Friday, February 28, 2014

Buzz Kill

Some Nature Notes; an Ode to the Arrival of Spring

Around here, winter has overstayed its welcome.

Oh, sure, a few signs of inevitable spring are already present. Sunlight lasts until well past 5:30. I spotted some tender, tiny daffodil shoots sprouting in the garden when the snow melted during our brief respite from the polar vortex last Saturday. I have to say, none of this is too convincing.

I used to depend on Robins to herald the season. In days gone by, you could be sure that when you first heard a Robin’s sweet melodic notes, you could shake off your winter blues and rejoice in the promise of warmth and sunlight and blossoms.

At least that was true in Winnipeg when I was young. But here in southern Ohio, the Robins have been sticking around all winter. I’m sure they must be regretting it. I worry about them out there in the frigid temps and blowing snow, although they seem to be okay and there is probably enough for them to eat with all the leftovers on the summer fruit trees. A Robin visits our crabapple tree daily.

I had lunch this week with a friend who is quite the birder. I am a bird enthusiast, but she is a true binocular-carrying, expedition-going, life-listing bird watcher. Just in making conversation, I asked if she had been on any birding excursions lately. “No,” she replied, but she told me about being out on a country drive recently when she spotted some birds that she said were a definite sign of spring. Turkey Buzzards.

“No way!” I said, “Turkey Buzzards? A sign of spring?” “OH, yes!” she chirped, “The Turkey Buzzards are coming back! Spring can’t be far behind!”  I shuddered.  

Now, if you have ever seen a Turkey Buzzard, you know that is an unusually unattractive member of the vulture clan. These sinister flesh-eaters do not inspire thoughts of hoppy, fuzzy bunnies and soft Easter-y pastel colors. They conjure dark thoughts of zombies and flattened-by-a-car bunnies. Where our darling American Robin gives you a cheeky chirp and pops a juicy worm out of your garden, the Turkey Buzzard hisses death threats as it rips into road kill. While our perky Robin flashes his cheery red-breast and cocks its dark shiny head with a cheery gesture, the Turkey Buzzard hunches boney shoulders around a fleshy blood-shot head that looks like the Phantom of the Opera without his mask on. While our sprightly Robin sings that sweet lyrical tune that makes you think of your childhood splashing in rain puddles with your yellow rubber duckie boots on, the Turkey Buzzard grunts a death rattle that says, “You finished with that chicken bone, lady?”

Turkey Buzzards protect themselves if threatened (and who would?) by throwing up – which apparently has so vile an odor that it would gag a maggot. They keep their heavily-feathered legs cool by doing something so gross that I won’t share, lest it give you nightmares. They are raptors, but no way are they even remotely as elegant as our neighborhood predator, the Cooper’s Hawk which systematically picks off dull-witted Mourning Doves like they are bowling pins. No, the Turkey Buzzard is the garbage collector of the bird world. It doesn’t even hunt. It lives off carrion. Well, I guess somebody has to do it. But we don't want to watch.

The Turkey Buzzard is the Tony Soprano of birds, minus the deep introspection. Turkey Buzzards are to American Robins what “Porky’s II” is to “Pride and Prejudice.”

So, with all due respect to my birding friend and to Mother Nature, I’d just as soon get the image of a Turkey Buzzard as harbinger of spring out of my mind, thank you very much. I prefer something more poetic and cheerful to signal April showers and May flowers. The Robins around here better get their act together. Fly south, you guys, and get back here PDQ to chortle spring’s arrival properly.

Who would you pick as your springtime representative?


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Skating on Thin Ice

By now you have probably heard about this week’s “controversy” in Olympic figure skating. Russian skater, Adelina Sotnikova, won the gold medal upsetting defending champion, Kim Yu-na of South Korea, who got silver. Kim Yu-na was superb. Some people think she got robbed. Adelina Sotnikova, although lovely, did not skate a perfect program. So, one is left scratching one’s head.  How did the judges decide on this outcome? Why is the scoring so hard for viewers to figure out? (Pardon the pun.)  One of the American skaters insisted that these complications do nothing to inspire youngsters to take up the sport and, what’s more, issues like these are certainly driving audiences away from watching it. It seems the figure skating world has a bit of a hitch in its double axel.

I think scoring is the least of their problems. If you ask me, they ought to take a serious look at nomenclature.  I mean. The names they give to the jumps and moves. They’re just so clunky. Salchow? Which sounds like “sow cow” and for years I thought that’s what it was. Lutz? Camel? Twizzle? Death spiral? Hydrant Lift, for gosh sake?

I bet those poor skaters are fighting for their lives to maintain swan-like grace and elegance with a commentator screeching, “There it is! A Triple LUTZ! Oh, that was BEAUTIFUL!” Beautiful? The poor girl just LUTZED! On international TV! Surely, I thought, someone could have come up with a better name for it.

