Thursday, January 21, 2016

Geography 101...

How are things in Burkina Faso?
 By Jim Heffernan

When the Korean War broke out in 1950 – I was quite young at the time – I’d never heard of a place called Korea. There were a lot of places I’d never heard of at that tender age, of course, but you accumulate knowledge as you grow older, and at least learn the names of various outposts as they show up in the news.

There even comes a day when your formal education is complete that you kind of figure you know where everything worth knowing about is on the globe. Well, not every little place, but at least countries around the world. Some might not be very familiar, but at least you know what continent some place in the news is on. If you’ve got a dental appointment in Samarra, you know right where to go, but I don’t recommend it.

So recently when there was news of unrest in a place called Burkina Faso, I was surprised I’d never even heard of it. Nor had I heard of Burkina Faso’s capital city, Ouagadougou. (Pity the poor broadcast journalist trying to pronounce that one.)

Where have I been, you ask?

I sometimes wonder myself. Here I thought I knew where most places were and this entire country in West Africa, with perhaps the most difficult-to-spell capital city on the planet, totally escapes me.

It set me thinking for a change, and I realize that many of the places I thought I knew about went and changed their names when I wasn’t paying attention. A check with Google reveals that Burkina Faso used to be called Upper Volta. Well, why didn’t they say so! I remember Upper Volta quite well. Isn’t that where we get our electricity from? Or is that Lower Volta?

This has also happened elsewhere. When I studied geography back in the Paleozoic Era, there was an island off the southern tip of India called Ceylon. So what happens? Suddenly it’s called Sri Lanka. When I first heard it called that I thought Sri Lanka was a tall skinny fashion model, maybe married to David Bowie, maybe not.

Then there was Burma. I knew Burma. It was on the road to Mandalay, where the flyin’ fishes play, and the sun comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay. Suddenly, and without warning, no more Burma (although it’s still a pretty good shaving cream). They changed it to Myanmar. How confusing is that?

Moving over to India, what in the world happened to Bombay? I’ll tell you what happened to Bombay. They now call it Mumbai. Why? I don’t know. To confuse those of us who had been complacent in thinking we knew where most things are, or were?

And don’t get me started on Zimbabwe. Poor Cecil Rhodes, who had an entire country named after him, only to have Rhodesia become Zimbabwe. 

This sort of thing has been bothering me for a long time and I’m happy to get it off my chest. Such things rarely happen in the United States of America. A place gets a name and sticks with it. Duluth. Chicago. Miami. And when American cities change their names, it makes sense.

Take a town in New Mexico formerly known as Hot Springs. In 1950 it changed its name to Truth or Consequences, after a radio quiz show of the day. The reason? Too many honeymooners with the old name.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Back to hockey after years of hooky...

I’ve been drawn back into the world of ice hockey after a hiatus of 25 years or so. I have three young grandsons now playing the game at the early-stage levels, starting with “squirt” and moving on up the line.

It means I have been attending a few kid hockey games again, bringing back memories of when I went to a lot of kid hockey games when my son, the father of these three up-and-coming Gretzkys, was playing at these same levels.

I’m pleased to say I’m better schooled in the fundamentals of the game now than I was when my education in hockey began as the father of young player. Before that, while I went to a lot of hockey games for social reasons when I was in college, I never paid much attention to the rules of the game, choosing instead to pretend to be interested while scanning the crowd or seriously discussing our frivolous plans after the game.

I wrote a column on my youth hockey experiences, my magnum opus on hockey, in the Duluth News Tribune in 1989 that got picked up in the book of my various columns, Cooler Near the Lake, that was published in 2008. I repeat that column here today. In a fit of shameless self-promotion, I’ll point out that the book, while not as ubiquitous in book stores any more, is still available locally at a couple of local shops, The Bookstore at Fitgers, Duluth Barnes and Noble store and online at: Zenith City Press, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

You'll find the column below, unabridged, and in my book. And again, stay tuned as I intend to write pretty regularly here once again.

The Game of Hockey Is a Lot Like Life–Stupid   
By Jim Heffernan
Heaven knows I try to keep up with what’s going on when I watch hockey, but it’s a fast game, and most of the time I don’t know why the referee or linesman or other guy in striped shirt blows the whistle, so I ask somebody and when they tell me I feel stupid.

I didn’t grow up playing or watching hockey and never paid that much attention to the rules of the game, so with hockey it’s like I’m from China or Mars or somewhere. I don’t know things other men seem to know about the game and when I ask and they have to tell me I feel stupid.

Oh, it’s pretty easy to follow hockey in a surface way–bunch of skaters in dark jerseys try to maneuver the puck past a bunch of skaters in light jerseys and put it in a mesh net protected by a “goaltender.” But a lot can happen along the way, and when they blow the whistle to stop the action I don’t know why so I have to ask somebody and when they tell me I feel stupid.

Or if they don’t stop the game, but the other people in the crowd begin to holler at the ref that he missed something I missed but I don’t know what he missed, I feel stupid.

It’s easy for guys who have been patrons of the game of hockey all their lives to recognize infractions of the rules, but how’s somebody like me who doesn’t know cross checking from butt ending supposed to know when they’re doing it? Then, if I ask somebody, I feel stupid.

I’m getting better. I used to wonder about things like “off side” and “icing” and when I’d ask someone what happened (“Why’d they blow the whistle?”), they’d explain what an off side is or what icing is and when I didn’t really catch on they’d think I’m stupid. 

