Family Matters

A Little Perspective

My son’s high school basketball team placed 3rd in the WA State 2A B-Ball Tournament.  I was inspired to write this commentary which was published in our local paper.

imageOk, I’ll admit it; it has been almost a week and I’m going through basketball withdrawal.  Over the course of the last three weeks I’ve felt physically sick, euphoric, anxious, frustrated and that’s just on the way to the games.  Does this mean I’m hooked? The whirlwind ending of high school basketball culminating in the State tournament is an unforgettable experience.  There is a level of intimacy and immediacy in the confines of the basketball court that’s electrifying. You can’t help but become involved in the game when you can almost reach out and touch the players, see the sweat, hear the hard foul, hum along with timeless fight songs and cheers, and feel the excitement of the crowd in the ebb and flow of the game.  As a parent you’re helpless, there is nothing you can do but be a spectator and go along for the wild ride, one game after another.  The farther they go, the more nerve-wracking it becomes as the possibility of going all the way comes into view.  Of course, there is always plenty of opportunity to vent anxiety and frustration by second guessing the referees, coaches or players’ actions; it is all part of the experience.

Like many parents these days I’ve hauled my three children to practices, stood on muddy sidelines in horrible weather, coached the seemingly uncoachable,  waited in endless ferry lines , and been to every out-of-the way field, gym ,Taco Bell and Subway in the Puget Sound region.  I have to be honest; I haven’t always been a good sport about it.  On many an occasion I found myself thinking, “Why am I doing this?”, “What are we doing here?”, or worse “why doesn’t that idiot with the big mouth shut up”.  Yet, a comment by a longtime VHS basketball fan at the end of the last game at State brought the past 20 years or so into perspective; with tears welling up in his eyes he said “It doesn’t get any better than this… this is what its all about”.

By all counts this is perhaps the best basketball team in school history.  Certainly there have been other good teams and great individual players, but collectively this is an extraordinary group of young men not simply because they were winners but because they were a TEAM.  In all my years of participating in and watching sports I have never seen a group so collectively committed to the true spirit of team play.

Watching this group in action I am reminded of the bigger picture, the part of the sports experience that is not about winning but about deeper lessons of life… no, not just life lessons for our kids, lessons for us parents as well.  Although we immerse ourselves and our families in all kinds of activities for the good of our kids there is a part of us that hopes that through our efforts they will excel, be on a winning team, maybe even be a standout, a star with a chance to earn recognition or even a scholarship.  Don’t get me wrong, winning is great, but winning is the easy part.  Putting team ahead of self, that’s the challenge.  Somehow this group got that message, took it to heart and lived it.

One of the most memorable moments in my own son’s play came in a mid-season game.  Driving full speed toward the basket on a 2-on-1 fast break, the obvious choice was to take the shot himself, yet he chose to draw out the lone defender and make a short pass to an open teammate.  A split second decision in the heat of a game, a profound reflection on who he is as a person and teammate.  Of all the other great plays he has made in the many sports he has played over the years (he has been to a State tournament 5 times in 3 sports and placed 1st twice) I’ll never forget that moment…  I could not have been more proud. 

You are right Terry; it doesn’t get any better than that… that is what it is all about.

Watch a 5 minute movie with audio of still images of the tournament


Now That’s A Pizza!

imageEvery trip back to NY has a food component that often seems as important as making the rounds visiting family and friends. Don’t get me wrong I love to see people but there are certain longstanding if not primal needs that must be satisfied, the main one being my need for good pizza.  The area of upstate NY I grew up in is home to many Italians and Slavs.  As a kid every few blocks seemed to have an small Italian market.  Just two blocks from our house is an Italian deli, Sam’s.  I grew up eatening the most wonderful sausages, breads, subs, simple Italian food and of course pizza.  After a morning of golfing one day Michael and I walked down the street and got two Italian subs for lunch.  Michael loves subs but he has grown up thinking that Subway subs are the real thing.  You should have seen his face after he bit into one of Sam’s Italian subs (made be real Italians!).