This got me curious about how skating terminology came about.  Basic figure skating forms, like circles and figure eights, were first catalogued in an instruction book published in London, England in 1772. It wasn’t until 1864 that an American named Jackson Haines sought to revolutionize skating competitions by adding ballet and dance movements to the basic patterns. Nobody at home or in England was buying, so he went to Europe to show off his moves and by 1868 he was wowing crowds in Austria and Sweden. His influence led to European Figure Skating Championships and eventually the World Figure Skating Championships first held in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1896. Figure skating made its debut at the Olympics in 1908. Around this time, a Swede named Ulrich Salchow, the greatest figure skater of his day, ten times a world champion, developed skates with serrated blades that allowed for athletic jumps, such as his now famous “Salchow.”

Now, I want to imagine that if he had known, when he egotistically christened that jump with his own name, that 100 years later television announcers would be shrieking, “She nailed that double SOW COW!!!!” he might have shuddered and cast around for something a little less clumsy. A number of skating terms come from their inventors: Axel Paulsen, Alois Lutz. What if someone in my family, those skating Scots, had invented a jump? Would announcers be shouting, “He did it! He landed a perfect Quadruple Malcolm!!” Or if someone in Russia or Ukraine had invented a new move. Would sportscasters be screaming, “OOOH! Look at that! A Triple Wojokowski!” Or from China: “Oh, My! What a beautifully executed Wong.”  

Why the heck, when they had a chance, way back when they were borrowing from ballet anyway, didn’t they adopt ballet language? Wouldn’t “Arabesque” sound a whole lot more willowy and lissome than “Sow Cow?”  Just asking.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How I Learned to Love Curling

Do you have a favorite sport at the winter Olympics? Ski jumping, perhaps? Always a thrill! Snowboarding? Crazy wild! Bobsled and luge? Just plain nuts! Figure skating? So lovely! Speed skating? Electrifying! Hockey? Fast and furious! And that Canada/US rivalry? Gets me on the edge of the couch every time! Think those are exciting? HA! Try curling!

Did I hear you groan? I might have groaned too, once upon a time. But I’m here to say, you really need to give it a chance! Here’s how I learned to love curling.

It was 1998. The year curling became an official Olympic sport for the first time. It had been relegated to a demonstration sport in 1988 and 1992 and hadn’t made an appearance at all before that since the 1934 games. So, if not exactly spine-tingling, it was notable.

I had never watched curling on TV. I had regarded curling up until this point as a major snooze. In spite of the fact that curling could well be considered Canada’s second national sport, it just doesn’t have the same blood-lust excitement as Hockey Night in Canada. But, in Winnipeg at least, even the language of curling is in our blood. A warming trend in February weather is referred to as a “Bonspiel Thaw.” As far as I know, the terms “bonspiel” and “brier” are still used to refer to the late winter championship finals.  In Winnipeg, everybody curled. Except for me. I occasionally went to rinks to watch friends, but frankly, I had no clue what was going on out there.

Until 1998. Ken must have been at work that Sunday afternoon of the final, gold medal women’s match between Canada and Denmark, because I remember watching alone. I had nothing else to do. I didn’t expect to watch for long. But the announcers so very clearly explained all the terminology: stones, guards, the button, the house, the hack, the hammer, the hog line, shot rock, a biter, the skip, lead, second and third. They explained the tactics. How stones are played and why the sweepers sweep. Such grace. Such strategy. Such precision. Such loud yelling! “HURRY! HARD! HAAAARRRRDDDD!!!” Honest to Pete, I got so caught up! The late, great skip, Sandra Schmirler was leading her Canadian women’s team to a Gold Medal and I was crying and screaming! On a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV. By myself. Damn it was exciting!

Then, along came the Salt Lake City Olympics of 2002. We had lived in Buffalo for three years by then. I was homesick for Canada and especially for Vancouver. I missed the warm, wet, rain-soaked west coast winters that turn to spring by mid-February. Buffalo winter would not end for a long, long time. And if that wasn’t depressing enough, we had endured a storm between Christmas and New Years that dumped 8 feet of snow on the city. There was grave concern that the plan to run the Olympic torch through Buffalo on New Year’s Day would have to be cancelled. The city had been closed for a week. Closed. For a week. You have no idea.

But Buffalo’s mighty snow removal machinery got into gear and made it happen. On New Year’s Day, we walked up the two blocks from our house to Main Street to watch the torch runners go by. We could kind of see the torch bobbing between 12-foot-high snow walls on either side of a plowed trench.

That year the Olympics diversion was so welcome. I couldn’t wait for the curling. Canada met Norway in the men’s gold medal final. I settled in for the afternoon. And here was a fun addition to the game: the players wore microphones! Who knows what the Norwegians were saying, but the Canadians were speaking Canadian! It sounded so good to my ears.  And hilarious. I had never noticed the accent before. The guys had that musical Canuck lilt, “Oh, yuh, yuh. Right to the button on that one, eh? That’s a good lie.” I was so happy.

