Soccer ties North Hill refugee team together, to their home countries (Article and Video)

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Boo Le, a junior on the North High School soccer team, traces some of his earliest memories to playing soccer in a refugee camp in Thailand. (Photo: Dale Dong)

Part II of a series – adapted from an upcoming Akronist documentary

As we navigated the tree-lined streets of the Cuyahoga Falls suburb, we couldn’t make out the house numbers on this overcast evening, but I remembered something I was told about Nepali households in Akron: When in doubt, look for the marigolds. A signature of Nepal, marigold means “hundred leaf flower” and is a common sight in the front yards of Nepali families. We were on our way to visit the Dhimals, the owners of a Nepali market on Cuyahoga Falls Avenue in North Hill, whose son, Meg, was a standout player this season at North High School and is one of the subjects of our upcoming documentary project.

Like the marigold, Akron’s Nepali and Bhutanese refugees are sunny and colorful, as many of the older men in these communities sport colorful fez-style hats, and the women adorn themselves in ornately colored dresses. But these colorful wardrobes stand in contrast to some of the horrific conditions they’ve endured in the refugee camps. Truth is, they’re so incredibly grateful for this new life they’re living in Akron, that they will almost always greet you with a smile, clasped hands, a slight head bow and the signature “namaste.”

A visit to Meg Dhimal’s house, tucked into this middle-class neighborhood, is a wholly different experience than visiting the homes of some of his teammates, but his beginnings were as humble as those of his peers.

“When we were kicked out of Bhutan, we came to Nepal,” says Dhimal, a senior at North High School, who attends early college courses at the University of Akron. “They set up seven different camps and they were like small villages, and we had small huts made out of bamboo. The conditions were alright at first but then they got worse.”

He says his family did not have citizenship in Nepal, keeping them confined to the camps. And many refugees also had their citizenship revoked from their home country of Bhutan, leaving them without official residency in either country and dependent upon agencies like the United Nations.

At the refugee camp, Dhimal says his family was only able to get food every 15 days, which wasn’t nearly enough to go around. He remembers his camp being surrounded by two small rivers and a forest along with a modest soccer field. A highlight of his time at the camp? “I played soccer since I was 5, because my brother used to play soccer when he was in high school. It was a really important sport.”

He says he still remembers his first trip to the United States: Nepal to Hong Kong to New Jersey, and the family didn’t eat during the pilgrimage because they didn’t have any money. “We landed here at night and I was really happy to see all the lights,” he recalls. “Seeing the city from the plane, all the lights and stuff excited me a lot. “

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Meg Dhimal, a senior at North High School and a standout soccer player on the school’s team, is attending early college courses and plans to eventually become a surgeon. (Photo: Chelsae Ketchum)

Life after soccer
As local business owners, the Dhimals have most certainly found a better life here, while some of Meg’s teammates have endured more of a struggle to adapt.

For Boo Le, a junior at North High School and another standout player on the school’s soccer team, his father is on disability for mental health issues, placing the bread-winning duties squarely onto the shoulders of his mother, who works until 11 p.m. each night.

The only Burmese player, Le recalls growing up in a refugee camp in Thailand. “It was dangerous to go too far from the camp. If you go too far, you might step on bombs and stuff. I remember a lot of things about being in the camp. I was working on a farm with cows and running up and down on the mountain and playing with other kids. We had fun with many things, and we played soccer every evening. We had one soccer park and everyone in the village came to that park just to play soccer and hang out. Even elders came. It brought people together to hang out and just have fun.”

For Le, the adjustment to the United States also has required adjustment on the soccer field. “Here I know the rules, I play ‘soccer soccer’ here. There I didn’t know about the rules. Here it’s much different. I loved it back then and I still love it now.”

One of the things he loves about the United States is the fact that he can eat ice cream whenever he wants. Having a refrigerator and cold water are luxuries to many refugees. “I love ice cream,” Le says, adding that access to ice cream and other cold treats at the refugee camp were sporadic at best, along with having appliances to keep the ice cream cold. “When I first came here, I saw ice cream in the freezer. I was so happy, I ate it every day.”

