Country by Andy Shenk
June 23, 2012, 3:51 pm
Filed under: Reflections | Tags: ,

A few weeks ago, I began tuning to the country music station on the radio more often while driving the bus. I did it because several of my clients enjoy country music. When my station, Cities 97, went to a commercial break I flipped over to BUZN 102.9. Most of the songs blended together, but eventually one track caught my attention: Jason Aldean’s “Fly Over States.” The lyrics spoke of life in the states where I grew up, the American heartland. While I’d detested country music for most of my life because of its formulaic sound, this song captured everything I secretly admire of “country” culture. Tough guys who love to build, shoot, and fix things, football and baseball, farms and ranches, trucks and railroads, small towns and local bars. These are the elements of American masculinity I’ve never quite grasped.

I love to read about the history of the railroads, but when I bike by the train yard in Northfield on my way to work each morning, red bike helmet firmly strapped to my head, I recognize the distance between that world and mine. I’m sure that some railroad employees bicycle to work: My differences with blue-collar, middle American men go further than that. I can’t grasp construction concepts, mechanical problems, or even basic assembly work. I cried in sixth grade because I couldn’t sew a button on to a piece of fabric, and I swear like a sailor when trying to change bicycle tires. Many of my most ego-damaging moments have come when confronted with jobs that I assume any “country” boy would handle with ease: painting a house, fitting a window frame, operating factory machinery.

To make matters worse, I don’t own a truck, or any vehicle for that matter. Rain, snow, or shine, I trek four miles to work on my Schwinn mountain bike. Though I love sports, I’m best at sissy ones like running and frisbee. While a sports-watching fanatic, I detest football (another hatred for another day) and two of my favorite leagues are the NBA and English soccer. Even when I drink beer, I stay as far from American staples as I can, preferring Newcastle or obscure, hippy breweries. Perhaps worst of all, I grew up pacifist, the son of Anabaptist parents who taught me that in time of war I’d do better working on a reservation in Montana as a conscientious objector than learning how to handle a gun and protect our country.

Perhaps the best I’ll be able to do is sit in a bar, force down Miller Lite, and talk about a sport I do love, baseball. While I still find the sound trite, I’m also going to indulge in country music, even if I never get to play it on the radio, rolling down the road in a beat-up Chevy truck. The words open up a mysterious world beyond my own, one which I’ll only ever know from across the divide. It’s a rich, exotic, admirable land.

Cilantro by Andy Shenk
June 23, 2012, 3:49 pm
Filed under: Reflections | Tags:

Cilantro. Kinza in Russian. My mother frequently bought the weed from the fresh-air market in Derbent, wrapping it in a plastic bag to transport with all our other groceries on the two-hour bus ride up the Caucasus Mountains to the Tabasaran village, Bookhnog, where we made our home. The juicy tangerines and vafli that mom and dad brought back from the city delighted us children. Vafli: Creamy, crunchy bars of sugar and chocolate paste. I would peel the layers back one by one, then scrape the chocolate filling into my mouth with my teeth. My younger brother, Jonny, and I did not look upon cilantro so favorably, however.

Over the following week, its overwhelming odor flooded salads and rice dishes that my mother prepared in the kitchen at the front of the house. Even when my brother and I insisted that she serve the herb separately, our offended nostrils gained reprieve for only a short time. Either she forgot to leave it out the next day or we ate dinner at a friend’s house soon thereafter. To my mother’s credit, our neighbors’ cooking made her use of kinza appear negligible.

For those fortunate enough to have never tasted cilantro, I will attempt to briefly describe the experience.

A beautiful, colorful dish of fresh vegetables appears on the table in front of you. Exhausted by a day in Russian-language school, homework, and village chores, you greedily seize your spoon and dig into the feast. Before the first bite reaches your mouth, however, warning bells begin to sound. A peculiar smell wafts from the spoon: sterile, harsh, and dominating, belying the rich variety of flavors you had initially anticipated. Undaunted, you begin to chew. To your amazement, the tomato and cucumber salad, straight from the garden, tastes only of mouthwash. The vegetables are forgotten, buried beneath the cilantro. Though the effect is not so strong as to cause you to spit the food out, the dish is ruined. Oh well, don’t lose heart completely. Mom’s a good cook most of the time – at least there will likely be some tasty bread and soup to make up for the disappointment.