The match was a nail biter. Canada got silver, so it wasn’t as exciting as 1998, but for those few hours watching the curling, I felt like I was back in Winnipeg. It was a cure for my home-sickness and it fueled my Canadian identity. I was proud to declare, here in the US, my adopted country, “I watch curling! I am Canadian!”
So you see, Olympic sports can be an inspiration. Even curling. Try it. You might like it. Broadcast on CNBC; 5:00 – 8:00pm daily. As I write this, Canada just beat Great Britain 9-6 in the women’s round robin vying for a spot in the finals. Woo!

Here's a link you might find helpful: World Curling Federation

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

And in the end....

I wonder if younger generations look at photographs of the Beatles from 1964 and think they look historic. To me they look as current as though the pictures were taken yesterday, not 50 years of yesterdays. Maybe it’s because the memories are so clear and sharp. Or maybe that’s what was so remarkable about the Beatles. They were so fresh. So unlike the 1950s and 60s clean cut “Mad Men” look of our parents’ generation. So unlike anything or anyone that came before. So timeless.

I was only 11 when the Beatles first played the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. Even at that age, not-quite-pre-teen, all the kids in my class at school wanted to see them. We all watched the Sullivan show every week anyway; it was what families in my neighborhood did on Sunday evenings: watch Walt Disney, then Ed Sullivan, and maybe Bonanza if you were allowed to stay up that late.

But how did a bunch of 11 year olds know that we simply could not miss this? Had we heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio? Had we seen The Beatles in the newspaper? I don’t remember. I do remember sitting in the living room in front of the TV, waiting for that special moment. And then Sullivan announcing them, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beat-els” in his odd Ed Sullivan kind-of-way. And the girls screaming and crying in the audience. And the adults in the room at home saying stupid stuff like, “My goodness, what is all the fuss about?” and “Look at that hair! Isn’t that ridiculous?” and “I can’t understand a word they’re singing!” And I remember thinking, “Shut up, already! I want to hear them! I want to see them! I’m in love!!!!” It was over so quickly, but I was dazed with the excitement of it all. Such a brief moment, but as we know now, that performance would resonate for years to come.

My mother’s first complaint was that I replaced all the horse photos in my bedroom with Beatles posters and especially photographs of Paul McCartney. “What’s happened to my little girl?” Usually this question was enough to make me knuckle under from whatever rebellious act or transgression caused her to level this guilt trip on me that I would go back to being her little girl again. But not this time.

She was further dismayed when I adopted a deep-throated Liverpudlian accent – or an 11-year-old Winnipegger’s version thereof – and went around calling everyone, “Luv.” I grew bangs. I desperately wanted a black leather John Lennon hat, but there was no way in the world they were going to let me have one. “That’s a man’s hat! You are NOT going to look like a Beatle!! And that’s final!” I argued that one to bits but they never gave in.

I got a transistor radio and listened to the Beatles climb the top ten charts with the radio tucked under my pillow at night and carried up to my ear during the day. My friend and I made up elaborate stories about how we would meet and get married to our favorite Beatle; she to John Lennon, me to Paul.

My dad did concede once to buying me an LP. It was in the Bay downtown one Saturday afternoon and my father surprised the heck out of me by asking if I wanted my very first Beatles record. Did I? Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I carried it like it was Limoges china up to the check out. But my Dad couldn’t resist the temptation to chide me, loudly, with the usual adult comments about the hair and the crazy music and the goofy suits. I was humiliated in the way only a pre-teen can be humiliated. Right down to my toes. Like I wanted to sink into the floor. Or at least tell the cool young guy at the checkout, “I have no idea who that square old-fogey is! Can you believe it?”  I was mortified. And hardly noticed that he had just bought me this wonderful treasure. That was the day my adolescence began.

After that I used my allowance to buy my own albums. And I wrote all over them: “I LUV Paul!” “Beatles 4-ever!” The Beatles and British fashion dominated my junior high and high school days. I saw “A Hard’s Day Night” at least 6 times, and “Help!” at least four. I slow danced to the “Rubber Soul” album at a house party in grade 9. I wore Mary Quant tights with my mini-skirts. I layered on mascara and painted long lashes on my cheeks to get the Twiggy look and I was delighted that my measurements were exactly the same as hers. I listened carefully to the lyrics of “Sgt. Pepper” trying to understand the supposed hidden drug messages. “Revolution” and the “White album” were the soundtracks of my high school years. I went to university the year The Beatles broke up. It seemed impossible that they should go their separate ways. The magic was over.

But maybe that’s what was so special about the Beatles, at least for me. That first night on Ed Sullivan was magic. They spun a spell that was so wonderful and so breathtaking that even now, when I see the video replayed 50 years later, my youth is as immediate and real as though it was yesterday.