End Zones & Time Zones

Seattle SeahawksI was seventeen the first time I watched the Super Bowl all the way through.

I’m sure it was on other years, but I could never be bothered to watch. I’d float in for the halftime show or a few commercials. The game itself felt endless, piles of people crawling across the field, lacking the precision of baseball, the speed of basketball, or the precise single-mindedness of soccer. Had I been alive during the “Heidi Bowl” of 1968, I would have cheered when the game flickered off in overtime, giving way to an actual story, for once.

But when I was a senior in high school, the New England Patriots were playing the St. Louis Rams in a pre-Katrina Superdome, with a pre-everything, second-season Tom Brady. I’d recently decided that Gordon College, just outside of Boston, held the key to my future. With this destiny in mind, I decided to watch the Super Bowl. If I was going to be a New Englander, I best start cheering for my team.

And cheer I did. I remember little of the actual game now. (Honestly, if I remembered any specific plays it would be a miracle. Even this summer’s glorious final World Cup match has become a faint and distant memory.) U2 performed the halftime show, as the names of those killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks–just five months prior–scrolled on a giant screen behind them. The Patriots won, possibly in overtime.

When I came to Ballard High School the next day, where I was a copy editor for our school newspaper, I proofread the final draft of that month’s paper, and discovered a hole in the Sports section.

“Someone, write an article on the Super Bowl,” the Editor-in-Chief commanded. No response. “Didn’t anyone watch it?” Apathetic shrugs all around.

“I watched it,” I replied, breaking the silence as skeptical classmates turned to look at me.

“Really?” He raised his eyebrows, then shrugged. “OK, fine. Kristi, you write it.”

It was my first and last sports article, 200 words I’m still proud of writing. I think it is cut out somewhere, buried in a box in my parents’ garage. The first Super Bowl I cared about.

Of course, life didn’t turn out that way. A week later I visited Gordon, and a few months later I decided to stay in Seattle, picking my parents’ alma mater, Seattle Pacific University, for mostly financial reasons. I never became a Patriots fan, except in “lesser of two evils” scenarios.

I did watch more Super Bowls, though. I watched in 2005, when the Seahawks went to their first championship ever, losing to the Steelers under referee-related circumstances that my Ingraham ninth-graders wailed about loudly the next morning. After mocking my colleagues and students here in Germany for three years for the nonsense of staying up all night on a Sunday, last February I set my alarm for midnight and watched (most of) Seattle’s victory over Denver.

I still don’t love football, still find it agonizingly slow at times. I still choose sleep over watching most nights, even when, like during the NFC Championship, that proves to be a terrible decision. But a few magical times a year, football connects me with home, with family and friends, a giant cause that we all care about together. It’s just a game, of course, hardly the most critical cause in the world, but it’s something, a link of excitement to a city full of people I love.

With just about everyone in Seattle, I’ll be watching the Super Bowl again this year. And this time, I won’t be rooting for the Patriots.

Four World Cups {And Kandern, My Home}

Lexi dons jersey and flag face paint to cheer for Germany vs. Ghana

Lexi dons jersey and flag face paint to cheer for Germany vs. Ghana

I confess, I wasn’t watching when they scored the first goal.

Distracted by the coolness of the German away jerseys–red and black blocks that take me straight back to Ballard High School–I was doing some online shopping when the pub erupted, reacting to Thomas Müller’s clean shot past Brazilian keeper Júlio César.

“Ahh, I missed it!” I wailed, looking up in time to catch the replay. My friends laughed at me. I’ve missed most of the German goals this World Cup, distracted by conversation or falling asleep before the inevitable extra time periods at the late ends of 0-0 games. Watching sports is not one of my gifts, you see. Distraught that I’d possibly missed the only action in this game, I fixed my eyes on the screen bedecked with international bunting, hoping there would be another goal.

I needn’t have worried.

Quite by accident, I’ve been in Germany during the last four World Cups. I don’t remember 2002, South Korea, though there must have been posters or headlines somewhere when I was dragging my 17-year-old self through the dim underworld of the München Ostbahnhof, trying to figure out where to buy a train ticket to Salzburg. I wasn’t paying attention when Germany lost to Brazil in the final.

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia, 2006

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia, 2006

I remember 2006, though, taking a night train full of drunken Italian footballers headed for Dortmund, shopping in Munich on the raucous day that Tunisia played Saudi Arabia there. I remember my friends telling me, wide-eyed, that they’d never seen so many German flags on display. “We don’t usually display our flags,” they explained to me, “Not since… We’re careful about nationalism now.”

In 2010, two American girls and three German girls grilled bratwurst in Austria, then sighed when Germany lost the semi-final to Spain, way down in South Africa. We watched the final in a library, and two Dutch Tauernhof students dominated both the cheering and the lament, though we were all wearing orange and were all disappointed.

