Brian Keaney

Tag: YES

I really do like foreigners

A few years ago I went on a date with a girl from Nigeria, and somewhere between the appetizer and desert I told her that I don’t like foreigners.   I expected the confused look that came over her face, so I quickly followed up by explaining that I consider anyone south of Connecticut or west of Vermont to be a foreigner.   I don’t simply mean people from Germany, or Mexico, or even Nigeria.

It’s not really true that I don’t like people who are not from New England.  It’s just that I don’t understand them.  And, as a psychology professor was recently quoted, “normal” means like me, while “abnormal” means unlike me.  There are, obviously, a lot of abnormal people in the world.

A few weeks ago I took my dad to watch his two favorite teams, the Patriots and the Packers, face off at Lambeau Field.  On our drive to the stadium we asked Siri for directions to a sports bar, and she took us to what was essentially a double wide trailer backing up to some train tracks in a small town outside Green Bay.

Now I’m a fan of a good dive bar, but in Boston that usually means a little hole in the wall that’s been around for a couple hundred years and was last updated during the Coolidge Administration.  This DePere, Wisconsin watering hole wouldn’t even qualify as a dive in Boston, much less as a sports bar.

While sitting there watching the 1:00 (or 12:00 Central) game, a friend asked via text what I thought of Green Bay.  “Wisconsin has entirely met my expectations,” I replied.  What was left unsaid, but perfectly understood, was that those expectations were pretty low.

The next day David Brooks published a column in which he talks about snobs such as myself, and the growing class divide in this country:

Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms. In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: “It don’t make no difference.”

I very much live in that first world, but I’m not completely insulated from the second.  As the snow starts falling here in New England, I am excited to begin volunteering again with children from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, teaching them how to ski.  I get a great deal of satisfaction being able to share an activity that I love, and one which puts a strain on my budget, with children who, living in that other world, otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.

Brooks’ greater point was that the Great Gatsby-ization that we are experiencing has inserted classism where racism once reared its ugly head.  He’s right, but I think it goes further than that.  Pointing a finger squarely at myself, I recognize that somehow I am more comfortable with the urban poverty prevalent a few miles from my own home than I am with the rural poverty common in other parts of the country.

I will empathize with the poor in films like Precious, set in Harlem, but am left with an ick feeling watching Mud, which takes place on the Mississippi River in Arkansas.  Both were phenomenal films, and I highly recommend them both, but somehow the poverty portrayed in the latter is more distasteful.

I also recognize that my discomfort with the way the rural poor live says a lot more about me than it does about them.  After all, did we not just celebrate a child laid in a manger?  Talk about poverty, and rural poverty at that.  Still, any place where “the Cheese Castle” is the biggest attraction for an hour in either direction is likely to remain a mystery to me.

Truth be told, I really liked the people I met in Wisconsin.  To a person they had that famous Midwestern friendliness, and this includes the barmaid in the Clay Matthews jersey who actually turned up the volume when I played “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” on the jukebox.  I particularly liked the pretty blonde who told me after the game that I “would look so hot in green and gold.”  I, on the other hand, have been known to yell “Go back to New York” at people wearing Yankees hats in Boston, although in my defense I’ve usually been somewhere south of sober.

Even after four years of living there I still experience culture shock in that Deep South city in the District of Columbia, and that doesn’t even begin to compare to to the island paradise known as Hawai’i.  (“Why,” I ask myself every time I get on an escalator there, “are these people standing still?  Move!”)

When people ask why I moved back to Boston from my apartment four blocks from Waikiki Beach–and they always ask–I have a ready answer for them:  This is home.  I mean, of course, that this is where I grew up and this is where my family is.  Just as much, however, I mean that Boston is normal while Honolulu, as picture postcard perfect as it is, is abnormal.

 

 

 

Out of the mouths of kiddos

I do all the warm up drills with the kids except skipping. I refuse to skip.

This morning on the bus a little girl I’ve seen many times before got on, per usual, with her Justin Beiber backpack strapped on to her shoulders.  Normally this wouldn’t merit a second look, but her neon orange socks were matched by a t-shirt of the same color.  Even then, the only reason I cared was that I saw that shirt being distributed the night before but somehow never noticed her at the distribution site.

