until I married and became a Shulda, is lacking as a man as far as I’m concerned. Was he my father? No. Did he treat an innocent little girl badly? Absolutely. My father Ray missed out on raising a daughter, but he, like my mother, didn’t always make the best decisions while raising his three kids. My sister Catherine has told me more than once that she really could’ve used an older sister and that it wasn’t easy for her and the other two, being raised in Houston after Ray and their mom divorced. There is also a little resentment by some members in the family, although every single one of them has been openly kind and accepting. Yes, I can feel and understand it; I sailed into the family late in life, embraced as a blessing, having already expunged my demons and having the benefit of age and wisdom. Ed has debilitating dementia and is bed-ridden now following hip surgery. He has never known me, nor I him, although I help provide the most rudimentary and personal care for him. It is the least I can do, having missed out on almost 40 years. It is also an amazing and touching opportunity to bond with Mary, whose name I share and whose personality I believe, in many ways, has helped me connect the dots of who I am. She is as passionate about her alma mater, KSU, as I am about my own (KU, which is, ironically, KSU's arch rival). We can talk for hours about college sports. She is also helping me purge some of the angry demons I carry with regard to religion and the Baptist church. Ed served in WWII in India and Burma and I am deeply saddened that he was already in the midst of this evil disease when we met, leaving me unable to interview him. Fortunately, one of my new cousins took advantage of his memory while it was still intact, and the stories are preserved. Another absolutely amazing thing about Mary are her Christmas letters, faithfully penned every year since 1960. There can be no better gift for a long lost grandchild than an annual recap of family events over the past fifty decades!!

None of us possesses a crystal ball. There was no way for my mother or Ray to know the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t matter, however. He wasn’t ready to be a father. She was confused and trying to do the best she could at the time. I needed Delbert and Mary Jean to be my parents, and I believe this with every fiber of my being. Now, when I’m in the best position possible to be there for Ed and for Mary, the circle of life has brought me into their fold. They have helped me as well, coming into my life shortly before Grandmother Mary Jean passed away. Her death would leave me broken, grieving, and desperate for comfort. Mary Wentworth, unknowingly, was able to seemlessy slide into the role of Grandmother, bringing me that very comfort.....worthy of Mary Jean herself. I’ve never been a believer that God “makes” things happen. That would infer that this powerful spirit has a chess board and manipulates the pieces. I believe life is simple. It’s made up of humans. And we are flawed. And we do the best we can, within our own capabilities at the time.

I guess my summary of the entire flow of events is pretty simple in the end. Sometimes, on occasion, life throws a wrench into our journey. Later, hopefully, the kinks work themselves out. I like to think of myself as a kink who has finally, after many years, begun to work itself out. Thanks to the help of two amazing, beautiful, and unique Marys.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I Think I Might be a Hoarder

Hoarding: acquiring and failing to throw out a large number of items that would appear to have little or no value to others (e.g., papers, notes, flyers, newspapers, clothes).

I think I may be a hoarder. Of KU memorabilia. I once bought an old KU fraternity mug because it was dated 1952, the year we won our first NCAA National Championship. Yes, I said “we”. The mug is engraved with the name “Ronnie”, and as long as I keep it turned a certain way, I can pretend like it has Phog Allen’s name on it. I have Roy Williams’ autograph on a golf bag he used. I also have his autograph in a book......and on a ticket stub.....and on a poster (with George Brett’s autograph....and Marty Schottenheimer’s, both of which are simply incidental because I could care less about them). I have Bill Self’s autograph too. In a framed National Championship compilation that required me swearing it would be my birthday/Christmas/Anniversary/Valentines Day gift for the next three years in order to purchase it. I also have that wonderful autograph on a piece of paper, on a KC Star article from his first Late Night at KU (along with Danny Manning’s and J.R. Giddens’), in a book, in another book, on a, on two other, I mean three other basketballs, on a roster......Seriously, one cannot have too many signatures from their favorite coach, can they? Speaking of coaches, since we’re on that subject, I also have Larry Brown’s autograph. On a piece of paper. And on a photo....that includes Bill Self’s autograph....that includes a photo of me....between Bill Self and Larry Brown.

You see, this is what makes me wonder if I might have a problem. Not that I have the autographs but, rather, that I can’t get rid of them, even when I have multiple of the same person. Any of them. Not even for charity events. Not even to bring joy to a friend.