See, the trouble with cilantro isn’t so much that it’s intrinsically rotten. Rather, it’s that the diced green leaves, barely visible on a bed of rice or vegetables, overwhelm every other flavor. Who wants to be reminded of mouthwash at dinner time?

Cilantrophobia notwithstanding, I pride myself on culinary flexibility. For many years, my distaste for cilantro proved an effective exception to the rule. I could boast that I enjoyed eating just about anything, except, of course, cilantro. Most of my friends liked cilantro and so I enjoyed being different by flaunting my passionate hatred for the herb.

After a while, I found an even more devious use for cilantro antipathy. I’d initially express my disgust when served a dish prepared with cilantro. After drawing the sympathy of those seated near me (a dislike for cilantro, after all, has been shown to have genetic roots), I then demonstrated my character by forcing down a generous serving, cilantro and all.

Unfortunately, my hubris in thinking I could manipulate cilantro to my own ends finally caught up to me. To my horror, while eating a Chipotle burrito stuffed with cilantro-flavored rice two months ago, I found that the taste wasn’t so bad as I remembered it. Rather than suffocate my taste buds, the cilantro added an enjoyable new layer of taste to the other ingredients. Too much exposure to any evil ultimately dulls the conscience, I suppose. When I admitted to my wife what had just happened inside my mouth, she couldn’t believe it. My dislike for cilantro had been so profound that she had grown to hate it as well, in solidarity with me. Jonny, my younger brother, also took the news hard, refusing to believe that his older brother was capable of such betrayal. Though shaken myself, I did see it as tit-for-tat. Ever since he’d boarded the Harry Potter bandwagon a few years back, I’d had to stand alone as the only devoted Tolkien apologist in the family.

I wish I’d never learned to fancy cilantro. I could attempt to erase this time in my life, and pretend to once again despise the stuff…No, I’ll be honest and admit that it’s alright. Still, it’s difficult to leave behind a decades-long hatred, all because of my fickle taste buds.

Life’s Shadow by Andy Shenk
June 2, 2012, 6:03 pm
Filed under: Reflections | Tags: , , ,

Author’s note: Quotes and much of the material are taken from Skip Hollandsworth’s beautiful piece, “Still Life,” published in Texas Monthly.

The best stories fit seamlessly into the narratives of our lives. They haunt us, while revealing new depths of emotion and consciousness.

I read a story once about John McClamrock who died at the age of fifty-one in a rehabilitation center outside of Dallas. John had broken his spine in a football game when he was sixteen, suffering instant paralysis from the neck down.

The story of his tragic injury and fierce resolve to walk again captivated America in 1973. John received a letter from President Nixon and a visit from the Dallas Cowboys. Hundreds of friends visited him in the hospital and in his home, where he finally returned after months of intense rehab. Nonetheless, John still could do little more than lay in bed, watch TV, and make small talk with visitors. Gradually, the dream began to fade that he would recover. John’s mother Ann scheduled her life around caring for him and the family attempted to carry on with life as normal.

Nineteen months after the fateful kickoff return collision that left him paralyzed, Ann walked across the Hillcrest High School auditorium stage to receive her son’s high school diploma. The crowd applauded thunderously. Journalists visited again that spring to ask how he was doing. “Will you ever walk again?” they asked. John had already worked so hard for so long without any progress and tried to pass off the question nonchalantly, “Oh, I don’t know,” he answered. During the summer months John’s classmates said their goodbyes before going off to college and slowly, steadily, the young McClamrock’s tragic life slipped out of sight.

