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A Story About Basketball

Back in the early ’90s I really got into basketball.

I was terrible at it. But I loved it.

Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls captured my imagination and pulled me in. I became a fanboy. For awhile there as a kid, I lived and breathed basketball, the NBA, the Bulls, and to a smaller extent, the Minnesota Timberwolves. They were a new team, and pretty terrible. So watching the Bulls was more my speed. It was fun to watch a team that could win. Plus, the head coach was a North Dakota boy, and Jordan, the biggest superstar in the league, played in Chicago.

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Eighth grade: heckuva mullet, kid! And check out that shirt. Da Bulls!

I watched all those greats: Jordan, Pippen, Magic, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley. I watched every game I could. The NBA on TNT network seemed to be a nightly routine. I would scour the TV listings, the printed listings in the Thursday newspaper, for anything that had to do with professional basketball: NBA on NBC, NBA Inside Stuff, special documentaries on cable. I watched Jordan lead the Bulls to their trilogy or “three-peat” of wins. I’ve still got one or two of those championship games on VHS somewhere in my stuff. I collected trading cards — mainly three brands: Fleer, Skybox, and Upper Deck. Now and then I’d get a pack or two of NBA Hoops. I still have them all. I wore Michael Jordan shirts, Chicago Bulls apparel, and the only shoes I would want to wear were Nike basketball shoes. I pestered my mother into getting me a limited edition basketball from a Pizza Hut promotion.

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That pendant ain’t no bull, yo.

I was borderline obsessed with the NBA and my family seemed to know it. My sister Wendy found a piece of jewelry in the shape of a bull’s head and painted it to look like a Chicago Bull, just as a gift for me.

Oh, and I played basketball in school.

I was not good. I was also short, measuring in at 5’4″. My nickname was Shorty. I wasn’t great at remembering and running plays. My shooting was off the charts, but in the wrong direction. Apparently I was too aggressive as well. During one game, after the referee called my third foul, he told me I should try football or wrestling and use that aggression to my advantage. I didn’t.

There were three school years in which I played. Fifth, sixth, and eighth grades. I don’t know why I didn’t play seventh grade ball. Maybe I took a year off to work on my layup. I’m joking, of course. I couldn’t really work on anything on my own at home. Our living situation was never one that could have accommodated a basketball hoop at home, though I would have loved one.

In fifth and sixth grades I played on my elementary school team. The Roosevelt Raiders played against the kids in the same grade from the other elementary schools in town. I was so excited to be on a team. My only disappointment going in was that we played in red tie-on bibs, instead of numbered jerseys. But I got over that. In those two years, I scored two points. Two. One layup. I don’t even remember it. I just remember the mere fact that it happened. In those two years, our team won one game. One. It was against the Washington Warriors. And they were quite embarrassed by that loss. There was a kid in our school that mockingly said earlier in the season that if we actually won a game she’d buy the team pizza. She never paid up. Because she never expected us to actually win a single game. When we did, all bets were off.

I went out for the team again in eighth grade. Of course the only reason I was on a team at all was because it wasn’t a try-out based system. It was inclusive. Anyone who wanted to play could. Again, I was terrible. But I was so into it. And I finally had a jersey with a number. It was a reversible jersey that could be either white or blue, and I was assigned number 24. But I remind you. I was not good. I touted myself as being a mainly defensive player. This is what I told myself when my teammates would rarely pass to me, or when I’d miss every shot I took. At times, I would see my coach put his face in his hands. I knew I was frustrating the hell out of that guy.

Not pictured: any mention of Shorty. Let’s forget this happened, guys.

I’m not even in the junior high yearbook’s team photo, or mentioned as “not pictured.” To this day, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why I didn’t know about it. It’s as if I didn’t exist on that team. Did I miss the memo? Did they not tell me on purpose because I was so bad they didn’t want to remember me on the team? Those were the questions I asked myself as a kid. And a few times when I signed a friend’s yearbook, I’d go to my team’s photo and write my name in as “not pictured.”