I hoard KU stuff. I have Wilt Chamberlain’s autograph on my wall, which is just down the way from that of JoJo White, Paul Pierce, and a personally signed roster from Sherron Collins that I received for my 40th birthday. Sherron even wrote “Happy Birthday”. I have a limited collection of autographed Sports Illustrated magazines, including “Mario’s Miracle” from 2008 and the famous “Danny Boy” from 1988, which took me damn near 25 years of stalking to obtain (which probably explains the gracious "go KU" he added after I TOLD him I'd been stalking him; no, I don't have a filter). Sometimes I lose sleep at night because I didn’t get Marcus Morris’s ink on a 2011 Sports Illustrated or Todd Reesing’s on his SI cover in 2007. It could be decades before KU is on the cover of Sports Illustrated again for football. This causes me angst! I read an online article once that praised Allen Fieldhouse. It was from 1978. Yes, I found a copy. Yes, it is framed and on the woman cave wall now. What can I say, it was a really cool article (which is why I’ve included the link; your are welcome)! I have a College SI edition signed by Sherron and that same signature on a “Get It On With Sherron” t-shirt. You see, I really loved Sherron. My favorite from last year is the KU Sports “The Hustle & The Muscle” issue with Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson gracing the cover. Yes, both have signed it. I’ve got individual photos, signed by Cole Aldrich and Wayne Simien and have even started this insanity with my daughter, who is in a photo with Brandon Rush. Yes, it’s signed “To Marah, Brandon Rush”.

There are large, professionally framed pictures as well. My favorite is, of course, a limited edition print done in 1988, with Danny Manning gracing the foreground. Chris Piper, Milt Newton, Kevin Pritchard, Dave Seiger, Harvey Grant and Stacey King are surrounding him....Danny and the Miracles tackling the Giant Sooners in an epic battle that will go down in history as one of the most amazing Cinderella stories in NCAA lore. In the background, Larry Brown is adjusting his glasses and young Ryan is watching the game passionately in his wheelchair. I covet this print. Sometimes, I just stand and stare at it, remembering the intensity and speed of that amazing game. This must’ve been when the obsession began. I hoarded newspaper articles that entire year and still possess a huge scrapbook containing them, along with various signs and notes that were placed on our dorm room entrance that season.

The hoarding isn’t limited to framed prints and signed basketballs. I have boom sticks still in their wrappers from a past Late Night. I have a stack of “Senior Night” cups from 2008 and woe be the person who might try to take a single one of them. I find random ticket stubs in books....including stubs from not just Allen Fieldhouse or the Sprint Center, but from Kemper Arena and Bramlage Coliseum. Speaking of Bramlage, my second favorite print is from 1986 and honors KU’s Final Four team that year. In the picture, we are playing KSU, with Cedric Hunter bringing up the ball, Manning and Calvin Thompson on the right, Ron Kellogg on the left, and Greg Dreiling bringing up the rear. I like to stare at that one too. Don’t judge, lest you’ve walked in my shoes! Shadow boxes hold tickets and programs from the 2003 National Championship, the 2008 Orange Bowl, and the 2008 National Championship. It took some slick work to obtain permission from my husband to attend all of them, including promises I’m not allowed to publicly disclose. There are also tickets from an Elite Eight in Madison and another in St. Louis. A program from a tournament in Vegas.....and a huge KU flag, hustled from a bar owner in San Antonio.

My hoarding doesn’t only apply to recent events. I happen to like antiques as well and take great pride in a special 78 rpm record set, titled “Songs of KU”. It helps that we actually have a Victrola and can play them. I have collected a handful of postcards from the early 1900’s of campus buildings and framed them. I once purchased a 1945 KU year book because it was the same year Germany and Japan surrendered. You see, this was an opportunity to blend my two biggest passions: KU and WWII history. It didn’t end there, and I was soon compelled to buy a 1946 edition because it was my Grandfather’s first year at KU……on the GI Bill….an additional WWII connection. Aunt Steph, who attended KU, was born in 1947, so she got her own KU year book from that year. I have a small booklet from the 1952 Olympic games in Helsinki, Finland, when Phog Allen coached the USA basketball team. There were seven, yes, SEVEN, members of that team who came from the University of Kansas, including Bill Houghland and Clyde Lovellette. In the interest of historical accuracy, I feel the need to assure the reader that we triumphed over the Soviets and won the Gold. Speaking of small booklets, I have two “K” books. These were small booklets handed out to students in the 1920's and 1930’s and they included random pertinent information, including but not limited to the school song and the “I’m a Jayhawk” song. I must truly love my Jayhawk buddy Barb, because I gave her one of the three I had purchased as a gift. Sometimes I miss that small book.

