Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Heroes: From the Ice...to the Heart

My Montreal Canadiens, a team I call my heart, got some tough breaks in the playoffs, eliminated in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals by the Ottawa Senators. In Game 1, a player from the Ottawa team ran one of our players and our guy was sent to the hospital after a horrific injury that took him from unconscious and bleeding on the ice to a stretcher off the ice. The coach for Ottawa, a man named Paul MacLean, made some very disrespectful remarks about our team and especially showed no compassion for our injured player. The next day, one of our newly acquired forwards - a man by the name of Brandon Prust - made this statement: (the video shows the passion of our coach Therrien as well as Brandon's expanded statement) He was quoted instantly:

We don't care what that bug-eyed fat walrus has to say.

See, Paul MacLean has a - shall we say, distinctive look to him. See for yourself:

The minute that statement hit social media, we were all talking. It was Friday midday, and by game-time, many photoshopped images (including my own "separated at birth" entry) had hit the web. And Dave Stubbs, a popular sports writer for the Montreal Gazette, had posted that he planned to wear his cartoon-walrus pin to the game, as well as present Prust with a 2nd pin sporting the same cartoon walrus.

At 10:30 p.m., a fan whom I've known on Twitter, posted:

"I wonder if Dave Stubbs gave Brandon Prust the walrus pin...let's adopt a walrus for Prust and name it 'Ballsy Paulsy'!"

I replied instantly: "Or just 'Bug-Eye!'"

That started a Campaign. Between posts on her website dedicated to another Habs player and a hockey-related communal board, and both of us on Twitter and Facebook, as well as Dave generously writing about it in his column after the weekend, the Adopt-A-Walrus Campaign began.

At first, we thought we'd raise 1- or 2-dollar donations so that we could adopt this walrus (from World Wildlife Fund, a wonderful cause that raises awareness and funds for animal conservation), but suddenly, people were opening their hearts and their wallets. The adoption is symbolic but comes with a stuffed animal of the species being adopted.

In discussion, my co-organizer wondered whether we should put the money toward other adoptions for the other players involved in the kerfuffle (Lars Eller - our injured player who was stretchered off - and Raphael Diaz, the player dismissively referred to by Coach MacLean as "Player 61") but it was my husband, fresh from the Bell Center and that very game in which the injury had occurred, who suggested we donate to the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation which is dedicated to helping children in need. Anyone who has ever attended a Habs game at the Bell Center knows how dear to the organization this Foundation is; there are constant videos between periods that show the work done by the Foundation, the moneys raised, and - to everyone's delight - the visits to kids by Habs players themselves. (I urge you to visit their website and spend some time there - and keep it in mind when your life affords you a little extra to give to others).

The idea took wing and by the time Dave's column hit the papers, the deadline was extended in order to give everyone a chance to donate.

I am proud to say that we raised enough for the stuffed walrus which was sent to Brandon Prust as well as a total of $470 that was given to Ryan Frank of the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation this morning. He graciously consented to a photo of him with the check,  strategically taken in front of Brandon Prust's and Lars Eller's photos.

Ryan and I talked at length about how hockey is not just a game, at least not to those of us who are avid Habs fans. The injury to Lars Eller (now, thankfully, recovering), the Ottawa coach's subsequent tactlessness and Brandon Prust's most passionate statement, tinged with his unique sense of humor - those became a Story. In 2011, The Story was Max Pacioretty's injury and it got the city energized. This year it was the Walrus. As Ryan said, next year, there will likely be another Story. And each time there is, there is a renewal, a resurgence or just a re-affirmation of how much this team (not just the sport) unites us as a Habs Nation, a family of fans and supporters of the players, the staffers, the behind-the-scene players and now, the Children's Foundation.

I have to think heroes come in all forms. For Habs fans, we have our legends like Rocket Richard, Jean BĂ©liveau, past stars such as Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Guy Lafleur. We have those heroes who used the platform of their notoriety to speak out and make this a Story. We have our current warriors - every single player, too numerous to mention - from the 2012-2013 Montreal Canadiens, a team that rose from last place to give us a season filled with victories, triumphs, and achievements, regardless of where we ended up in post-season action.

