Friday, November 25, 2016

Skiing Through Black Friday

The idea of joining throngs of hyped up shoppers the day after Thanksgiving has never appealed to me. I’m not much of a shopper to start – I can barely stand grocery shopping – and I don’t do well in crowds. For all my adult life, I have lived in places where it is easier to get into the mountains than it is to find a mall; this is one of the many things for which I am thankful – on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and all the other days.
Far from the madding crowds: scoping out a new season.

While the hoards of Black Friday shoppers rise early to stand in line, my family, if all goes well, will be making our way to the mountain for opening day of ski season. When there is snow on Thanksgiving weekend, I ski. That has been true since my immediate post-college years when I lived in Crested Butte, Colorado.

During those ski town days, I usually spent Thanksgiving working, then joined friends – and friends of friends – gathered in someone’s living room for a hodgepodge of holiday dishes and traditions around a makeshift collection of card tables and mismatched chairs. Most of us were far from home and family, working odd holiday hours in a town where shops, restaurants, and ski lifts were open on Turkey Day.

People showed up when they could, after or between shifts, coming together in the comfort of good food, friendly company, and talk about the fresh ski season. Back then I was thankful for being in the mountains, living in a beautiful place with other people who embraced that beauty and loved exploring the wide-open spaces around us. I was happy to have a job that included daily ski breaks, a decent place to live, and people to gather with on this holiday of giving thanks, even if they weren’t quite family.

I’m not sure I even knew about Black Friday until I moved back East. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention before. Or maybe this national day of shopping has morphed in the past couple of decades into the consumeristic beast it is now. In the modern era of constant connectivity, you don’t even have to leave the house to buy presents, and online shopping has its own special holiday in Cyber Monday.

Well before Thanksgiving, I started receiving texts and emails touting Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, sometimes from stores where I’ve never even shopped. They can send all the advertisements they want, I still won’t be buying today, and probably not Monday either. My holiday shopping tends to be on the small scale (even with three kids) and as local as I can make it.

During the Black Fridays I worked as a reporter, I spent a good portion of the day after Thanksgiving popping into those local shops in the post-parade crowd of Main Street Littleton, talking with local business owners and shoppers. The resulting story was generally a combination of fluff (what were the “hot” items this season) and substance (how important were Black Friday sales to these small shop owners).

Surrounded by hustle and bustle, and jotting soundbites into my reporter’s notebook, I longed for the steady hum of the chairlift’s bullwheel, the sensation of skis slicing through snow, the comfort of not being corralled into small spaces with so many people. (My claustrophobic exception is the tram car, where the end result of a top-to-bottom run absolutely justifies the sometimes crowded means of transport).

Lots of things have changed since those early post-college years, geographically and otherwise. My Thanksgivings have returned to a more traditional scene – a day off from schedules, gathering with family, eating too much. These days, I spend my winter weekends coaching 6- and 7-year-old aspiring ski racers. We kick off the season the day after Thanksgiving.

It turns out I am thankful now for some of the same things I was thankful for 20 years ago when I lived in the mountains of Colorado: work that allows me to ski quite a bit, a pretty nice place to live with the beauty of the mountains surrounding me, and the closeness of family. Plus, I get to spend Black Friday on skis.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 25, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 11, 2016

November Weekends

November and I have a touchy relationship. I could do with a bit more light and a lot more color than this month has to offer – or a quick switch to cold and snow, without the in-between damp chill and bare trees. It is my least favorite month. But there is one thing about November I like: the weekends.

Getting things done, November style.
My September and October weekends were chockfull of soccer games and Saturday meetings and short road trips to visit out-of-town relatives. Every weekend seemed to have some lengthy commitment – whether fun or purely obligatory. And a few weeks from now, my family will dive into our weekend ski routine. If you’ve read this column before, you know I love skiing. But winter is a long-haul season of full days in the cold, coaching on weekends, and getting kids up and out early seven days a week.

While I am looking forward to the start of ski season, I am also appreciating this relative weekend downtime for the short while it lasts. On November weekends, there is wiggle room. Time to go for a meandering morning run or meet up with friends or linger at the table with a second (or third) cup of coffee and some reading. The kids can do as they please – stay in bed with a good book, scout out potential new bike trails in the woods, run around the yard with the puppy.

These November weekends give us time to catch up and regroup. Last weekend, as I was hauling the winter clothing out to determine which kids (all of them) have outgrown which gear (most of it), I also – finally – put the leftover summer stuff into winter storage. We haven’t been swimming in ages, but in that slow shift from summer days to fall, there seemed a lingering chance we’d see one more hot afternoon and head for a dip in the river. By the time the seasons had fully transitioned, I was too deep in the thick of back-to-school, homework, and soccer chaos to notice the bag of beach towels and swim goggles still hanging in the mudroom.