Continue Reading...A few years later John’s father, Mac, died after a short battle with acute emphysema, leaving behind his wife Ann, John, and the youngest son, Henry. For the next thirty years Ann persisted daily in providing bedside care to John, even as she aged into her late eighties. The two watched TV together, read magazines, prayed, and remembered the old days.

John briefly enjoyed renewing old acquaintances  in 1995 when many classmates visited during 20-year high school reunion festivities. One classmate, Jane Grunewald, began seeing John monthly, bringing a spark of romance to the bedroom he’d inhabited for forty years. John told his brother Henry that her visits were the closest he’d ever come to a love affair. “Not that we are going to have sex. You know, I never had sex. I’ll never make love to a woman,” he said with a sort of resigned smile.

Still, the years dragged by. Finally, in the winter of 2008, with Ann much weakened herself after a recent fall, John had to be admitted to the hospital for bedsores. He soon developed a fever and told his brother that the end was near for him. The day before he died Ann visited John in the rehabilitation center where he’d been moved a few weeks earlier to try to recuperate from his bedsores. John told his mother something that afternoon he’d never said before: “I know how hard it’s been for you.” “Hard?” Ann asked. “Johnny, it’s been an honor.”

John passed away in his sleep that night, fifty-one years old, single, and paralyzed from the neck down.

The words whispering in my ear these days are sung by Florence + The Machine. Opening lyrics, “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” from their song, “Shake It Out,” catch in my heart while I pedal to and from work, consumed with the awful specter of long life spread before me. Sixty years yet to live, I wonder, afraid of what the very next hour might bring, unsure of when the dawn might truly arrive.

Once, two weeks ago, I hopped between two train cars in a hurry to make it to my job on time. I threw my bike through the gap, clambered across the couplings myself, then hurried to drag the bike clear of the tracks on the other side. Not fifteen seconds later the monstrous machine behind me began rumbling forward. I trembled with fear, considering my life, which could have vanished in a moment, crushed beneath the steel wheels of a locomotive passing by Northfield on a cool May morning. My wife, Nikki, would have been a widow at twenty-four and my parents bereft of a son when they had decades yet to live.

Life is often lived in the dark, strung between the brilliance of glowing sunset and joyful morning light. John McClormack spent thirty-five years in one bedroom, cared for by his loving mother who couldn’t carry on with her own life, if it meant she had leave him to die, alone, looked after by strangers in a nursing home.

I know a young man, Alyosha, who spent the first fifteen years of his life in a bed, surrounded by severely mentally handicapped children in a Ukrainian orphanage. Mute, abandoned by his family at birth because of his physical deformities, and misdiagnosed by doctors who didn’t recognize his intelligence, he waited in a living hell until visitors to the orphanage recognized his abilities and helped him learn to read and write. His world has now begun to glimmer and glint under the light of new hope.

Still, the darkness relentlessly consumes life day by day. Though we run, deep night falls in time. The glints and glimmers of light ultimately fade. Then, in death, we will wait with patience for the world beyond this life’s darkness. Perhaps the fire burns in unquenching brilliance there, and our earthly shadows are but the quavering corners of the eternal light.

Of Love for Dagestan, the Land of Mountains by Andy Shenk
May 12, 2012, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Reflections, Sports | Tags: , , , , , ,

The last time I visited Makhachkala, my friends and I were chased out of town, slipping out by the sea on a train headed for Moscow. We left carrying an oversized teddy bear, our suitcases, and memories of a proud, beautiful land.