But to me, the heroes are the fans who continue, day in and day out, without fail, to show up to games in their seats or on the sofas, online or on barstools, in their Habs gear or in jammies, with their beers, sodas, or juice boxes. The fans who support this team not only on the ice (with voice-straining, eardrum-shattering cheers that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime) but who give of their hearts to these guys on non-game days, in off-season, and in events such as these that raise money directly because of Habs players, to benefit kids who may not have the opportunity to experience this luxury of hockey games at the Bell Center.

To me, YOU are the heroes.

Go HabsFans Go!!!

 (here is the money order given to The Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation, presented to Ryan, in the photo above)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Story of Friendship and New Beginnings

When I was in high school, I wanted - as so many of those of us who write do - to write the Great Canadian Novel. Somehow, I got it into my head that I wanted it to take place in prison. Knowing nothing about the system, I went to one of my favorite teachers. Mr. Simon had a pen-pal club - mostly Jewish pen pals but he was able to give me the name and address of a man in prison in Ohio who had reached out to him for a pen pal.

I must say, writing that first paragraph, and in planning this blog at all, I did not realize that in those days, pen pals, writing, and letters included ONLY the physical, pen-and-paper, snail-mail variety. Today things are quite different, and I realized that only in beginning my story!

Well, I wrote to the man in Ohio. He told me he was in for 4-6 years, and had been caught on a drug charge. He was able to provide me much detail for my story, and as I had originally been up front with my purpose for writing him, this was a lovely honest foray into the world of pen pals.

Or so I thought.

He stopped writing after about a year. I wrote him, but received nothing back. I continued to write. For about 8 months, I wrote regularly, asking if he was okay. My letters were not returned. Nor was any reply. And one day, coming home from school, I saw my mother driving up the street to the bus stop to meet me. She opened the car door and said, "hop in." She handed me an envelope. It was from this man. As we drove home, I read the letter. He had written that he'd received all my letters but felt he could no longer respond to me, as he had not been truthful. He wasn't in for 4-6 years, he was in for 20. And the charge was not drugs, it was homicide.

My mom and I talked; I was a teenager, after all, and she was a protective mother. She allowed me to write back. We had a very open line of communication and she would sit and listen as I'd read her my letters to him, and the ones I'd receive back. So she was okay with this (believe it or not!).

I wrote him that I was glad to hear from him. And that my worry over his well-being was alleviated. But I told him it wasn't so much the new information I had received as the lie he had told. Why not just tell me up front? Today, years later, I know why he didn't tell me up front: would a teenaged girl be allowed to write a man in prison for murder?

The correspondence continued, until he stopped, once again. This time I did not pursue the relationship.

In my senior year, Mr. Simon came to me and asked if I was still interested in writing someone in prison. I said yes, so he invited me to his house that Saturday afternoon, and a friend and I went. He handed me a letter from a man who was 26 years old and had been in for 2 years already. This man was in Georgia and from what we found out, he was the only Jewish prisoner (or only openly Jewish prisoner) in the State. He was to be there the rest of his life and was looking for friendship.

I wrote him immediately. I introduced myself, told him how I'd originally come to the practice of a pen pal in prison, and told him of my previous experience. I sent it off, and went about my life.

2 weeks later - and I will never forget the date: May 1st, 1979 - I came home having left school early, not feeling well. The house was empty and in disarray; we'd had it sprayed for whatever ants or bugs had infiltrated our old duplex. But in my room, on my pillow, was an envelope with the return address from Georgia. Feeling better already, I sat down to read.

Instantly drawn in by his eloquence and articulate writing, I read his short introductory letter. His name was Larry and he said he was interested in a mutual exchange of ideas and news. I wrote him back right away. He had included a photo with his letter, so I did the same with my return reply.

I cannot adequately express how 34 years of a friendship has unfolded. For a teenager graduating high school, pursuing new ventures, this was to become a lovely consistent friendship. There were times I didn't hear from him, but continued to write. And when he told me that he was no longer fighting as much, because fighting meant he would be put in solitary and would miss two things: football and my letters, I felt this sense of giving to another that I had not felt in my life. Sure, I had volunteered at charities over the course of my high school years, and babysitting was still an ongoing activity/job for me. But this was the ability to affect another person's whole life, and I took that very seriously.

There were weeks where I would get 3 letters a day, for 3 or 4 days of the week. I came to anticipate his letters as much as he anticipated mine. He was funny, and well spoken, poignant, and honest. How did I know he was honest? I didn't. But he would tell me the good, the bad and the ugly and that trust was there.