Speaking of books, did I say I have two passions? Actually, I failed to mention a third: books. I stumble upon books I forgot I bought, about KU basketball history and KU Final Four teams. Max’s autobiography is signed “To Marlys: Rock Chalk, Max Faulkenstein”. Jerod Haase’s book is signed “To Marlys: Merry Christmas, Jerod Haase”. Roy signed the introduction. I also found Lester Earl’s autograph (yes, historians, he was a bust), T.J. Pugh’s, and some player named Jelani Janisse’s. I had to google this guy, because I couldn’t recall who in the hell he was. He played at KU briefly and is now famous in the world of Slamball. Who knew? I have "Beware of the Phog: 50 Years of Allen Fieldhouse" in a limited, leather bound edition, signed by Bill Houghland. Although that one is special to me, the paper back “Against All Odds” by the Lawrence Journal World holds most of my prized autographs. This book contains Self’s autograph (again), Dean Smith’s, Ted Owens’, Clyde Lovellette’s, Bud Stallworth’s, Max Faulkenstein’s (eh, hm, again), most of the 1988 Championship team, including Danny (again), Milt Newton, and even Coach Ed Manning. There is one very special autograph, though, that caught Max’s eye when he signed the book. It belongs to Ted O’Leary of the 1932 Jayhawks. Less than four years after he signed the book ( which was on November 30, 1997….I know, because in his shaky handwriting he had added the date), he passed away. To lose this book would, simply put, break my heart.

Where in God’s name, you ask, do I obtain these items? It varies. My oldest KU friend in the world is Kris-Ann, a soul who "gets" my obsession and was there with me during our early '90s Final Four runs, several National Championships, and when sweet Ted O'Leary signed The Book. Kris-Ann has provided several of my most prized possessions (including the 1988 print and Roy's autographed golf bag). Barb has also been a benefactress. Almost every single one of the autographs has been obtained in person. Some of them have been purchased online or through sports dealers. If I attend a charity event, I can become downright relentless. Once, when bidding on a particular KU item, I hissed at the woman hovering (this was a silent auction) “you might as well walk away because I WILL have this.” She looked, to say the least, horrified at my aggression but wisely walked away. At last year’s Rock Chalk Ball with Barb, we bid together on a signed pair of boxing gloves worn by Victor Ortiz . We planned to split the gloves to help spread the cost. Why did we want this particular boxer’s gloves? Because he is a passionate KU fan. My half of the pair now sits in front of a brightly covered photo of Victor boxing….in a pair of shorts that sport the Jayhawk. I’ve inherited a few things from my grandfather, like his 1940’s crimson and blue brimmed beanie hat with a “K” on the front. I wore this to the 2008 Orange Bowl, prompting a few queries of “what the heck is that hat?” My response, which proved to be true, was alway “why, it's good luck.” On rare occasions, such as last weekend in Junction City, I just randomly stumble upon items. I had gone to visit my grandfather and Aunt Becky took me antique shopping. I noticed some old magazines in a store and included in the pile, for a whopping $10, was a 1984 program from the NCAA Final Four. It didn't matter that KU wasn’t one of the Final Four teams because, with complete and utter joy, I discovered a two page spread in the program honoring the high school McDonald’s All-Americans from that year. Danny Manning was one of them. I guess I’m going to need his autograph again.

Back to the original question: Am I a hoarder? Probably. Do I care? Maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe the question needs to be, do I want help for my problem? I guess I’m just not there yet. Maybe rock bottom would be cashing in our children’s college funds in order to attend a game. Don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind……but I’m fairly certain my priorities are still safe. You see, there is a limit. I could’ve purchased a book from Phog Allen’s personal library, including HIS autograph in the cover. The price was too high. As a side note, I had the opportunity to tour Bill Self’s office once and observed a publication signed by Phog Allen; shortly thereafter, I mentioned to assistant Coach Dooley that he might want to double check that the book was still there after I exited, as I wasn’t certain I could control myself. He looked amused, but I knew in my heart that, sadly, I wasn’t joking…..I was considering how good my odds were at getting out of the building with that book. A 1952 NCAA Championship ring showed up in a pawn shop in Lawrence recently (don’t ask me how I know, just trust me on this) but the price would’ve resulted in me having to sell my van. Too high. A few friends secretly monitor the addiction, and certainly my spouse has a vested interest in observing when any new frames go up in the “woman cave”. He’s a pretty good sport about it. I take that back: he’s an amazing and unbelievable sport about it.