He also only saw snow in the movies before coming to Akron. “I felt so happy; it felt like a dream. Back in my country, we only saw snow in the movies.”

Many of the players we interviewed are thankful for the sense of community that the North Hill neighborhood provides, like being able to ride a bicycle or walk to friends’ and family’s houses and feeling welcome.

Life after high school may present its own set of barriers, as many U.S. communities are still unfamiliar with Eastern Asian cultures and customs.

Like Dhimal, Le would love to play professional soccer, but he’s setting his sights on a medical career instead. “Right now my first priority is to study in the medical field, because in soccer even if I become a professional player, what if I broke my leg and they would stop paying me?I would not work and how would I provide for my family? When I become a doctor, I will make my mom really happy.”

He adds: “In my country, being a doctor is really rare, and here I have a lot of opportunity to become a doctor.” But for now, soccer is still his focus. “I don’t know what to do without soccer. It would be a boring life.”

Equal parts patience and sensitivity
Coach Michael Kane agrees that soccer is paramount in the lives of these young men.

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North High School soccer player Boo Le says he ate ice cream every day upon resettling in Akron. (Photo: Chelsae Ketchum)

When he first looked out at the many faces of this team nearly 10 years ago, Kane assumed they were all from the same country, as he met a number of Tamangs, Rais and Subbas among the student body. The name similarity, he later found out, is due to regions in their home countries rather than blood relations.

 

Kane remembers his initial interactions with these East Asian refugee children. One of the first boys he met was a refugee from the Mon population who told him horrifying stories about what had happened to his family. “I’m still to this day horrified by what he told me and what he had experienced,” says Kane. But seeing the young man still smile and exude happiness gave Kane a newfound energy. He also learned that many of these children suffered the same fate as the young man he met.

To coach a team with refugees takes a great deal of patience, understanding and cultural sensitivity.

“I tell them this is not white boy suburban soccer,” says Kane. “How we deal with a suburban team isn’t really applicable.”

For example, when he first met the kids, he asked them who had played soccer before and all hands went up. But when he asked who all has played on a formal soccer team, nearly all the hands went down. “It tells me where they’re at, so we start from the 4-inch touch line, what is out of bounds; we start from ground zero, and go over rules here in the United States, which are based on FIFA rules.”

Their love of soccer shows through, and Kane sees this connection to their refugee camps and how important this sport is to their cultural fabric, whether from Nepal, Thailand, Bhutan or Nepal. “While they were not jailed in the refugee camps, they were basically confined there and there wasn’t a lot to do. Much like American boys play baseball with their friends, this is similar.”

He adds: “Anything that resembles a ball can bring on a game of soccer. I’ve tested this a few times in that I have literally crumbled up a piece of paper and thrown it on the floor and a soccer game will break out.”

And Kane probably worries over his players much more than a high school coach should. During a recent soccer camp experience at Ohio’s University of Rio Grande for Boo-Le and Yoba Tamang (a senior soccer player at North High School), Kane drove the boys five hours each way because they didn’t have transportation.

“When I dropped them off I was a bit uncomfortable,” he says. “I was a bit concerned for the boys because it was that white boy suburban soccer thing I mentioned. I was worried that Yoba and Boo-Le might be looked at as outcasts.”

His fears were quickly alleviated. “Ultimately, Boo Le and Yoba were selected for the first team all stars out of 230 kids at the camp,” says Kane. “They ultimately got to play in the championship game and succeeding that, they had an opportunity to play in a match with the Rio college men. What I feared would be a miserable experience for them ended up being a tremendous thrill.” In fact, the other players who were eliminated stayed around just to watch Tamang and Le.

Along with their love for soccer, these players share other cultural similarities, like their respect for their elders and multi-generational households.

Dhimal lives in a five-bedroom house with 15 people. “I like living with a big family: people helping each other when there are problems. We help each other and we save a lot of money.

“We stay with our parents and help take care of them and pay them back for all the care they’ve given us,” says Dhimal. “In the United States, they send their parents to nursing homes. I can’t do that to my mom.”