Many of the local delis make what are called sheet pizzas.  About twice to three times the thickness of normal round pizzas they measure about 14x30 and are enough to feed a small family.  Every deli has there own style but they share one thing… they are cheap, incredibly cheap $11-$15.00 with tax for plain!  And oh… how wonderful they are!  Usually my mother has one waiting for us when we arrive at the house.  For some reason on this visit she didn’t (should I read anything into that?) but in years past almost always.  We’d have some when we got in (which is usually 11 PM) and again in the morning, my personal favorite, for breakfast.  I love cold pizza for breakfast, especially sheet pizza.  Over the course of our two week stay we probably ate at least 8 pizzas.  I could eat them everyday.  I have even been known to bring pizza home frozen in the bottom of my suitcase.  I would have done so this time if not for the fact that we spent our last day visiting my brother-in-law in Albany before flying out.  My daughters were disappointed!

This is not my favorite (they have gotten a bit too greasy… I do have standards) but worth checking out if you are in the area: Nirchis’ Pizza
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most incredbile Italian sandwich bread I’ve ever had (my dad would get a fresh loaf every morning straight from the bakery): Jim Roma’s Bakery, 202 N Nanticoke Ave, Endicott, NY, 13760-4135, 607-748-7425

This Is What It Is

imageA few years back while visiting my folks I was able to acquire a large flat-bottom enameled mixing bowl that had been my grandmother Serko’s . I’m not sure of the age but it is at least 60 years old. She used it to make bread for Easter among other things. She was not much of a baker, although her “Pascha”, the name the Carpatho-Rus people (part of my heritage) give to bread made especially for Easter, was not bad. We have a running joke in our family about her pies; she use to make pies with the toughest crusts, so tough that she would lift up the crust to see if the pie was done! My pies are more in her style, so they are always an occasion to bring up her “doness test” for a good laugh. 

I am reminded of her every-time I use the bowl to make bagels, something I actually do quite well I’m not ashamed to admit. The large size and flat bottom is perfect for making 5-6 dozen batches. The flat bottom is key… it doesn’t flop around on the counter when mixing the dough into a knead-able mass.  I always think of her when I use it.  I can picture her in the kitchen working at her classic 50s gas stove.

imageBaba, as we called her, was born in the US but her parents were just barely in the country at the time. My grandmother worked hard her entire life. With two children she was a working mother, working at the Endicott Johnson shoe factory as a sole stitcher, attaching the sole to the upper on the shoe. My grandfather worked in the cutting room but I also think he spent some time in other equally difficult areas. I can remember seeing them on many occasion counting their piece-work tags at the kitchen table, bundling them together in orderly stacks with rubber bands. I’m assumming their entire pay was based on what they produced, piece by piece. They never made much money but were always generous. When I was home from college visiting her she would always slip me a 20 as I left. Christmas cards would always have a little money with her classic “God Bless Yous!” written in her uneven handwriting.

My grandmother was a wonderful easygoing woman, loved by all. She was not big on gossip but would always know what was going in the neighborhood and our church community (everyone she knew lived within walking distance of the church). On occasion she would let something slip about something or someone. When asked where she got her information, she’d say: “somebody told me… or “I got a whiff of it”. Never malicious in her sharing of such info she rarely would offer a judgmental view of something she’d heard.

Because she never had a car one of us in the family would take her to the grocery store.  When time came to make “holupki” (stuffed cabbage rolls), nobody wanted to take her. She would spend hours in the store picking through the cabbage, asking the produce man to bring out more, making him slice a few open and summarily rejecting them all then march out to go to another store in search of the perfect cabbage! As kids we were embarrassed by this but to her it was critical that she get the best. 

I don’t think she went to school past the eighth grade. She believed everything she read in the “Inquirer” or other gossip rags my aunt would leave her as the truth and would mention itmuch like she did other things she’d heard locally. Yet, she watched CNN all day long and knew about all the important issues of the day and politics. She loved to stay up late every night preferring to watch the edgy David Letterman to Jay Leno. Never wanting to part with something as expensive or extravagant as a TV she had multiple console TVs (tvs that looked like furniture) around the house she used as furniture, not viewing TVs. A TV served as a table for the phone and I recall that at one point her new TV (the plastic case kind) was placed on the old console one in the living room. Maybe it is the same one getting moved around but she even had one in the enclosed back porch with a few things stacked on top. Living through the Depression and other lean times makes for an entirely different mindset from our current “throw away” mentality.

I had the good fortune between college and grad school to work at IBM in a factory about four blocks from her house. My grandfather was still alive then and I would walk to their house everyday for lunch. What a joy it was to sit in their kitchen and eat with them.Baba was no gourmet but what she made was uniquely hers and had a taste that can’t be duplicated; isn’t that a trait of every grandmother?