At the end of the day, my love of KU memorabilia and of the school itself can be summed up in these lyrics from an old Barbara Mandrel song: “If lovin’ you is wrong, I don’t want to be right”. I love my KU hoard and I’m keeping it. But, just in case, if you know the name and number of any good hoarding addiction therapists, send me a private message. I’ll tuck it away in case I ever make it back into Bill Self’s office. The Judge might go light on me if he knows I’m in therapy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

English Woman

If you live in Kansas and pay attention to politics, then you may have noticed the struggle going on between the conservative House of Representatives and the Kansas teacher's union. Sadly, the true value of teachers is being missed in the fight.

There is a well known adage: "if you can read this, thank a teacher." When looking back, I would bet most folks can recall at least one teacher who made an impact. Personally, I've never had to stop to wonder who that teacher was. She has held top honors from the first day I walked into her English classroom.

I like to read. Actually, I love to read. There have been nights when I couldn't stop reading, looking at the clock as it moved from midnight to two o'clock, telling my self "just one more chapter and then I've GOT to stop". Then, bleary eyed, glancing at the time and deciding "to hell with it, I'm just going to finish this", because morning had arrived.

In college, a self-imposed exile from reading for pleasure became vital because I simply lacked the self control to complete assignments if under the spell of a good novel. As a professional, it was necessary to quit bringing books to work because I'd start reading during a break and struggle to put the words away, long after time had been stolen from my employer. During one such episode, I was deeply ashamed when the Director himself caught me red-handed buried in a book. He shared, blessedly, that he too was a reader.

I became an expert at feeding the addiction while getting ready in the morning. I would simply sit on the bathroom floor and hold the book open with both feet while blow drying my hair. To this day I can still turn pages with my toes. This skill came in handy when nursing both of our children during those times when it was necessary to pump. Probably more information than the reader desires, but it is a shining example of the depths to which a person will go when the tight grip of Ludlum or Higgins has taken hold.

There was even a period when yours truly would use every available moment at stoplights in order to get just one or two more paragraphs completed. Being honked at still hits me like a jolt of electricity. A good book, to me, feels like a marathon that has to be completed in world record time. By reading so quickly, I most likely miss some of the enjoyment that could be gained from letting the words marinate and simmer as I read them, but then there would be no excuse to read the same book twice.

I was five years old when my grandmother started the ritual of reading to me before bedtime, a tradition carried over to my own children. To this day, I have the Little House on the Prairie set that she started me on in 1975. A true appreciation for words would not come until my freshman year of high school, when I met the One.

She was The One teacher who would open the door to English. Her name was Carla Petersen and she never stayed at a school for very long. Miss Petersen arrived at my high school in 1981, and most of us didn't know what to make of her. Carla's physical appearance was the first thing her students would notice and, for me, the first thing I would forget once the teaching began. She was short with a solid torso as round as a medicine ball and legs of solid muscle. Her nose was pert and round, her hair short and wild and curly. Carla's figure was deceiving, as we found out once basketball season began. She would assist our team that year, and I had never seen a grown woman move as fast as Miss Petersen when she got down low to demonstrate a defensive stance. Our English class saw her move that quickly on another occasion, when her passionate temper roared at a desrespectful student. Carla's eyes could burn with intensity or crinkle in humor, but her commitment and devotion to teaching the English language was never, ever, in doubt.

Was she Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society"? Of course not, but that movie was fiction and we were a 1a Kansas high school, not an elite prep school. In my mind, could she have been? Absolutely. Miss Petersen introduced us to Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and yes, My Captain, Dylan Thomas. I recall sensing that within Beowulf there had to be something deep and intellectual because SHE was teaching it. As homage to those introductions, the very textbook she used still claims a spot on my bookshelf.

I was a summer custodian for our school between the 11th and 12th grades and couldn't deny the compulsion to keep that worn, frayed, and soon to be retired text book forever, to remember the VHS's she brought in so that we could see the words and fervor the actors displayed as they attempted to do justice to those timeless pieces of work.

Was Carla a good English teacher? Hell yes. She taught us the rules and regulations of grammar but she also taught us that literature is a universe of ideas and stories that not only add to the fabric of everything around us, it is the fabric of our history. This ability is not what made her a great teacher, though. The thing that made her elite, and the quality within all of those who carry the distinction of "having made a difference", is that she paid attention to what was going on in the personal and sometimes hidden world of her young students.