But I had heart, man. I took it seriously. All those inspirational Gatorade commercials in grainy black & white in which the athletes talk about perseverance, determination, and hard work with dramatic underscore… Those got to me. I remember telling my mother resolutely, “Some day I’m going to play for the Bulls and I’m going to make a million bucks.” Bless her heart, she didn’t discourage me. She kindly and lovingly said, “I hope you do!”

My basketball career culminated with the final game of my eighth grade year. I didn’t play much that game, but the coach must have felt obligated to put me in now and then. He put me back in during the fourth quarter. I don’t remember the score or even whether we won that game. I just remember, so clearly even to this day —

My team was on offense. There was a defender on me. He wasn’t great. But neither was I. I was at the top right-hand corner of the key. I broke away from my guy toward the side line. I turned and the point guard passed the ball to me. In the briefest of moments, I considered whether I would pass it off again, like I normally did, or if I should attempt a jump shot. My jump shot usually resulted in a turnover. So I wanted to avoid it if possible. In that instant, a path opened up from me to the basket. It was as if the Red Sea parted. Everything was shadow, save the light shining on this glorious path. I, Moses, was about to dribble this ball to the Promised Land. Everything went to slow motion. I broke into a run, remembering to dribble the ball. I sped straight down this wide open freeway and laid up the ball. Time went even slower. The ball went in. It actually went in. Two points for my team. Two points for me. They were the only two points I would score in the season. There was cheering in the arena. I looked over to my mother, who was beaming and clapping. Her son had finally scored something, after all these games. All this happened in a fraction of an instant and the glory ended when time instantly sped back to normal and the ball fell back down from the basket and bounced off my head, resulting in me tripping over my own feet and planting on the hard floor.

The glory and the dignity of my one junior high basket had faded oh, so quickly into my inevitable buffoonery. It withered into memory, where it still lives happily.

I kept an interest in basketball for awhile, but decided not to go out for the team my freshman year. I knew what the result would be. So I avoided it. I found activities that were more suited to my strengths. Music and Theater were more my thing after all. My interest in the NBA faded. I didn’t go pro with basketball. I never played for the Bulls.

However, this whole story is leading up to one more story. Fast forward more than twenty years. I’m married with two boys and a little girl on the way. We moved into our house about a year and a half ago. A paved slab in the back yard, complete with a basketball hoop, came with the house. Last summer, it just stood back there undisturbed. A couple weeks ago, though, I got a net and hung it up on the hoop. I have a kid-sized hoop as well for my little boys. We’ve been out there playing a bit the past few days. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but my target practice seems to go a lot better than it did in my youth. I’m not awful at making shots any more. At least I don’t think.

But there’s one thing I realized.

In those years of trying, all those times in which I tried to make something of myself in the game, in all the failed shots, all the turnovers, in all the fouls, in all the times I tripped over my own feet, in all the times I craved a crowd reaction to something good I had done on the court, the times I craved my coach’s approval, my team’s approval… None of it compares to now.

When I take a shot and it goes in, two-year-old Caleb claps, laughs, and gleefully yells “Yay, Papa!!” And five-year-old Josiah says, “You’ve got to be the best basketball player in the world, Papa.”

That’s all the approval I need.

I feel like a million bucks.

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Categories: Family, Life

My son has a baby doll.

We were at Target today. With our toddler and newborn son in tow, we spent some time in the toy section. This is not uncommon, of course. It is regularly requested by my oldest, Josiah, as you can probably imagine. He normally asks to look at “cool cars” or toys from the Disney/Pixar films Cars and Planes, with which he is currently obsessed. In fact, we had already picked out a cool Neon Racer Lightning McQueen to purchase as a special treat.

We made our way through a different aisle, one we don’t normally venture down. One that is nauseatingly saturated with pinks, lavenders, and other similar pastels. My wife wanted to look for accessories for my son’s baby doll.

Yes. My son — a boy — has a baby doll. And I — a man — support this fully.

Society

Pink is not everyone's favorite color. I'm living proof.

Pink is not everyone’s favorite color. I’m living proof.

When a lot of men my age were kids, they were made to think that toys like baby dolls, kitchen sets, vacuum cleaners, etc. were just for girls — that if a boy played with those types of toys he was a sissy or “even worse.” To be clear, my own mother never imparted these negative ideas on me. I had a couple hand-me-down baby dolls myself that came from my older sisters. I never latched onto them, really. But I had them. I was never discouraged away from them.