Watching the Spain vs. Germany semi-final in 2010

Watching the Spain vs. Germany semi-final in 2010

This year is different. This year comes at the end of four years living in Germany, where people care deeply about this sport and feel comfortable expressing love for their country only during football matches. There are more German flags out in general than there were 12 years ago, but especially now. Since this World Cup began, I’ve watched games in three countries, and heard commentary in four languages, only two of which I understood. Back in 2010, when my Somali and Mexican students would watch the group stage games in my classroom during lunch, I got the impression that this World Cup business was a big deal, captivating the whole world in a way that few other events did. Now, I know for sure.

Afraid of missing something, I pay fastidious attention to the rest of the game, a 7-1 rout by Germany, which will be catalogued in history with statistics particularly miraculous or damning, depending on your perspective. “What is even happening?” we cry, disbelieving, after each goal. “Does this ever happen?” We cheer as well as we can–and have dressed in the required red, black and gold–but we’re no match for the Kanderners, who shout, cry, and break into song as the victory grows more secure.

Watching Germany vs. France, 2014 Quarterfinal, on the Fourth of July!

Watching Germany vs. France, 2014 quarter-final, on the Fourth of July!

Tomorrow, I’ll read the German coach Joachim Löw’s consolatory words for defeated Brazil, and scan faintly guilty Facebook statuses from German friends, along the lines of “We wanted to win, but this… Wow.” Tonight, though, we celebrate. When it’s over, the Kanderners jump into their cars for the bizarre and perilous ritual of driving around in circles through our village, laying on their horns and shouting. “Wir haben gewonnen! We’ve won!” they remind us as we walk home, laughing. “Show some spirit!” Apparently, a honking horn is the only acceptable response in cases like these.

I lack the knowledge and vocabulary to speak of the influence of the World Cup on the world, whether it ultimately unites or divides, whether it’s worth the cost, especially to Brazil tonight. But I’m thankful to be here, to share something so deeply important to so many, to live in this village where they cheer into the night.

Running Together

My roommate Emily and me at the finish!

My roommate Emily and me at the finish!

For four kilometers I’m alone, just the way I like it.

There are many senses in which I’m not at all alone, actually. There are hundreds running this ten-kilometer stretch of the 2013 Basel Marathon with me today. Among these hundreds are fifteen coworkers and friends, with whom I drove down here this morning from Kandern. But I can’t see any of them right now, so it doesn’t matter. Wrapped in the dual solitudes of foreignness and competition, I’m alone with my thoughts as I run down steep, cobble-stony streets and past timbered halls older than my country.

Some days it still feels like summer in this corner of the world, a wine-soaked bowl of sunlight between the Rhine and the Black Forest, but this morning nudged us into autumn. Though it’s no longer early morning in Basel, fog clings like a bright, damp veil to the city.  I turn a corner and sprint down a hill, past well-outfitted fellow runners, running through streets just a little less colorful than they were a few months ago, fading toward their final blazes of glory. It’s a delightful morning to be running alone.

I’m ruining the metaphor, I know. Ever since Paul appealed to his Greek readers with references to race-running in his epistles, running has been the go-to sermon illustration for pastors everywhere. With its perseverance and delayed rewards, its goals and dramatic finishes, I understand the symbolism, nodding my inspired agreement when I read these verses. But I know I’m a poor example, choosing solitude over solidarity almost every time.

I’ve heard often about the value of running in a team, the exhortative power of a body of runners spurring one another to greatness. “If you want to run fast, run alone,” said one of my German Upward Bound Students to me, a few summers ago, before he finished in pithy triumph: “But if you want to run far, run together.” There’s beauty in that, as I remember from the leaf-strewn afternoons of high school cross-country. But high school was a while ago; now I want to run alone.

Which is why I’m less than thrilled when, somewhere in the fourth kilometer, one of my teammates catches up to me. I wouldn’t have minded if she’d beat me, out of sight and ahead the whole time, but this catching up is a different business.  Even as the least competitive of a non-competing family, I’d rather the defeat not transpire right in front of me.

Still, I realize quickly that she’s not slowing down, this skilled colleague and secret running genius. “Not being beaten” is not a matter of passing her on a downhill and speeding off. She’s fast and tenacious. I’ll have to keep running, and quickly, for another half of a race.

I’m briefly disappointed, picking up my pace as it occurs to me that this might be my fastest 10K ever. I wanted to run alone. I didn’t want to compete. Now I am.

Yet somewhere around kilometer seven–when the ancient hills of the Old City have melted into some dreadful flat industrial yards to the north–I realize that this is nothing but good. I’m still running just behind my teammate, but my strengths have run out. I’m from the Northwest, a well-trained runner of up and downhills. Here in the flats, I’m useless, easily bored by the lack of topography. But a few steps ahead of me runs a Texan, skilled lover of the flats, firmly and steadily pacing us along this hill-less wasteland.