A participant in just about every activity offered in school, I was good at most of those things and liked by almost all of my peers. The perjorative, in my mind, would be "popular" (why does that word make me think immediately of Kristin Chenowith?). Being liked and active didn't prevent doubts and insecurities from assailing me on a personal level, trauma carried from very early formative years, unrecognized but prevalent nontheless. Carla saw pieces of this and found a way to push her student while providing a supportive and caring base. Not only would this teacher not leave our school in one or two years, as was her pattern, she gave us the greatest gift of all by waiting until we graduated and had reaped the full benefit of a solid four years under her tutelage.

High school was easy for me until the final year, when low self-esteem and poor choices began to manifest themselves in questionable behavior. When looking back, most of what I remember is the drama and struggles that were internal and not apparent to others who were most likely fighting their own battles. By May of 1987, the last month of school, I was drowning under the weight of low self-esteem, poor choices and borderline destructive behavior.

Just before graduation, however, Carla Petersen presented me with a hand-made scrapbook (long before the scrapbooking rage would enslave American mothers). In it, she listed every accomplishment I had achieved during the previous school year. How did she know that I needed this? Something that said "you have done wonderful things and you will go on to do even more amazing things"? This incredible teacher had cut clippings from local papers all year long, highlighted my name in them, and written in the margins details from Student Council events, Homecomings, and fund raisers. At the end, she wrote a personal note, stating that her admiration and respect belonged to me. I still have that scrapbook, Carla.

For this student you were the One. Because of you, I received A's in nearly every college English course and tackling the likes of Dreiser and Chestnutt were far from intimidating. Because of you, one of the most important experiences in my professional career was a program called "Changing Lives Through Literature" and through that I was blessed with the friendship of two amazing librarians. This reading program provided an outlet for struggling young boys and girls, in the grip of the criminal justice system, who needed a way to talk about their own lives by using surrogate fictional characters. Because of the memories you preserved from the year I was Student Council President, I was gifted a reminder of why maybe, just maybe, I could be a decent State Representative. How could you have known that 25 years later your student would need that scrapbook to tackle one of the biggest challenges of her life? You didn't, but you had faith in me because you paid attention and because you cared. I write all of this to honor you, Miss Petersen, and to thank you for being the One who made a difference.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why I love Basketball

Something powerful happened to me yesterday. Midway through reading Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season”, I painfully watched the Kansas Jayhawks suffer the most embarrassing and humiliating loss in many decades. In fact, the most stunning loss most fans can ever remember. Since the final buzzer of that game, my mind has been a torrential downpour of memories, reminding me of my own losing seasons and of the reason last night’s loss and Conroy’s book seem to be screaming “you know this Marlys, you’ve been there”.

There must be a hidden string that binds those of us who played high school basketball. Not one that can be seen, or even recognized, but that nonetheless waits in the dark recesses of our minds, letting us feel its presence on just such an occasion as last night. Why else do rote statements come out of my mouth from nowhere, prompting confused looks from family members and friends? Why else do I find myself experiencing smells that I can’t quite identify, until much later in the night while lying awake, pondering the various things that went wrong in the game? Why else do I hear the chirping of rubber on wood while finally nodding off to sleep?

I wasn’t a great basketball player. Growing up in a small, rural town of 500, you didn’t have to be. Even so, I consider all of us who played part of the brotherhood/sisterhood, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

During my senior year, 1987, our high school managed to field a small girl’s team, consisting of seven. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why I still cry every time “Hoosiers” comes on. Talk about underdog: we didn’t win a single game that entire year. There were two seniors, one junior, one sophomore, and three freshman. Our coach was a young teacher, who picked up extra money by agreeing to coach the team. She was athletic and looked like a million bucks in those skin tight game day skirts and stilettos (think court room attire of Glenn Close in Jagged Edge), but had no interest in us as individuals or in doing anything more than running practices and getting through the season. In hindsight, I don’t blame her. At that time, many young rural teachers used these small schools as a stepping stone, getting their feet wet before moving on to bigger and better things. Coaching wasn’t something I think had ever been on our her agenda, but someone had to do it and she stepped up to the plate.

Nothing specific that year remains in my memory, other than the feeling of dismal acceptance that the season would amount to nothing, and that three of the underclassmen were pretty good little players who might be able to have later success if incoming classes could provide more girls. How do you practice with only seven athletes? Good question. I don’t recall. We certainly never had full blown scrimmages, and without an assistant, our coach could only provide one additional body.