There is this old idea that women nest and men hunt. And admittedly, there may be something to it, but it can be seen as kind of an old-fashioned notion in today’s world. In truth, men and women do have some inherent differences. I’ll leave that to you to determine what they may be. But society has taken these stereotypical roles and applied them children’s toys. In general, home-themed toys are marketed to girls, while boys have things like trains, cars, construction vehicles and war/battle-themed toys. The boy toys are exaggerated and extreme. The girl toys are pink and gentle. There are probably a lot of conclusions to be drawn by this. And I’m sure there are a lot of articles out there examining the implications. I haven’t done any scholarly research. I just want to talk about my family’s experiences and observations.

My son is a great kid. He is a “boy” through and through. He is rambunctious. He naturally loves things like cars, trucks, tractors, construction equipment, snow plows, robots, etc. We never forced those interests. He developed them on his own. He also loves to imitate his parents, like a lot of kids do. In the summer time when I mow the lawn, he gets out his toy lawn mower and helps me. When I shovel snow off the deck in winter, he grabs his very own shovel and joins in. Likewise, when my wife (an amazing woman who has chosen to be a stay-at-home mom) does household chores, my son wants to imitate her sweeping, vacuuming, cooking, and organizing.

He also observes how both of us care for both him and his baby brother. Therefore, he wanted a baby to care for as well. We got him one. He is a great papa to his baby doll. Because, after all, if we’re training our girls through play to be mothers and homemakers, shouldn’t we train our boys to be dads who are capable of cleaning up after themselves, instead of just extreme animals who blow things up?

Marketing

So much of it just comes down to marketing. We were all very annoyed that all the toys in the baby doll aisle were pink and lavender. It doesn’t really seem necessary to make every accessory pink. But society has equated pink and pastels with girls. Kitchen sets, E-Z Bake Ovens, toy pediatric sets, toy baby bottles, doll strollers, car seats, cradles. It’s all pink. And you know, pink isn’t my son’s favorite color. I mean, surely, not even little girls want everything to be all pink and purple all of the time. Never mind the not-so-subtle hint that society yells to little boys: THESE TOYS ARE NOT FOR YOU. It puts unfair limits on both boys and girls.

Marketing has changed over the years and not for the better, if you ask me. Here is a good, brief article illustrating some of the marketing for the exact same toys in different eras: LEGO Ad From 1981 Should Be Required Reading For Everyone Who Makes, Buys Or Sells Toys.

Well that's more like it.

Well that’s more like it.

Just the other day, my wife was in a conversation with a grandparent at the community center who said something to the effect of, “I’ll never buy him a stroller that’s pink.” And that’s a shame, because now that little boy may miss out on playing at real life skills. We buy our son the toys, even if they are pink. Plus we’ve been lucky enough to find some toys that are more realistic, color-wise. He’s got a nice pots-and-pans set that are a deep red and black. And he’s got a kitchen in blues and red. He’s also got a white vacuum. They were not that easy to find. All the baby doll stuff he has, however is pink: the cradle, the high chair, the stroller, the car seat.

I want to make one more note about marketing to the sexes. My mother tells a story about when she was in high school. The school was having a really hard time getting boys to sign up for Home Economics. They obviously felt that boys could benefit from the skills and knowledge being taught in a Home Ec. class. Their solution was to simply change the name. They added a home ec. section under the title “Bachelor Living.” It filled up so quickly they added a second section. It was the same instructor, same book, and same lessons. But different marketing. Curious.

A “Sissy” or “Worse”

Somewhere in the recesses of my brain there is an unclear memory of an older person (I have no idea who) saying something about a male child (I have no idea whom) regarding playing with “girl” toys. The person said, “I’d be afraid it’d turn him into a sissy,” then a pause, followed by “or even worse.” This is just one of those shadow memories, but I know people feel this way, and I remember the implication — that a boy playing with girl toys could turn him into a homosexual and that was something to be avoided.