Baba died a few years back at age 97.  Up until her early 90s she lived on her own. In her 97 years she had seen many things both good and bad. She lived through both world wars, the depression, life threatening illness of my grandfather, and a host of family difficulties. She had a sister, Mary, who got married around 1917 and went back to the old country with her husband (now Slovakia) to visit his family (against her mother’s wishes). He was immediatedly conscripted into the army and they were trapped there by WWI, later WWII and then the subsequent communist rule. They never saw each other again. For almost 70 years they corresponded by letter, unfortunately she didn’t keep a one (not surprising as you will see)! I would have loved to have a few of them, what a treasure they would be!

She had many cute sayings, some quite profound in their underlying meaning. One such saying was: “This is what it is” . She would use this expression in reference to many things. Sue and I always saw this as a very wise expression reflecting her attitude toward life. She took both the good and the bad and dealt with it, not bothering to worry about inconsequential matters. A few years ago Sue bought a teak “glider” bench for our front porch with a brass plate mounted on the backrest with “This Is What It Is”, her name with birth and death dates inscribed. Following in my grandmother’s footsteps I have a few sayings of my own (more on these another time) engraved on several outdoor chairs given to me as gifts. Unfortunately the wisdom and world view engendered in her “This Is What It Is” is not part of my makeup, I’m more of a “the glass is half empty” kind of guy… “why do I try?” ... that’s one of mine! Do you suppose my grandkids will mount that one someplace as a tribute to me someday? “Daddy… what was grandpa trying to do anyway?”.

I Got Skyped!

imageWhile at work today my computer started ringing with an incoming Skype call. Skype rings like an old fashion (well not that old, a rotary phone like-ring) phone. I ran over to my laptop and noticed a call from Peter Serko.  I looked for a few seconds at the name and was momentarily confused, thinking to myself .. there must be some problem with Skype, I’m calling myself.  Then it dawned on me, it was Peter A Serko from the Ukraine calling! As I have explained elsewhere, Peter and I share the same name and have corresponded for a number of years but we have never talked with each other.

It was a thrill to finally speak with him.  He was still at work about 7:30 pm his time, 9:30 am mine.  We ackwardly greeted each other.  Thankfully he speaks some English because I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian. We managed to talk for about a half hour, I had to select my words carefully and make sure to speak slowly. A few times we were not able to complete a line of thought because he couldn’t follow along but surprisingly we were able to talk about a number of things including his business, Ukrainian politics, our families and a few other minor things. It was great.

Peter’s daughter Lena apparently speaks English fairly well, so we agreed to speak again soon when Lena can be involved in the conversation. Lena is the same age as my daughter, Alice and is also a sophomore in college.

Isn’t technology wonderful!

Peter A Serko

imageAbout five or six years ago I Googled my name, Peter Serko.  I found a number of Serkos with various first names but to my surprise I found a Peter A Serko (I’m Peter J. Serko).  I don’t recall now exactly what the website where his name appeared was or what it said since it was in Ukrainian but it was business related and it had an email address for Peter.  I took a chance and composed a short email note of introduction and sent it. 

About two weeks later out of the blue I got an email from Peter.  He clearly spoke enough English to be able to read my email and compose an understandable reply.  At the time he was married;  wife Victoria and daughter Lena.  Lena is the same age as our daughter Alice and is in the second year of college.  Since then they have had another child Dasha. They live in Dnipropetrovs’k, an industrial city, on the River Dnieper in central Ukraine. He is involved in some way with a forging company that makes buckets or blades for tractors and bulldowsers.  I have never been quite clear if he has an ownership stake in the company. 

Over the years we traded emails about basic things, since the language barrier prevents anything too indepth and have exchanged packages with a few gifts once.  For almost a year we lost touch since I misplaced his address, he finally wrote and we were back on track. 

I just got a Orthodox Christmas greeting email with the picture that appears above attached.  A beautiful family!  It is always odd to get an email from him because my Inbox from field says: Peter Serko.  I think "humm.. I didn’t send myself an email did I?".

He noted in his email how happy they were with the election of Yuschenko and how hopefully they are that a democratic government will address the big problems that the country faces.  I replied telling him how distrought we were at the election of Bush.

My hope is that at some point in the future we will be able to meet in person.