After the little snow New England saw this winter finally melted away, it seemed like my volunteering days with YES would be put on hold until next ski season.  They have a full lineup of summer activities, but all of them are during weekdays.  Or so I thought.  Turns out they have a track and field team that meets twice a week in the evening.  Even though I’ve never run track, I missed working with the kids and signed up.

The kids range in age from four to 14, and I think there are even a few three-year-olds thrown in there.  Had you asked me at the beginning of the season  which group I did not want, I would have told you the really little ones.  They are fun in short doses, but I thought I would get more out of it working with the older kids.  Turns out I was wrong, and that the four- and five-year-olds keep me both constantly smiling and forever trying to make sense of the senseless knock knock jokes they find so hilarious.  (I wasn’t wrong about the short doses thing, though.  By the time practice is over they are about ready to be done and I am about done trying to organize chaos.)

After practice last night they started handing out t-shirts to some of the kids, and it was one such shirt that I saw on the bus this morning.  Turns out that if your child attends enough of this absolutely free program where they get to make new friends, exercise, and learn the fundamentals of a sport that could bring them eternal high school glory (and who knows, maybe even a trip to the Olympics), they get a free t-shirt. How is that for an enticement to get them to make 10 practices or meets where they have everything to gain and nothing to lose?

They also had some embroidered polo shirts for the coaches.  It was a very nice gesture, and one that I should have been more appreciative of, but earlier events that evening made it all but impossible.  Several weeks ago the other coach who works regularly with the little ones told me that the kids “adored me.”  I didn’t believe her, but in fairness that didn’t stop me from bragging to my sisters that I was an object of adoration.  They, not unexpectedly, had a reaction that could be described as something short of adoring.

Last night I began to think that my fellow coach may have been on to something.  While keeping some sort of order as the kids jumped over hurdles that could be hidden by tall grass, one of the four-year-olds came up behind me and hugged my leg.  Initially taken a little aback, I looked down and smiled at her.  It was then that she looked those big blue eyes up at me and said, “You’re doing a great job, kiddo.”

Where she came up with a line like that I have no idea, but it sure meant a whole lot more to me than any polo shirt ever will.

Arctic Omegle

“What color is your underwear?”

I was not expecting such a question, and especially not one from such a cherubic little voice.  While it immediately pulled me back from the day dream I was in, the giggles and the maternal chastisement that immediately followed the question let me know that this child was not making a pass at me.

“Who said I was wearing any,” I called back.  The little kid succeeded in shocking me, which I am sure was her intent, and I’m pretty sure my response affected the same result in her.  I think we both also got a chuckle from the encounter as well.

Our brief conversation took place as we passed each other yesterday afternoon on a chairlift shuttling skiers between two peaks.  I had been thinking earlier in the day, while chatting up some fellow skiers in the gondola, that the lifts are much like Omegle, the web service that connects two strangers for a brief web chat.   I only tried Omegle once or twice to see what it was all about after watching the below video, but was much less impressed with the quality of people I found on the other end and did not return.

 

Maybe it is just because I am so shy, but I find that I almost never have a silent ride up to the summit, even on days like today when I am skiing solo.  During one gondola ride today I was explaining how YES worked, where I  teach a lesson to some city kids in the morning and have the afternoon free to ski by myself.  “That’s very admirable,” my fellow rider told me.

I thought about his comment for the next few runs, and then even on the bus ride back to Boston.  I don’t volunteer with YES or any other organization to earn anyone’s admiration, although I do strive to live a life that is admirable.  It also made me question whether or not I even want to tell people in the future that I volunteer with the group.  Just as I try not to drop the H-bomb, I don’t want people on the lifts to think that I am bragging, and I would be perfectly happy for my left hand to not know what my right hand was doing.

I came to the conclusion that because I think the mission of YES is important enough that it should be spread – especially among those who know what gliding down a mountain on a pair of planks can do for the psyche, and who might be in a position to help – that  I’ll continue to tell people if it naturally comes up in conversation.  Besides, like on Omegle, chances are I will never see them again, and so the impression  that they will walk, erm, ski, away with, is that of the organization, not of me.