But I’ve got those down good now–so good that, when I see the puck go all the way from one end of the ice to the other and the official blows his whistle, I mutter “icing” to the person next to me who gives me a look that has “so what else is new?” written all over it, and I feel stupid.

Same thing with “off sides.” After years of inquiring, I finally learned that they’re off side when the skater crosses the “blue” line ahead of the puck, so I’m pretty quick to show off my knowledge by hollering “off side” when it happens, but nobody else does because it’s so obvious and then I feel stupid.

After years of watching hockey games, I still have trouble figuring out which penalties are which. The referee has certain hand signals that other people recognize as signals for such offenses as high sticking, hooking or slashing, but I don’t know which signal is which, and when I have to ask somebody what the penalty was, I feel stupid.

I don’t think I’ll ever really understand what they mean by “forechecking” but sometimes when I watch the game on TV and they interview a sweaty, breathless player at the end and ask him, “What was it that turned the game around for you guys?” and the player says, “We forechecked well,” I always wonder how I could have watched a whole game and not noticed, and right there in my living room I feel stupid.

Hockey announcers are always making me feel stupid. When they describe the action on audio they see things I’m not seeing on video, like where the puck is going on the ice–places like “the slot” and “the point,” which are not marked on the ice, although “the crease” is, and they’re not talking about pressed breezers, which I thought for a long time, and when I found out the hard way–by asking–what it really was, I felt stupid.

There are certain things I understand about hockey, but then everybody understands them because how could you miss them? Like “charging.” Your kid (your kid is why you see all this hockey in the first place) goes on the road for a weekend series and you have to stay in a hotel for two nights and you pull out your Master Card and put the weekend on it, that’s charging, and when I do it I feel stupid.

Sometimes as I watch the frustration the hockey players experience in chasing that little black puck around a slippery surface while being knocked around by other people just for trying to achieve a goal, I think of hockey as a metaphor for life, because the same things happen to you when you try to accomplish anything–there’s always somebody in your way to knock you off balance and stop you from reaching your goal–­and when my mind wanders down those philosophical pathways I miss something on the ice like “hooking” or “slashing” and I ask somebody what happened and when they tell me I feel stupid.

Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, Feb. 26, 1989

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Star Wars: In need of a family tree…

Blog note…
With the arrival of 2016 I have decided to resume writing regular columns on this blog, 
hopefully at least once a week, in the spirit of the columns I wrote for the Duluth News Tribune a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away. This is No. 1 in this new series. Stay tuned for more.
 – Jim Heffernan

Darth Vader (source: databank)
By Jim Heffernan
 I saw the latest “Star Wars” movie, along with several gazillion other people in North America and other continents. I enjoyed it very much.

I am of the generation of moviegoers old enough to have seen the first “Star Wars” when it came out in the 1970s as an adult, so it was fun to see this latest one, officially titled “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” because some of the characters in the originals like Han Solo, Princess Leia and Chewbacka return.

Han, Leia and I have aged at about the same rate of wrinkling since the first one almost 40 years ago. I am close in age to Harrison Ford, who plays Han Solo -- just a couple of years older. It’s rare to have characters reprised and played by the same actors after so many years. They couldn’t do that if they remade “Gone With the Wind.” Clark Gable (Rhett Butler) would be 115 years old this year.

How many “Star Wars” movies have there been all together? Google would know but I’m not going to bother. But trying to recall the blood relationships of several of the lead characters in the originals who show up in this latest space epic are confusing to me. Besides the first one, called simply “Star Wars,” I saw “The Empire Strikes Back” a couple of years later, and “Return of the Jedi” not long after that.

If memory serves, it turned out that evil Darth Vader, he the ominous be-robed and masked leader of the forces of the Dark Side, was the actual father of good-guy Luke Skywalker, even though the first movie ended with an action-packed battle between the two of them with their trusty light sabers. 
Obi-Wan and Vader in their famous light saber duel
(source: databank)

So now nearly 40 years fly by and in “The Force Awakens” we have a new masked villain representing the Dark Side (capital letters intended; the side is very dark and deserves them), whose name escapes me because it isn’t as catchy as Darth Vader (sounds kind of like Death Invader to me). Anyway, the new bad guy, in a reflective moment, says he is the grandson of Darth, and even has Darth’s deteriorating, crumpled up hooded mask on a table near where the new bad guy momentarily reflects.

OK, fine. Bad guy has bad guy grandson. It’s all in the grandparenting; apple doesn’t fall far from the family tree, and all that. They both dress in dark robes and talk through those face covering helmets that make their voices lower and kind of echoey. Ominous figures.

Millennium Falcon
(source: databank)
Then later in the current opus, out prances old Han Solo from his old spaceship the Millennium Falcon and reunites after many years apart with old Princess Leia Organa (except now she’s General Leia Organa), still leader of the good people’s movement, and they start talking like they had an affair way back when (that I don’t recall from way back then), and this new bad guy with the mask and helmet is THEIR son, gone over to the Dark Side.

So, if this new bad guy is their son, how can Darth Vader be his grandfather, if Darth was never established as the father of Solo or Leia, but rather the father of Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi knight (the Jedis are good guys in perpetual war with bad guys…like America today on Earth), unless unbeknownst to me Luke and Leia were an item a long time ago in a galaxy far away, as is certainly now implied. Got that? I’m not sure I have.

I know there must be clear answers to these questions, and I know there might be a Star Wars devotee or two who might read this and will straighten me out, and I hope they will.

Help me out here. We need a Star Wars family tree.