Well I don’t have the time or energy to get too deep into this. I’m just going to say a couple things. Playing with certain toys won’t make you gay. If my son is gay, so what? The only thing I’d be worried about is how certain people would treat him for being himself. I recently saw this cartoon that summed up how I feel about my son playing with “domestic”-themed toys.

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Conclusion

When we went down that aisle at Target, my wife was looking for a good car seat toy that would fit Josiah’s baby doll. Of course the only one we could find was pink. Be that as it may, we still got it because Josiah had been wanting one ever since we installed the one for the real baby. In addition, Josiah took interest in a smaller baby doll. This was a boy baby doll, dressed in yellow and gray — the only baby doll in the whole baby doll section that was not dressed in pink or lavender. Since Josiah has a baby brother, he wanted a boy baby doll too. This one is small enough to be his regular baby doll’s baby doll. I told him he could get either the Lightning McQueen car or the baby boy doll, not both. He chose to put the car back and get the baby. While some may see this negatively (“my boy ain’t no nancy!”) I see this positively. Symbolically, maybe he’s choosing to care for his family rather than to blow money on fancy sports cars. Okay, maybe I’m reaching there. But my overall point still stands. As a group we should prepare our boys to be fathers just as much as we prepare our girls to be mothers. Men need to cook and clean too.

The young cashier was overly chatty, making remarks about our items that were a little annoying. “Oh, I thought you guys were vegetarians, but then I saw the ground beef and I was like, uuhh…” “That’s not ground beef. It’s meatless. We are vegetarians,” I replied stoically. She then took the item out of the bag and inspected it and looked at me with a suspicious eye. She put it back into the bag, saying simply, “Vegetarians…” So imagine my horror when she started asking me about my children.

“How old is the little one,” she asked. The cover was over the carrier, so Caleb couldn’t be seen. “Just a couple weeks old,” I answered. “Oh, she must be tiny.” “He is, yes.” “He?!?” I assured her that, yes, I was correct and my son is a boy. “Oh, I just thought that with the doll and the carrier…” “Those are for the older boy,” I said with no hesitation. She had a blank look on her face and was stunned, wide-eyed, into a rare moment of silence. “Oh.” She then continued scanning my items with very little conversation. I guess we were a little too weird for her.

Her assumption about the toys is fine. I obviously can’t hold that against her. Society has conditioned us to make these assumptions. What is not fine is that society has conditioned us to think it is unnervingly odd for a boy to want a baby. That’s plain wrong. This interest in a baby doll is rooted in love, family, and nurturing. We could use more of that in today’s world. My son is interested in his baby doll. As long as my son’s interests are positive and they hurt no one, I support him.

Categories: Family, Life, Parenting

Tornado in My Neighborhood (part one)

It was a typical lazy Sunday. The previous day, we had gone to La Crosse, Wisconsin to visit with some college friends and see a show they were putting on at their community theater. We got home that night and stayed up kind of late. We slept in on Sunday and got up around 11:00 a.m., I think. We grabbed some fast food and awaited the arrival of a couple of Liza’s college friends from South Dakota who were in town and headed over for a visit. I munched on my chalupa and checked Facebook. I got an alert from a weather app that our area was in a tornado watch. “Strange,” I thought, since it didn’t look like tornado weather. I announced this weather watch to Liza, who was feeding Josiah in the other room. “That figures.”

Sometime around 2:00, Hannah and Eric pulled up and I wrangled the dogs into the bedroom. They don’t like visitors, you see, so they need to be in the other room. Just as our friends walked up our front stairs, we heard the neighborhood tornado sirens begin to sound. I looked at the sky again as we made our greetings, thinking that it just looked overcast outside. The thing is, we have heard the sirens go off in our area countless times. And when we look at the weather reports, the tornadoes are never in our area. Maybe my first clue this time should have been when I attempted to turn on the local weather and my television told me that DirecTV could not find a signal. The sirens continued to blare.

Hannah and Liza continued to chat and coo over Josiah – Hannah and Eric hadn’t met him yet. Eric and I both stepped outside to survey the weather situation. The sirens continued, but I didn’t think there was any severity near us at all. The rain had stopped, as had the breeze. It was totally calm. Liza popped her head out the door to ask what we were finding out. “Nothing,” I said. “It must not be around here.”