Winter, of course, has infinitely more gear than summer. Instead of flip-flops and bathing suits, there are heavy fleece layers, hats and mittens, wet snow boots, and bulky coats – not to mention skis and ski boots and helmets and goggles. Each November I have to figure out again how to make it all fit into the designated space. Each year, as the kids grow, it seems that space takes over more of the house.

It takes all of November’s weekends to make the transition from the last season to the next. We spend time cleaning out the gardens, picking up the yard, finishing up any warmer-weather projects that have loitered through the summer and fall. But the chores are fit into space with comparatively fewer time constraints than we had a few weeks ago and will have again by the end of the month.

Come the day after Thanksgiving, we’re on the slopes. Then comes the rush and full-bore excitement of Christmas, followed closely by our family’s two straight months of birthdays to celebrate. Winter weekends are fun, but very full. And they’ll be here soon enough. For now, I am stuck in November, a month that will probably never be my favorite. I could easily skip its Mondays-thru-Fridays. But I’ll take what I can in the freedom of November weekends. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 11, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Soccer Love

At the end of the day we were cold, sopping wet, and exhausted. The 3rd and 4th grade soccer team I coach had played five games over the course of 10 hours. They’d experienced soccer firsts – three penalty kick shootouts, one last second (literally) goal, and a sudden death overtime – which is a lot to throw at 8- and 9-year-old kids. They handled it all like champs, and I bet this is a day they remember for a long while.

I love soccer, have loved it for as long as I can remember. The game has been an integral part of my life from childhood onward. Soccer led me to friendships in high school and focus in college. It introduced me to places and people I wouldn’t know without it – in Europe during a brief high school tour, in Colorado when I moved there after college, and in Connemara where soccer became a comfortable connection to a place far from home.

I started coaching when my kids were in kindergarten because I wanted to introduce them to the sport. Over the last five falls, I’ve had the privilege of introducing their friends and teammates to soccer, too. Coaching is a labor of love – and of balancing various skill and interest levels, kid-sized attention spans, and parental expectations.

Sport can be transformative, and as a coach of young kids, I get to witness that transformation up close – both in my own children and in their teammates. I am fully aware that the kid who is a complete goofball in 2nd grade may morph into one of the strongest players in 5th grade, and that the one who is the biggest and most coordinated in 1st grade won’t necessarily be the strongest in 6th grade. I know that the 4th grader who has never touched a soccer ball before, but who comes to practice all season and pays attention and works really hard is going to make steady improvements.

Through soccer I get to watch my older daughter, who loves fashion and embraces femininity, transform into this tough girl who will dribble through opponents and fight for 50-50 balls against kids much bigger than she is. It is no wonder that her soccer idol is Alex Morgan, who somehow always looks as if she’s just stepped out of the beauty parlor, even as she’s burning her soccer opponents and scoring goals.

I watch my son tackle the sport with a completely different mindset, steady in the backline, confident now in taking command of a defense. Where my daughter is all bursts of speed and changing pace, my son is methodical, thoughtful, steadfast. Never one to be left behind, their little sister, whose soccer season ended two weeks ago, practices push passes against her dresser when she is supposed to be getting ready for bed. I know I could just take the ball out of her room, but I kind of love that she wants to play soccer all the time.

I have watched their friends grow through the sport, too, seen them transition from clumsy kids with too-big shin guards to soccer players who pass the ball with confidence, make moves, support each other. Saturday I got to see one group of kids overcome nerves and bad weather to play together as a team. Three times I watched five of these children step up to the penalty kick spot and take their best shots. I got to share in their relieved exaltation when they scored, and I knew their frustrated disappointment when they missed. Fifteen times, I watched our young goal keeper of the day stand, sometimes on the verge of tears, and face PK shooters from other teams.

Soccer can be a tough sport, and coaching is not always easy. It makes for sometimes hectic family life, frenzied dinners thrown together between practice and bedtime, and a week’s worth of homework crammed into non-soccer days. I spend more time thinking about the teams I coach and their young players than I probably should. And each year, somewhere about two-thirds of the way through the season, I wonder why I do this to myself. I think, sometimes, how much simpler it would be to just drop the kids off at the start of practice and pick them up at the end.

But I don’t think I could do that. I love the game too much. I love seeing the kids, my own included, develop a love of soccer and an understanding of how to play it. I love when a 1st grader tells me she’s done her soccer homework, and when a 3rd grader proudly shows off his new goalie gloves, and the smile from the kid who always says thanks at the end of practice.

Saturday, our team lost in the finals of the annual Halloween Cup on our home field. We were cold and wet and bone-tired. But I think the kids felt a sense of accomplishment at making it so far. As I watched these young soccer players disperse into the pouring rain of a darkening night, huddling under umbrellas held by their faithful fans and climbing into warm cars, I felt proud of their growth over the season and their perseverance through a long day. And I felt lucky to be their coach.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 28, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.