Stay tuned for Part III of the series, and check out a teaser trailer from the documentary, produced by Chelsae Ketchum, below.

Read Part I.

PROMO-Final from Chelsae Ketchum on Vimeo.

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Coach offers more than soccer skills for North High School refugee team

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North High School soccer coach Michael Kane has become a mentor and father figure for many of the team’s players, who are refugees acclimating to life in Akron. (Photo: Chelsae Ketchum)

This is the first part of a series, adapted from an upcoming Akronist documentary, about the high school soccer team in Akron, Ohio’s North Hill neighborhood, which comprises young men from refugee families from East Asia.

— When the North High School boys’ soccer team travels to surrounding rural communities, Coach Michael Kane has to spell the players’ names phonetically so the stadium announcers can pronounce them.

And at this point, the opposing team’s coaches and announcers will typically make fun of the names, many of them English derivations of those given in their birth countries of Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand and other Eastern Asian locations. Then Coach Kane humors them for a moment and agrees that their names indeed sound peculiar, before sharing some of the horrific stories of what these young men endured in refugee camps.

It’s not his goal to induce guilt for those making light of the names, but rather to help create compassion and understanding and to educate these communities, including our own Akron residents. And he genuinely cares for these kids, who he admits brighten his day.

Kane, who serves as a father figure for these young men, is an ambassador of sorts, helping these rural residents better understand what life is like for a refugee in Northeast Ohio. “To me, it’s not 100 percent about soccer,” says Kane, who also owns Kane Sign Company, with his wife, in North Hill. “It’s about assisting them to acclimate to their life here in the United States, to begin to become comfortable where they’re standing; to become comfortable in the halls of North High School.”

Before he began coaching this team, Kane admits that he knew very little to nothing about people from Nepal, Thailand and Bhutan. But he quickly put himself in their shoes. “I imagine myself being dropped in Nepal, or Thailand or Burma and how awkward would I feel? I tell folks they lived in a grass shack with a dirt floor,” and now they’re living in an industrialized urban environment. “It’s an incredibly different environment than where they came from. High school itself is awkward enough, let alone being dropped into an environment that’s absolutely foreign to you.”

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Meg Dhimal, a North High School senior and standout soccer player, is attending early college classes and plans to be a surgeon. (Photo: Dale Dong)

Before Kane took the reins for the North High School soccer team, their record was 0 and 14. He’s since helped these young men realize their raw talent, as many of them had their first interaction with soccer in their respective refugee camps. The team recently ended its season with a record of 7 wins, 6 losses and 3 ties and the North team is now a regional contender each season, engaged in healthy rivalries with surrounding communities with much more abundant resources.

Along with serving as coach and mentor to this team, Kane helps raise money and pull in donations for equipment. He drives them to University of Akron soccer games. He provides life lessons to help with their self esteem and with these young men’s acclimation to the United States.

And because many of the players’ parents do not drive, Kane and his assistant coach are often the only cheering section for these players — because North Hill doesn’t have a space for soccer games, their home games are played at the Copley soccer complex.

Before joining the soccer program nearly 10 years ago, Kane says he thought these players were all from the same country. “I was naive to a lot of things going on around the world, and I recognized I wasn’t the guy to change the world, so I decided I was going to focus on my two-block radius around my home and the business, and I decided to focus on what I could do for my community as an individual.

“Over the last two to three years, these folks have become my neighbors and I’ve seen them walking about and opening stores and restaurants and they are becoming very quickly a part of our community.”

The players are effusive when asked about Kane. “Coach Kane is a great person, not just for soccer, but he gives us advice for life,” says Meg Dhimal, a senior, and one of the standout players of this year’s team. “He says we should focus on our education, not just soccer. Because not all of us are going to be famous soccer players. There’s like 23 people on the team. It’s important to have a backup plan.”

Adds Dhimal: “He inspires us to do good, too. He helps us outside of the sport. He buys shoes for people. He goes to community members and asks for help for us.”