Eleven years before I arrived for the first time with my family on a stuffy, overflowing Aeroflot airplane direct from Moscow, sixteen checked suitcases and boxes holding our belongings for a new life in the mountains of Dagestan. First, though, Makhachkala would squeeze us, enfolding us in its grimy, cement-stained arms until we resigned ourselves to sipping tea and watching old Bond movies flicker across the black-and-white TV. We lodged at the Hotel Lenin, right on the main city boulevard, Leninskii Prospekt. My siblings and I enjoyed the glass Fanta and Coke bottles we ordered from the hotel restaurant…the tepidly warm beverage, not so much. While our parents traipsed about buying furniture, securing documents, and attending social events to which their friends kept inviting them, we kids hung out with other expatriate children. Down to the beach on the Caspian Sea one day, another day walking up and down the wide pedestrian avenue in the middle of Leninskii Prospekt. There wasn’t much more to do in the city of 400,000 for an eight-year-old American boy who didn’t speak Russian. The city closed in on me, my grassy backyard and basketball hoop, cold clean water flowing from the tap, and immaculate streets and sidewalks that I biked down thousands of miles away in suburban Ohio. But I did begin to assimilate one important concept, subconsciously at first, when we first came to Makhachkala. After eight years of living in a one-story brick house in Northridge, Dagestan would be my new home.

Most of my years in Dagestan passed in the Tabasaran highlands, a hundred miles south of Makhachkala. There the Caucasus Mountains gracefully slope toward the shore of the Caspian Sea, pinching the ancient city of Derbent against the water just forty miles east of the village Bookhnog where we made our home. To the north, west, and south rose mountain ridges, the highest western ridge cresting just over nine thousand feet. On this sheltered land rested dozens of small Tabasaran villages, some thousands of years old, but all of them sputtering, choking in the fumes of the Soviet collapse. Work remained for precious few when the carpet factories and collective farms disbanded, and the grueling task of wringing food from the mountain sides drove the young folk en masse to the cities. Makhachkala, Derbent, Izberbash, and Kaspiisk swelled with the influx of young village couples hoping to find an easier, more profitable life in the urban sprawl creeping along the coast of the Caspian.

Continue Reading...Our family settled in Bookhnog, population two hundred, where the fog rolled in every afternoon from the valleys beneath our ridge, blotting out the mountain sunshine in the blink of an eye. Pea soup fog so thick you could hear the cows mooing for what seemed an eternity on their walk home from pasture before they came clomping by. The buckets full of crystal glass water from the spring a quarter mile away strained your muscles on the walk through the muddy village paths, but the sweet liquid sliding down the throat took away every ache and pain. On late September mornings we awoke to marvel at the fresh coatings of snow on the surrounding ridges and peaks; on clear summer evenings the full moon rose large as a golden saucer in the southern sky; at night we took our time walking to the outhouse, overwhelmed by the brilliant canopy of stars shining above.

The people of the village invited us into their homes freely, initiating us in the Dagestani traditions of hospitality. My siblings and I learned the Russian language alongside our friends at the local school, oblivious to their harsh Caucasian accent. The native tongue, Tabasaran, possessed over forty letters in the alphabet, including five distinct variations on our letter “K” and six variations on “CH.” During religious holidays, and at weddings and funerals we observed our friends’ Islamic faith drawing the community together. On May 9th and February 23rd Russian patriotism took precedence with school-sponsored festivities celebrating the brave history of the Russian and Soviet military.

Yes, in the evenings many men drank themselves stupid on vodka as only true mountain men can. Parents became old before their children’s eyes; by fifty many looked similar in age to pampered American septuagenarians. And the work, yes, the work came in unceasing waves of knee-cracking, back-breaking, joint-splitting labor up and down the mountain valleys. Cows to be milked at five, chickens and turkeys to feed, rows and rows of potatoes to plant and weed and hoe and harvest by hand. Slopes of golden hay to cut down by scythe in late July, dry, and carry home on rickety old Russian trucks. Wood to chop in the woods, split at home and stoke the furnace with. Hours of cooking, preparing meals from scratch to feed the sprawling families, all on simple wood stoves; perhaps a gas range if you were rich. Dishes to wash, and water to haul, and laundry to stomp clean by feet on the concrete slab by the village spring. Bookhnog, and with it, the Dagestani mountains, sagged under the weight of miserable work providing nothing but more work the next day and the next day and the next.