Then we heard it.

I mean, we heard “it.” The tornado. It was a sound I had never heard before, and a sound that I will be fine never hearing again. They always say that it sounds like a freight train. They’re right, mostly. Picture a freight train that is about three times the size of a normal train and you might be getting close. Add in the sounds of fear and destruction, whatever they sound like. If the word “ominous” had a sound, you could layer that in as well. That sound won’t leave me any time soon.

Eric heard it, too. He and I looked at each other. I looked to Liza. “Downstairs. Now.”

As I quickly rushed up the porch steps and into the house, in a calm but agitated state, I uttered, “There’s a tornado in our [expletive] neighborhood.” Liza and Hannah had Josiah and the baby puppy, and Eric headed downstairs as well. I ran to the bedroom and picked up our two girl dogs, one under each arm and had Wicket follow me to the basement. Liza went back upstairs to grab something quickly, I’m not sure what, and on her way back down the power flickered and failed. Through the basement windows we could see the sky turn green. We all just stood around and commented on the strange welcoming our visitors received. All the while, the wind whipped outside and rattled our basement windows.

I wandered over to the staircase, and I heard what sounded like a child screaming. I was terrified to my very soul. I booked it upstairs and to the front door, which I whipped open. If there was a child outside in this storm, I was going to get that child to safety. I peered outside and couldn’t see much of anything due to the density of the perfectly horizontal rain. Amongst it, I saw a greenish blur zip past the yard. I assume it was a tree branch. But it was fast. And it, too, was horizontal. And that rumble. That terrible roar. I opened the screen door to see through the watery haze on the glass to try to determine if a child indeed needed help. It was a false alarm, thankfully. What I was hearing was the stormy winds whistling through our windows, creating a high pitched, blood-curdling scream. I headed back downstairs, pronto. On the way, I grabbed my computer. Because honestly, my life is on that thing, and I rejoined my family and our visitors.

During the time that I was gone upstairs, Liza had been having text conversations with both her mother and our friend Renae. Renae told us that according to the television, there was a touchdown at Logan and 29th. We live at Logan and 37th. The sirens wound down and we went upstairs to see what was up. Within two minutes we heard emergency vehicle sirens. Eric and I went and stood in the middle of the street and peered south, toward where we had heard the tornado minutes earlier. We couldn’t see anything, but there was a hill between our house and where we had heard everything had happened. Then the sirens blew again. We went back down and then came back up a few minutes later when they subsided. We found more downed leaves and branches, but nothing too notable at all. The rain was subsiding, but a small deluge of water created an impromptu waterfall on our tall front-yard stairway.

There were more and more emergency vehicle sirens to the south. And more and more commotion coming from a few blocks in that direction. We all weighed the options. Should Eric and I head down there? On one hand if people needed help, we are two able-bodied people who would like to help if needed. On the other hand, we may get in the way of the professionals trained in such things. We erred on the side of good deeds, got in my van and headed south on North Logan. What we found was humbling and harrowing.

(Part two to follow)

** Snow ** [Episode II]

January 2, 2011 Leave a comment

The aftermath of the storm. Care for an ice cold soft drink?

Liza pointed out to me yesterday that in the summer I always complain that storms happen wherever we aren’t. I’ve noticed that in the summer, when we’re in Minneapolis, the storms always go around us, while back in our old home, Aberdeen, S.D. they’re getting them every day. Then when we come back to Aberdeen, Minneapolis gets hammered and we miss it.

Apparently this whole concept of missing the storm does not apply in winter.

As described in a previous entry on this blog, Minneapolis got a substantial storm and I personally moved a lot of snow by hand (and shovel). When this happened, Aberdeen barely had any snow at all, and certainly not a storm. A couple days ago, however, that changed.

We came back to South Dakota for the holidays with the in-laws, with plans to go to North Dakota after New Year’s to have a Christmas celebration with my family. Christmas went off without a hitch. We went to Hendicks, Minn. to see the extended in-laws, and the roads on the way back were challenging, due to freezing fog, but my father-in-law Mark navigated like a champ and spared everyone from even being nervous about the conditions.