And as far as the team not having a place for games here in Akron, Kane speculates what would happen if North Hill did have a soccer stadium. “If we had a field on North Hill and we had a home game, we would have a crowd that you would not believe,” he says. “It would become a community event for them.”

Not a great technical coach
Kane admittedly is not very much of a technical coach, but where he lacks in soccer knowledge he more than makes up for in mentoring, helping these players navigate what is otherwise a bewildering situation, some of them going from living in grass huts and tiny tents in refugee camps to being thrust into an American city whose culture is completely foreign.

“It was apparent pretty early on that he didn’t know anything about soccer,” says Alex Quay, Kane’s assistant coach this past season who was brought into the lineup for his technical soccer knowledge. “It was also apparent that he’s a very caring person. He cares a lot about the North Hill community and also about the kids and their families more than I’ve ever seen any soccer coach care about players.”

Like Kane, Quay’s experience with the team has been nothing short of eye-opening. “I was mesmerized with North’s inability to quit trying; that was the moment I fell in love with North soccer.”

There’s a misconception about our city’s refugees, says Quay. “If you meet them, they’re pretty open, social people. The happiness you see in these people is just astounding to me. Some of them have experienced or witnessed heinous acts in their life. To see any of them standing upright and proudly is just astounding to me. Some of it might extend from the fact that they have a new lease on life. They didn’t have a lot of hope for what lay before them.”

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(Photo: Chris Miller)

Different paths
Although the players come from similar backgrounds, their lives here have taken considerably different trajectories.

Like Dhimal, whose family owns Dhimal’s Market on Cuyahoga Falls Avenue. Dhimal attends early college classes at the University of Akron and is aspiring to attend medical school and become a surgeon. He lives in a suburban home in Cuyahoga Falls, with a large supportive family network.

Boo Le, a junior at North High School, has a more precarious home life. His father is on disability and his mother works until 11 p.m., so a family meal is rare. In addition, neither of his parents speak English, making life in Akron even more challenging than for his peers.

“These kids don’t have soccer shoes, we have to get them donated,” says Quay. “They don’t have socks and sometimes they show up in jeans, and it’s 90 degrees outside.”

Despite their differences, these young men are bound by their love of soccer, which connects them to their birthplaces and cultures. Dhimal, who received his U.S. citizenship this fall, says that soccer is in his blood. “Even if I don’t have practice, I take my ball and practice; I have to touch a soccer ball every day. Even when it’s winter, I go in my basement and I play soccer. If I don’t play soccer, I feel like my day’s not complete, I feel like something’s missing. It’s like sleeping – I have to do it.”

He remembers playing soccer in the refugee camp as a small child. In fact, children from the seven neighboring refugee camps would play one another in regular tournaments, he adds.

Quay describes Dhimal as one of his favorite players. “He can run for days. He’s the tiniest player we have, but he can run through a brick wall.”

Le, who was born in Thailand and came to the United States when he was 8, also remembers playing soccer in the refugee camp. Coach Kane is “like a dad to us,” he says. “He’s a wise man. He knows what he’s doing. He’s trying to help us with our future, not just soccer. He helps us to do good things in life.” Le says Kane encourages them to be students first and athletes second.

Kane says Le “has a great passion for soccer. He does have a drive to play in college. Far-reaching, he does envision himself on a professional soccer team.”

Adds Quay: “(Boo Le’s) always been a small ball of energy, a very talented player, smaller in size and speed. A lot of players look up to him.”

Kane says it doesn’t matter how stressful his day is at the sign shop; when he shows up to soccer practice, it’s all behind him. “Within an hour I arrive at the field and see these young men with their incredible smiles and their energy bounding all over the field, and my day is quickly forgotten to see the joy they are experiencing.”

My week without Brubeck, the dog who was lost and found

My week without Brubeck, the dog who was lost and found

Me with my dog Brubeck during happier times. He was lost for a week before I was able to find him.

Me with my dog Brubeck during happier times. He was lost for a week before we were recently reunited.