In spite of that sad season, my memories of high school basketball are completely removed from the actual games or poor play. Rather, it’s the feeling of importance I felt each time we took to the court. No one came to watch the girls play, much less a losing girl’s team, but it was fun. Losing isn’t fun, but playing basketball was. It was the totality of the experience and unless you did it, well, I think it’s hard to explain.

It is those smells and sounds that stay with me as if it was just yesterday. Our small high school was next door to a three story, red brick elementary school, designed in the old early 1900’s style. My own grandmother attended the same school, at a time when their girls basketball team wore skirts and only played a half court game. A sidewalk connected the two buildings with a metal roof providing the only cover. We called it the breezeway and running through it provided a rush of adrenaline each time we crossed into the old building for the next stage of practice. Regardless of the weather, fresh air was a reprieve from suicides before we hit the stairs. Did I hate stairs? At the time, I thought so. I now recall with longing the stillness they provided, when the only sounds heard entailed the heavy breathing of teen-aged girls and the squeaks of our high tops. There was a nice rhythm to the activity, one that involved painfully going up stairs….then the flow of running along the hall to the other end…..the measured movement down steps, paying close attention so you didn’t trip and fall, only to breathe a sigh as another hallway flow opened up. I know that during those runs, my mind strayed, as I pondered the drama and life changing events going on in my young life. To this day, I can often work out problems if I simply strap on tennis shoes and hit the pavement. I wouldn’t realize this until now, but those stairs were my therapy, that old brick building my therapist.

I would later marry a man who loves hockey, and he would provide a frank introduction to truly eye watering stinky gear. If I am to be 100% honest, though, a part of me really does miss the ripeness of practice gear as we pulled it on every day after and sometimes before school. It was evidence of our efforts, of our sweat and pain, evidence that we were doing something good for our bodies and that even as we lost game after game, we were still athletes and special. For me personally, the rush I felt at the end of practice could only be obtained by plowing through the effort itself and I wanted that rush. I miss that rush.

There was a swinging door between the actual locker room door and the small locker room itself, which acted as a privacy barrier for the girls in case others were standing outside the door (translation: the boy’s locker room was directly adjacent; what teenaged male wouldn’t take advantage of that opportunity?). The locker room in my mind seemed roomy, but I recently visited the school for the first time in over 25 years, and it was like stepping back in time. Nothing had changed, only the locker room was now smaller than my current master bedroom. When had it shrunk?

The ’87 team wasn’t the only team of seven I played on during those high school years. My favorite team was that of my sophomore year. Two juniors, three sophomores, and two freshman would play our hearts out that season. Whereas my senior team had no unity, this group of girls was a team in the truest sense. We had a leader, a junior who took shots when no one else would. We had a coach who was limited in knowledge (I’m not sure to this day that he ever actually played basketball) but who took an interest in us and who tried to make it fun. We even had an assistant coach, a wonderful teacher named Linda who has entered my life all these years later thanks to the technology of Face Book. We were lacking numbers, we were young, we were limited in skill, and we lost almost every game, but there was something special about us. While writing this, my memory remained vague until I pulled out a dusty year book and saw a photo from the end of season awards banquet. There was not just one “Most Inspirational Player” that year. Our coaches named each one of the seven “Most Inspirational”. This was before the social trend of giving every player a medal. We were a special team and I can’t recall the number of losses as much as I recall simply playing.

That must be the difference between playing on a true team as opposed to playing in a group while loving the game but feeling alone in the process. I enjoyed basketball my senior year and remember all of those smells and sounds, but not any specific game. The cameraderie of that ’85 team, though, goes deeper, and those are the best and clearest memories that tumble back. Our leader, Shelley, taking a jump shot from the outside in perfect form; Gaylene, using her length to make up for being all bones; Kim, solid as a rock down low once she boxed out for a rebound; myself, loving the feel of bringing the ball up the court and seeing the offense prepare for the first pass; Jamye, Denise, and Gina…all providing whatever was needed. We may not have won, but we were a team.

This is what I recall with deep fondness and joy. This is why Conroy’s book speaks so loudly to me and why KU’s loss last night hurt so deeply. I’ve played as part of a Team and I’ve played on a team. KU, a school that carries the key to my heart, looked like a team last night. This loss has brought long buried memories back in bittersweet waves. For that, I thank them and I thank my Team. We were special that sophomore year, even without wins. Isn’t that what really matters?