The Johnsons are winter-outdoors people. In the following few days, much time was spent outside, doing dog chores, running dog teams, and packing down the trail on snowmobiles. They love to play in the snow, and when we come to visit, we play along. Apparently, Mother Nature likes to play, too. Because she threw a big ol’ snowball at us to close out the year. We got close to twelve inches.

The storm started on December 30. Stores and businesses were closing early and the sheriff advised no travel. People were saying once you got to where you going, you’d be there for a couple days. They weren’t kidding. It wasn’t so much the snowfall itself (that was a huge factor, obviously) but it was the drifts created by the 45 mph winds. Some roads were completely blown over, and the snow in the ditches was level with the rural roads. Visibility was nearly zero. At the Johnson house, we couldn’t even really see across the street. This, of course, made my mother-in-law Diane as giddy as a schoolgirl. She loves winter and snow accumulation and cold temperatures. In fact, she has a little snowman toy that when you press the button it says “Get out the shovel! It looks like snow!” and plays an instrumental first phrase of “Let it Snow.” Earlier that morning, we woke up to the sound of her excitedly pressing the button in anticipation of the day’s weather event.

The blizzard died down overnight, but we were told by the news not to waste time digging out just yet because there was another wave coming the next afternoon — New Year’s Eve. We had had plans to go to our friends’ house to ring in the new year, but again, mother nature had other plans. She decided to shut down civilization. Around 3:00, the walloping continued. Bars closed, parties were cancelled, and people were stranded again/still. Mark tried to leave around 6:00 p.m. to go check on his casino business to determine whether or not to close early. After all, it was New Year’s Eve and that’s normally a good night at the casino. But, the suburban didn’t make it out of the driveway. That kind of solidified that fact that we weren’t going anywhere. After trying to rock it back and forth, it became so solidly stuck in the snow that it wouldn’t move. He turned it off, and trudged back to the house.

So we had a our New Year’s celebration at home with the Johnsons. We watched an amazing sci-fi flick from 1974 called Zardoz (perhaps Sean Connery’s best work?), we had some tasty beverages (non-alcoholic for my pregnant wife), and I played “Angry Birds” on my iPod. We rang in the New Year with Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest on Eastern time and then with Carson Daly on Central time. The new year entered with a winter fury.

The next day, January 1, the sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky. As if mother nature was saying, “What? Me? Iiii didn’t do anything…”

We certainly didn’t miss this storm.

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Categories: Family, Life, Weather

I saw my son today

December 10, 2010 1 comment

My wife is 21 weeks pregnant. This is incredibly exciting. We have wanted this for quite some time, but now it’s actually happening. For real. It’s actual. My offspring is spawning inside my partner’s midsection.

So, I know that this is very routine. It has happened trillions of times over the span of a quarter-million years, but that makes no difference to me. It is as astonishing as it is bizarre, even after hundreds of thousands of years.

We had an ultrasound at seven weeks. At that point, the baby looked like a little kidney bean with a tail. That was weird, but cool. Then over the span of just four weeks, the form of our child changed dramatically. We had another ultrasound at 11 weeks and it actually looked like a real baby. The first thing we saw when the baby appeared on the screen was the profile of the body and a little arm waving back and forth, as if to say, “Hello! I’m here!” It went from being just a bean to an actual human-looking creature in just a month. Then, today, we had a 21 week ultrasound. WHOA.

The nurse technician needed to take all kinds of measurements, so we got to see our baby inside and out, literally. We saw our baby’s face; lips, nose, cheeks, and eye sockets. We saw the brain, the left and right aortic ventricles, the kidneys, the spine, fingers, feet, leg bones, arm bones, bladder (it had recently emptied), and we also saw an unmistakable scrotal sac.

Yes, yes. This is just normal, healthy fetal development. But look at it abstractly. A spawning member of our species is living and growing inside another person’s body. Fourteen weeks ago, he was the size and shape of a kidney bean, and since then he has grown (on his own, mind you) bones, a brain, essential organs and systems, genitals, eyelashes and even fingernails. It’s weird. It kind of blows my mind a little bit, whether it should or not. It’s amazing. I now understand why people refer to it as “the miracle of birth.”