I lived in this land for much of eight years, growing from a boy into a soft-spoken American teenager who spoke Russian like the lads from the Caucasus. At age sixteen I moved back to the States to earn an American high school diploma and enroll in college. The summer following my freshman year at Carleton College two friends and I traveled back to Dagestan, sweating out a brutal thirty-five hour bus ride from Moscow to Makhachkala to spend two weeks with my Dagestani friends. The family had left a few years before, unable to secure governmental permission to remain living in the republic. I savored the time with old acquaintances, hiked up and down the dusty mountain roads to village after village to see everyone I could. Reluctantly, with tears in our eyes, Joe, Andrew and I left the mountains, bumping down the highway first to Derbent and then Makhachkala, where we said our final goodbyes.

Our last day, my final memory from the Land of Mountains, the local bureaucracy extended its welcome, too, hosting us in an office near the city limits, attempting to discern whether we were permitted to grace Dagestan with our presence. Seven hours passed in negotiation. Finally, a few minutes before the train for Moscow pulled out from beside the sea our inquisitors delivered us to the station and we breathlessly boarded our wagon, clutching the oversized teddy bear an elderly friend had delivered on the steps of the station, to be delivered to my niece in Columbus, Ohio.

I remember the dwelling place of my youth often now. Five years have gone by, but the emergence last year of Makhachkala’s football club, Anzhi, on the world arena allows me to reconnect daily with life in the Dagestani capital. I love watching the Dagestani fans crowd ancient Dinamo Stadium just a stone’s throw from Leninskii Prospekt and cheer their fabulously rich team on to glory. They’ve qualified for European competition next year, and will soon ascend European football’s highest heights, Inshallah. Some of my Bookhnog friends, long gone from the village, may be in the stands tomorrow when Anzhi hosts Russian champions Zenit in their final home match of the season. The Dagestan that I knew as a child is changing, foreign investment surging in to tap the Caspian oil fields and to build the tourist infrastructure long dreamed of by Dagestani businessmen and politicians. High-profile football will draw European fanatics, wishing to see their team play a match in one of Russia’s most hitherto unknown republics. The days when I could boast of being one of only a few Westerners to have ever lived in Dagestan are passing. So be it. All I wish for now is the chance to mingle again on the Dagestani streets and hike through the mountain valleys. I’d go to the Anzhi matches and wave my yellow-green scarf, proud to know this place and to know these people.

Stripping Away the Veil of Victory by Andy Shenk

Gregg Popovich received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year Award last Tuesday. At the press conference held in his honor, surrounded by his coaching staff and seated next to Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Pop dismissed what he had done to earn such recognition, as well as the role he had played in the Spurs’ success this year: “You know, when you win, a lot of things get attributed to you that you shouldn’t get full credit for. And the opposite, you know…when you lose, you get blamed for a lot of things you probably shouldn’t get blamed for.” Pop attributed his coaching success to the Spurs’ very fortunate draft history, concluding that “there have been a lot of people who have been in circumstances that have not been in their favor who would be just as successful in this situation, but just didn’t have the opportunity.”

The next day the Spurs played the Utah Jazz in the second game of their best-of-seven first round series. San Antonio won, 114-83, the franchise’s third-largest margin of victory ever in a playoff game. In the post-game press conference, Popovich gave a simple analysis of the lopsided outcome: “It’s still just a basketball game. We had a good night; they had a poor night. You know, I think they shot 23% in the first half, or close to that. That’s probably not gonna get it done for anybody…We shot it better than that and it was enough to make the game what you saw. It’s a lot about whether the ball goes in the hole or not, and they just had a tough night.”

Several years ago Popovich explained to reporters the origins of the “Pounding the Rock” mantra, which is prominently displayed in the Spurs’ locker room: “You get tired of all that other junk. ‘Winners never do this’ or ‘Losers always quit.’ ‘There’s no I in team’ — all the typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels. It’s always turned me off, so I thought that this was maybe a little bit more, I don’t know, intelligent.” The philosophy of “Pounding the Rock” dispenses with the superstitious and simplistic, focusing rather on the daily, dedicated effort needed to maximize own’s potential: “When nothing seems to help, go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and you will know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

The more you listen to Gregg Popovich, the more you realize that the man will take credit for nothing. Upon receiving his second Red Auerbach Trophy, he did all he could to hand it off to his assistants and allow them to share the honor. They refused, even when he awkwardly pursued them across the court in front of eighteen and a half thousand fans.