In the first summer of our correspondence, I mentioned that I had been dancing around a topic I felt he knew I was curious about. He wrote me back that he knew that. In the next round of exchanges, I asked him to please enlighten me. He wrote back, "What do you want to know?" I wrote back (among other things), "isn't it obvious?" His next reply, "Yes, but I don't want to tell you more than you are ready to hear." I wrote back, "Just as much detail as you would like to tell." And he replied, "No. Ask me specific questions."

So I did. I basically said, "Okay...then, what? Where? When? Why? Who? and How?"

Out of respect for his privacy, I will not relate here what his answers were. But I will say that the day I got that letter, I was on Cape Cod with my family. I read aloud (as he knew was a habit to share with my mother and grandmother), and we were all held riveted by his narrative. And that is how I knew he was honest with me. He had warned me, from time to time, "they don't call us cons for nothing." But I was always sure of one thing: he would answer my questions, and I could count on him for that exchange.

We would talk on the phone as well. First time he phoned, I was curious to know if he sounded like Jimmy Carter (my only - at the time - Georgia-accent reference).  And he informed me, in the letter arranging the call, that the guards would be listening on the other end. I think I forgot about that by the 3rd or 4th call....but one call, he said, "they're flashing the lights." (signal to get off the phone). I said, "aww...hasn't even been that long." He said, "Well, they gave us a few extra minutes this time." Dripping with sarcasm, I said, "Oh, well, remind me to thank them." He laughed and said, "Oh, he heard that."

He'd talked to my mom as well - and she would even write him. She was like that.

Larry stuck with me through the acquisition of my first dog, and the tragic death of that dog 6 years later. He learned about my 2nd dog, and was in my life when, 14 years later, I had to put Toebi down. He mourned with me the deaths of all my grandparents, the first having died a month after we began corresponding. Larry stuck with me through my dating life, and even through my getting married. As difficult as it was for me to relate these details to him, he never once held back on his being happy for me.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I received a Siddur (Jewish prayer book) in the mail - inscribed to my as-yet-unborn child (which we did not know was a boy). It is a treasure I have held onto, and just recently, have given my son.

And when Larry told me he had met a woman who was visiting him regularly, and then told me of their plans to marry, I was filled with awe - that he had found someone so special as to overlook the obvious obstacles to many women, that he had the chance for a permanent companion, and that he would experience that special love everyone deserves, I was so joyous for them both.

I confess: I lost touch with Larry some years back. It was entirely my fault. Overwhelmed with personal issues, I let the friendship fall. And as much as I regretted doing so, and kept saying to myself that I would pick it up, energy was waning in all-but-immediate matters.

Then a few years ago, I got email from a woman who wanted to know if I was the same Lissa who had corresponded with her husband, and mentioned his name. I was thrilled, because she not only reconnected me and Larry, but she and I connected via Facebook. Suddenly, I was writing long newsy letters again, though the first one had to be hard: I had to tell Larry of my mom's death. It hit him hard, and that was not a surprise. He has a heart of gold.

I have not been the best correspondent.I have let my personal life interfere with my commitment to Larry and for the times I have upset him for that, I feel deep sorrow. I know I disappointed him many a time.

But he has the most forgiving nature and has always written back when I've picked up the thread again.

Now the news: last month, April 9th, 2013 to be exact, Larry walked out of prison, a free man after 36 years. He had been trying to make parole for years, but this time, he and Ginger were able to find placement for him that will be most helpful in his acclimation to the outside world after so long. When I read her status update proclaiming that her husband is breathing free air, my eyes welled, and I said a prayer of thanks. It is a day that I know they have waited for, for the 25 years they've been together. It is a day I hoped to see, in the 34 years I've known him. And now it is here, and there are no words to describe the absolute joy this event has brought.