As I looked out over the expanse of farmland and rural landscapes, I may as well have been looking out into the ocean, the ripples of soybean fields like undulations across crests of water. My eyes were tired from searching and my body tired from driving for hours on end. My dog had been missing for almost a week and with every hour that passed, my hope waned. I felt like the parent of a missing child, sick with worry, the hope at this particular moment a knot settling in my stomach.

Finding my lost dog consumed my days and nights and became my job. I drove in circles for nearly a week looking for Brubeck, a 4-year-old Alaskan husky mix with a congenital health problem, which made this situation all the more worrisome. I handed out flyers, I spoke with every person I saw, I triangulated his location from where he was last spotted and drove outward from there, street by street, yard by yard. In fact, I drove more than 600 miles within just a few days of searching. I slept in small fitful bursts, and I found myself unable to perform even the most basic of mundane tasks each day as all I could think about was seeing Brubeck again.

Brubeck was nearly 40 miles from home, dropped off in a neighborhood that was unfamiliar, his sense of direction completely thrown awry. The circumstances of why he was dropped off there, or who dropped him off, I’ll save for another day, for a number of reasons. But he was left in my mom’s front yard, which became “home base” in my search efforts. I was certain he was scared, perhaps not as scared and anxious as I was. And the circumstances that led to his return were nothing short of amazing and completely reliant upon the kindness of strangers, who helped me in ways I could never imagine before all this transpired.

I’ve never been overly fond of social media, but I owe my dog’s return to this fascinating medium, which brings people together in unprecedented ways.

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A special needs kind of dog

But first, some information about Brubeck and why he’s so special to me: I rescued him from a litter of Alaskan husky sled dog puppies, their birth a result of unethical and irresponsible dog breeding. A number of pups from his litter died too young, some after a few months, others closer to a year old. Most of these dogs quickly developed a strange labored breathing and hoarse sound that would cause them to collapse when they got excited. They also would throw up their food right after eating, causing them to be scrawny and malnourished. After some research, we found the cause to be a condition called megaesophagus, which causes a hacking sound, problems breathing and difficulty digesting food. Though it was too late for the other pups, I decided I wasn’t going to let Brubeck die the same way these other dogs did, and I built a Bailey Chair, which is like a high chair that keeps the dog upright to properly digest food. I hand fed Brubeck and babied him like he was my real child (and I do have a human child, lest I be accused of being one of those overbearing pet owners who anthropomorphizes their animal).

Along with food digestion problems, Brubeck’s signature sound is labored breathing, followed by a hoarse rattling and a subtle whimper that resembles crying. He’s unable to bark due to the effect of this condition on his vocal chords (megaesophagus can paralyze other related muscles). Brubeck has collapsed many times after getting too much exercise or by getting too excitable, and more than a few times I have given him a form of CPR to revive him. I’ve held him in my arms like a baby, worrying over him and his well-being far more than what is likely acceptable by some.

I shared this image (of course without the

I shared this image (of course without the “Found” message) everywhere I could, and I believe this digital canvassing led to his return.

Because I do consider him as having special needs, Brubeck’s disappearance made me worry even more than had he been a healthy dog. I also think he lacks some of the instincts of other dogs, and as people tried to reassure me with saying, “He’ll find his way home,” I was doubtful. For one thing, he kept moving in the opposite direction of home with each passing day.

When I realized he was missing, I started by aimlessly driving around my mom’s neighborhood for a day, but decided to focus my efforts a little more. I created a Facebook post, with a photo collage in which I embedded pertinent information (like my phone number and where he was last seen), and within a day the post had hundreds of shares (last count was more than 400).

After this first post, a number of people contacted me with sightings. Brubeck tried to approach other dogs, children wanted to play with him and some residents thought he was a wild animal, like a coyote, due to his unique appearance. With each text, phone call or Facebook message, my hope was lifted like a helium balloon tied to a string. Then the following day I would drive and walk for hours from these same locations, with no sign of him. I would end my search in the dark, and the hope would deflate, like the same balloon sagging to its side near the floor at the end of a party. He quickly moved from one neighborhood to the next, and I just couldn’t get to him.