Victories are the intended result of Popovich’s work rather than the necessary outcome. Following the game six loss last year to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, which knocked the top-seeded Spurs out of the playoffs, Pop spent most of the press conference effusively praising the Grizzlies: “A fine job. They were the better team and they played better than we did in that stretch of six games…I’m obviously saddened by the loss, but I’m happy for them and what they’ve accomplished. It’s been awhile for the city…Congrats to those guys.”

Pop’s entertainment lies in stripping away the layers of exaggerated significance placed upon his profession. Prior to watching the Grizzlies eliminate his team from the playoffs, he elucidated on the upcoming game in Memphis: “It’s a challenge, but it’s basketball. It’s nothing complicated…that none of us has not done before.” Pop knows that the wins, the championships, the floats down the River Walk will one day end. Rather than cling to the ephemeral, he enjoys the process and the many years he’s been allowed to teach a game to some of the greatest athletes in the world.

LeBron James and the Tale of How The Babe Earned His Crown by Andy Shenk

Author’s note: I am heavily indebted to Robert Weintraub and his engrossing account of Babe Ruth and the 1923 baseball season for this piece. It was in reading his book, The House That Ruth Built, that I first recognized the many common threads in the lives of Babe Ruth and LeBron James. Far from being a Babe Ruth scholar, I relied exclusively on Weintraub for my treatment of Ruth. 

In October 1923, on the eve of the World Series, one figure commanded the public’s attention, and took responsibility for much of the ink being spilled on the nation’s sports pages. George Herman “Babe” Ruth towered over the American sporting world of the early 1920’s, his legacy built on mammoth long balls, barnstorming tours through small-town America, and a reckless, salacious lifestyle in the Big Apple. Though only twenty-eight at the time, The Babe’s home-run hitting prowess had already proved an electric shock to the sport of baseball, winning Ruth and the Yankees legions of new fans, while at the same time upsetting baseball traditionalists everywhere who venerated small ball. With The Babe and his New York Yankees preparing for their third straight World Series appearance against rival New York club, the Giants, the debate over Ruth’s legacy in the game faced a defining moment. Would Ruth finally defeat the wily, small ball-oriented Giants and silence the critics who said his long balls and bombastic personality were but a passing fad, or would he come up short for the third straight year and risk cementing his reputation as a postseason choker?

To continue reading, head on over to my blog, Devout Fanatic.

Morning Time by Andy Shenk
May 2, 2012, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Reflections | Tags: , ,

This morning, a Wednesday morning, I rolled out of bed at 5:59 AM to the first of three alarms. The second rang out at 6:00 AM while I was getting clothes out from the dresser and the third went off at 6:02 AM as I prepared to shower. The dawn’s light cheered me as I dressed and sat down to breakfast with my wife. We munched on raisin bran with milk, enjoying our meal together. The air outside was warm and the grass green after last night’s passing thunderstorms. I drew back all the curtains in the apartment and opened all the blinds. We’ve both just begun getting up early on the weekdays, and today I couldn’t remember the last time I’d enjoyed such a relaxing, bright, warm morning together with my wife.

While I read for a while after breakfast, Nikki prepared her lunch. Soon after seven, I pulled up a video of our favorite coach, Gregg Popovich, answering questions from the San Antonio media regarding his NBA Coach of the Year award. We laughed at his self-deprecation. The man is a brilliant coach, yet passed himself off as just a lucky son of a bitch to be receiving the award. A few minutes later, it was time for me to hop on my bike and whisk off to work in Dundas. Nikki remained at the kitchen table, finishing up a letter to a high-school mentor. At 7:35 AM I cruised down our driveway, turned left onto First Street West and sped down the road.