We push each other. We’ll acknowledge it later, when medals are handed to us just two tenths of a second apart, that we challenged one another the whole race through. She clipped us through the flats when I was discouraged; I pulled us up and down the hills when she was weary. Either way, we were both faster together than we would have been alone.

As I round the final corner, I realize that this is how we live in Christ, not competing with those around us, but running with them, often to the benefit of both. I see it in our school, a place where we’re constantly speeding up and slowing down to match pace with those we teach. I see it in community, as we learn to listen and speak the languages of those around us. I see it in the beginning of a marriage–still three months away–the way in which we use our gifts to serve one another.

It’s not competition, this running together; it’s community. Crossing the finish line, with a teammate just in my peripheral vision, I’m glad for the first time that I haven’t run alone.

The Kandern contingent of the Basel 10K (and Half Marathon)!

The Kandern contingent of the Basel 10K (and Half Marathon)!

On Basketball

BFA Boys enter the gym for the first home game of the year!

“Y’all ready for this?” asks the sound system on Friday night, the classic 90s warm-up playing just underneath the percussive arrhythmia of bouncing rubber balls and squealing rubber shoes, all three sounds telling us one thing: the Game is about to start. When the pre-game clock runs down to zero, most of the students in the building line up on either side of the gym doors, forming a tunnel of hands, arms and faces to usher their basketball team onto the court. The players run through, the grins of their classmates mirrored on their elated faces. It’s a great moment, a shining one.

It’s the first regular-season home basketball game at Black Forest Academy, and the excitement here is palpable. I see all day it in the pressed shirts, tied ties and unpredictable nerves of the players, and hear now it in the crowd, where staff and parents from all over the area greet one another with stories of busy weeks and long journeys. Basketball games at BFA are more than sporting events; like the musical in the fall, everyone goes to basketball games, filling our small gym to bursting with the tense attention of a relaxed community.

By the Boys’ Varsity  tip-off, I’ve already been watching basketball for three hours. I’m sleepy, at the end of a full first week back at school, but there’s truly nowhere I’d rather be. Standing at the railing, I watch a crowd of kids in the corner of the gym floor, gathered together in an informal fan section and making up cheers on the spot. I love to see familiar school rituals re-imagined by our students, who take what they find meaningful and leave the rest. We have a school mascot, the Falcon, but the large, costumed bird seldom appears at events. “Too American,” the kids shrug. As far as I know, we’ve never had cheerleaders at BFA–perhaps they’re also too American–but cheering is mandatory for BFA students.

“Come on! Rebound!” I catch myself admonishing from the balcony a quarter into the game, watching the boys take multiple shots, one after the other. They’re good, these players, a strong and deep collection of athletes. I watch the passing, the changeovers, even the referee’s calls with a complete comprehension that surprises me.

I have a complicated relationship with basketball. Most sports I divide into the ones that I like to do–like rock climbing and volleyball–and the ones that I don’t like at all, either watching or doing, like football and Nascar. There are almost no sports that I enjoy watching for their own sake (though I relish the atmosphere of an occasional baseball and soccer game in Seattle).

But basketball is in its own category, saturated in memory, linked to love. I remember  watching the games that my dad officiated for extra cash, my little-girl eyes following players up and down the court. From every corner of the house, we could always hear Dad’s heated shouting at the players and coaches, running the game unhearing on the other side of the screen. At the end of the Final Four, that endless month when we couldn’t watch anything else but basketball on TV, I would come up to watch the musical collage of the tournament, played to “One Shining Moment” every single year. Basketball is a fine but strong thread running through my whole childhood, something I never quite understood, but became familiar with, all the same.

As a teacher, my feelings toward this game have changed again. I watched plenty of basketball games at Ingraham, always marveling to see my students–many of them young men teetering on the edges of various disasters–come alive in their passion. Even then, I remember thinking this was something different, watching people I loved do something they loved, that perhaps the television professionals never caught my attention because, in the end, they are strangers. Their success doesn’t have a hold on me.

My basketball-loving father just recently preached on the relationship of sports and worship, the symbolic significance of people coming together in support of something greater than themselves. While I feel this unity only faintly in professional sports, here in the BFA gym I understand completely. We are joined by affection, committed to this community and this newest expression of it. No matter their level of basketball interest, the students watch and cheer, happy to stand in solidarity with victory or defeat. It’s beautiful to see, and I’m thankful for the childhood thread, the knowledge that connects this place I love, the community of my immediate future, to my excellent dad and memories of home.

BFA students arrange themselves into a cheering section, here performing YMCA.