Ginger reported that after stopping off to get a pair of jeans that would fit him (the ones he got were way too big), his first request upon being driven to his new (temporary!) home was to stop at McDonald's and enjoy fries - with lots of ketchup. The photo she posted on Facebook had me smiling through tears. And though the Facebook event I created has expired, I will reignite it here: Celebrating Freedom with Fries was what I called it, and I asked everyone to have McDonald's fries (or any other fries - or any food they wanted!) and toast Larry and Ginger with their food. We take a lot for granted, even what we eat; and I wanted to stop for a moment, and think about how much we do. I wanted not only to salute Larry's freedom, and these two very deserving people with a fun "toast", but I wanted to feel the novelty even in just eating that which is - at its best - mundane food for those of us who have never felt the deprivation.So if anyone is moved to take a photo of themselves in a "french fry toast", I hope to be able to show Larry that there are a lot of people with good hearts in this world.

Larry is in the placement home for 9 months, without ability to receive mail or phone calls - even from his wife - until he has completed the program. I think, for Ginger and Larry, it will be the longest 9 months they have ever experienced, but I also believe it will go faster than either of them expects. And the day he walks into their home will be a momentous celebration for all who know him, or her, or both.

I have been writing letters to him. Catching up from the last batch, and keeping him updated as things happen. I intend to print them all out, and mail them when he is home. I'm pretty sure they'll have other things to do when he gets there (*nudge nudge wink wink* << For Ginger who has a beautiful wicked sense of fun and humor)

I have a friend whose artistic abilities are so versatile, she is known for her incredible artful cakes, her beautiful rubber-stamped work (she is the one who introduced me to the art 19 years ago) and her paintings that defy description. But Reesa was first known to me as the "kippa lady". Her yarmulke creations have been seen on the heads of males from infants to older men, in synagogues, schools, homes, and at every celebration from wedding to bar-mitzvah to pidyonha'ben parties. I taught kids who wore Reesa originals; her artistic ability allowed kids to wear kipas that sported Batman, the Simpsons characters, Ninja Turtles, Disney characters, and anything or everything one could imagine. Her more elegant kippa creations include beautiful designs that range from simple to elaborate, and she does this all by hand.

I decided to ask Reesa's help in creating a kippa for my friend Larry. She created the one in this photo - and it sports his Hebrew name (Simcha Chaim Ben-Yehuda) which was translated into the Hebrew alphabet by my friend Jeff.

I thank both Reesa and Jeff for their help in creating this gift for Larry; he was instrumental in getting the State of Georgia to grant dispensation to Jewish prisoners for the High Holidays, and dietary exemptions on Pesach. He is one of the most devout people I know, and I believe that his faith has kept him going all these years.

Well that, and Ginger's love.

Now that he is free, I know there will be a lot of adjustments for him; but I look forward to a lot more communication - instantaneous, now that I'm sure Ginger will teach him Facebook (he told me she wanted him to learn and that he is reluctant - I promised it will be a thing I will push for as well!).

I hope that the absences between my letters will be redeemed by our ability to pick up online. I am so looking forward to hearing how he is feeling out in the world after all these years, and I know Ginger may be absent from Facebook for a few (couple?) days after he comes home (*wicked grins*) but I also hope that her big heart and her sweet nature will see her sharing some of the joy with those of us so blessed to call her friend.

I have learned that not judging a book by its cover (or even its table of contents) has been a wise road to walk. I had learned that lesson early in life, but my friendship with Larry cemented the value of those words.

I have learned that there will always be those who slot, cubby-hole and categorize people, but that if we do so, we are losing out on some of the deepest connections we might have otherwise had. And while my initial outreach to Larry was "fact-finding", the information he was helping me to glean for my writing became secondary; the friendship grew and thrived.

I have learned not to take things at face value all the time. I have learned not to take things for granted. Larry has been crucial in helping me appreciate that which I have, and not bemoaning that which I do not. If we learn anything in life, it is to look around us and truly, sincerely give thanks for the gifts we are given, strive to achieve what we can within our means, and never - EVER - give up hope for a better future. Larry has taught me, over 34 years, that very lesson.

Welcome home, my friend - 8 months to go!  And Ginger - hang in there. I'm sure you're verrrry busy making plans for The Day...I am so excited for you both!

Friday, May 03, 2013

Bloodlust and Headlines

Last night, the Ottawa Senators faced our Montreal Canadiens for the first game of the first round of the first playoffs we have been in since 2011. We were all talking, in this city, about how friendly this rivalry has been (and would be) as compared to a Toronto or Boston match-up. We haven't played Ottawa in recent times, so this was something we all looked forward to enjoying.