I saw my son today. I love him immeasurably already. I can’t imagine what it will be like when I meet him.

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Categories: Family

Mush! Mush!

December 8, 2010 1 comment

Musher family, Christmas 2009. Back: me, Scott. Front: Liza, Michael, Diane, Mark

I have not always been one to enjoy the cold. This is odd, since I’ve lived in the Dakotas and Minnesota all my life and I’ve never really considered leaving. I guess I have always tolerated the cold for the simple reason that it was a fact of life. Changing that seemed, if not impossible, a really big hassle. So here I have stayed. I don’t snowboard. I don’t ski. I don’t snowmobile. I don’t ice fish. I don’t build snow forts. I shovel, but only because I pretty much have to. Other than that. I don’t spend a lot of time outside in the winter.

Except for mushing season.

Mushing is another word for dogsledding. You know, when a team of dogs (usually huskies) pulls a person on a sled. The person is the musher. And mushing is an incredible experience.

I was first introduced to mushing when I began dating my now-wife. Her family is a mushing family. It’s the family sport, and if you’re going to be a member of that family, it’s a good idea to get yourself acquainted with what they do. They’ve got a full dog team (and then some), and when the snow comes down, the fun begins. My father-in-law Mark and brother-in-lawMichael are both competitive mushers. They enter races in the upper Midwest and Michael often places in his division. My wife Liza and I usually travel along and help in races as dog handlers. In addition to the hand-on experience, my mother-in-law Diane is Education Director for the Iditarod, the “Last Great Race” which covers over 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness, from Anchorage to Nome.

At the Iditarod 2010 official starting line in Willow, Alaska

In March 2010, Liza and I were fortunate enough to be able to go to Alaska to take part in the opening festivities of the race. We had the opportunity to meet many legendary mushers including former champions Martin Buser, Jeff King, and Dick Mackey. We also briefly met current four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey. Read a bit of Lance Mackey’s inspirational story.

Long story short, Alaska was amazing and these professional dog lovers and canine athletes were inspiring. There is nothing quite like seeing the Iditarod happening right before your eyes.

The dogs are amazing athletes. They absolutely LOVE to run. If they could, they would pull a sled all day and all night (and some professional dog teams almost get to do exactly that), and the colder the better. Northern breed dogs (Siberian huskies, Alaskan huskies, etc.) are specially evolved to not only withstand, but thrive in the arctic elements. They’ve got a double layer of fat under their skin and super thick fur. In fact, it has been said that the optimal temperature for a team to run is -20°F. Otherwise they will overheat.

It is said that every time a musher goes out on a run, they will come back with some sort of “trail story.” The first time I went out on the sled, I had a four-dog team and it didn’t go well. The dogs, who were still in the early stages of their training at the time, got distracted by a squirrel that was streaking along far off the trail. Long story short, my father in law had to come speeding out on the snowmobile and help me untangle the dogs from one another and the team’s gangline from a barbed wire fence. Once we got that sorted out, we decided to call it quits on my first run and head back to the house. The dogs were so excited to be turned around, heading toward the house that they sped home like a bolt of lighting. Never mind the fact that the sled hit a large bump which careened me forward and somehow got my leg under the sled for a couple  yards. The others were at the house and saw the team return with an empty sled and came back to rescue me in the midst of my limping home on the trail. Not a very successful trail story, I must say.

Completing a successful night run.

But things improved. A few years later, I took out an eight dog team on a night run and it was beautiful. The only sounds I could hear were the pat-pat-pat of the dogs’ feet in the snow, their excited panting, and the occasional joyful yelp. As I praised them and cheered them on, calling them each by name, I could feel a slight extra proud tug coming from each team member. The moon was high and full, casting shadows of the athletes and me on the bright nighttime snow. It was nothing short of magical. I didn’t want to come back in. Neither did the dogs, so we ran a little longer. When we finally came back into the yard. The dogs stood in place patiently as I went down the line, praising them one at a time, each dog getting their own bit of love, which was the least I could do, after that amazing experience. Each team member got ear scratches and belly rubs and I got some loving licks to the face. They were very happy dogs and I was a very grateful human.

Categories: Family, Life