I won't post about the game. That isn't the intent of this entry. By now, you're all aware of the score and how the game went, and that their goaltending was the reason it wasn't a blow-out for the Habs. And I am one of those die-hard, true-to-the-bone Habs fans who believes that one game won't decide the Series, nor does it portend our demise.

I won't post about the Hit on Lars Eller, though my stomach has been churning the same way it did when Max Pacioretty was hit by Zdeno Chara in March of 2011. But the feeling is different from when I wrote about that Hit... 

This post is about journalism. Or lack thereof.

Within hours of Lars Eller being stretchered off the ice, the blood cleaned from where he hit and the shakiness of the crowd and the players affecting the atmosphere of the Bell Center (and living rooms 'round the Habs Nation), the Ottawa Sun released its morning edition. I hesitate to post it here because of its classlessness, but I will post this link to a story by CTV Montreal, about the Sun, partly to highlight the object of my anger and disgust, and partly to authenticate it as a true front page (because I actually saw comments accusing Habs fans of making this up in order to rile the base).

I am a huge proponent of journalistic integrity. I wonder where it has gone, and why it is so rare to find. The Sun's decision to publish what they did showed me that it is even more rare than I had thought.

I get that there are bloodthirsty crowds at fights (which I despise, for my own personal reasons) and I get that there are those who go to hockey games in hopes of seeing fights and/or injuries (to opposing players, of course!). I have never understood that, and I know that hockey is the only sport in which fighting does not advance the game whatsoever. I've seen the crowds jump to their feet around me as a fight breaks out, or a huge hit is executed, and I can't get that excited; in fact, I have actually bemoaned our own players for not sticking with the game plan.

But for a newspaper to publish a photo of a bloodied man whose career could very much hang in the balance, and use the bloodlust for a cheap-shot headline, that got my blood boiling. And I felt compelled to write the editor of the Sun, both in email and on their web-form for that purpose.

As I don't feel the Sun will print it, and even if they do (in hopes they have a fair view of what journalism is), I will share what I sent to the editor in my direct email, here in my own pages.

I sent this to your "Letters to the Editor" online but in order to be sure it got to you, I'm sending it to you here as well. Thank you for your attention to this matter. I'm sure, as an editor, you would like your publication to be the most respected and most tasteful. Sadly, as you'll see by my letter, your front page delivers neither quality. Below is what I wrote via the webpage.

I am a Montrealer, and a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan. We, here in Montreal, were very pleased to be facing the Ottawa Senators in Round 1 of the Playoffs, as this is the first time in decades that our teams are facing one another. All along, we've been friendly rivals, without contentiousness and without the kind of vitriol reserved for our regular rivals such as Toronto and Boston (a shared animosity, I believe). And we were looking forward to our cities competing without it degrading to ugliness.

This is not about Game 1, the score, or even the hit on Lars Eller by Eric Gryba. Rather, I am writing to express my abject disgust over the front page headline juxtaposed with the photo of Lars Eller. The picture is of Eller directly after a hit (one that sent him to hospital with a concussion, facial and dental fractures), bleeding profusely; the headline reads: "First Blood Sens".

I am utterly dismayed at the lack of class and heart this shows on the part of your editors - from the sports editors to the editor-in-chief for allowing it to be published. If this were an Ottawa player, and a Montreal paper had the gutlessness to do the same, you, too, would be up in arms.

Shame on you for your exploitation of an injured player to laud your win. Your journalistic integrity is deeply lacking in compassion and class.

Note: (for the record: the story in the Sun begins:

"First, the Senators drew blood Thursday night.

Then, they smelled it.")
I believe if the editor had any integrity whatsoever, he would publish some sort of statement of regret. I doubt that would happen. As I said, I just wish they would print my letter.

 When I am feeling emotions of any kind - I write. It is my catharsis, my emotional cleansing, it is my therapy and happens to be a forte, and if I can share my words with those who can use them, need them, or should hear them, all the better.

Expressing my outrage, sharing it with my fellow Habs fans - and to my great and pleasant surprise, many MANY Sens fans - and perhaps getting an editor to think twice about what he allowed will go a long way toward the healing process needed after an unwelcome revisit of the nausea incurred when one sees one's team experience a stretcher-required injury mid-game.

Prayers to Lars for a speedy recovery and a FULL return to the ice.

And Go Habs GO!!!!!