One of the sightings of Brubeck out in the wild. He was on his own without reliable sources of food, water and shelter for almost a week.

One of the sightings of Brubeck out in the wild. He was on his own without reliable sources of food, water and shelter for almost a week.

Like the elusive Yeti

Each day would bring fresh sightings (thanks mainly to social media). I called neighboring police departments, shelters and pounds and filed reports. Although the social media posts seemed to garner the best results to this point, my face-to-face interactions yielded even more promising leads, or at times, a combination of both. For example, one day I felt like the trail had run cold, so I wanted to wrap things up and leave for the night (the balloon deflates). But something told me to hand one last flyer to a girl who was walking at the side of the road. She took a photo of the flyer and uploaded it to Facebook and within minutes, one of her Facebook friends sent me multiple photos of Brubeck in a field (the balloon inflates again) from earlier that day. They reminded me of grainy pics of a Yeti sighting. The man who took them said he thought Brubeck was a wild animal at first, which seemed to be a common theme with many people who saw him. This would make things difficult, because people were apprehensive to approach the dog at first, and by the time the word got out to these communities, Brubeck became less trusting and more hungry and scared. I was worried that he may not even come to me at this point. And more than this, I worried about him getting hit by a car, or injured or killed by another animal or someone with firearms, protective of his property.

After he was missing for four days, I realized that most of the lost pets I’ve heard of are usually back home within a couple of days. Many of the leads about Brubeck’s whereabouts were at least a day old. I wanted to think he was on an adventure, making new friends, visiting neighborhood children and pets, and perhaps that was the case within the first couple of days. But the reality became something more stark. I knew he was hungry and scared, and at this point I felt helpless. I felt more and more like this parent of the missing child, but in this situation, his abductor was nature, pulling Brubeck back into its cold grasp. Each night that I left without him, I felt like I was letting him down. I felt ashamed. I felt scared.

When Brubeck was returned to me, he didn't want to leave my side.

When Brubeck was returned to me, he didn’t want to leave my side.

On day six, I started off like the previous days, driving out to his most recent sighting first thing in the morning. I still carried hope in my heart, although reality was clearly sending me a different message. Would he just become a wild animal out here in these woods and fields, ultimately transforming into some sort of local creature folklore? Would he just die out here, scared and alone? By late afternoon, I received absolutely no new leads for the first time in days (the ballon deflates). I thought maybe there was a chance he could have been at the pound or a local shelter, but I doubted anyone could catch him. All the recent sightings involved Brubeck being scared and running away from the people he approached.

I left bowls of food and water at various locations where he was seen, along with T-shirts that I had worn (a number of people and posts recommended leaving a shirt with the owner’s scent out for a lost dog), but the food had been untouched, save for some hungry ants.

So as I was again ready to call it a day, I received a text simply asking, “Is that pic your dog?” This woman had seen a Facebook post from a “friend of a friend,” and after dealing with spotty phone reception because I was in the woods and waiting what seemed like an eternity to get the phone number of the person who may or may not have found Brubeck, I received a photo that I was 99 percent sure was him. Because of possible fatigue or disbelief from a week of so many ups and downs, I vowed not to celebrate until I confirmed that this was indeed Brubeck and I could see him in person.

Apparently, Brubeck turned up at a dentist’s office about 10 miles away from where I was previously looking, and he began howling and crying in the parking lot. It had been almost a week, and he was tired, dehydrated and hungry. One of the employees here, a dental hygienist, opened her car door and Brubeck jumped in. She vowed to take him home so he wouldn’t get hit by a car, and then she posted his picture on Facebook. She was many, many people removed from me, but thanks to social media, her and I were able to connect and I could go see him and end this week, which I never hope to relive again.

After extended periods of time crying and worrying, I was surprisingly composed when I saw Brubeck again. I was in shock that he finally made it back to me. I was also shocked by how skinny he was, but for the most part, he was in better shape than I expected. He cried with excitement and was so happy to see me that he nearly passed out due to his condition.

Moments after our reunion, it was still raw and emotional.

Moments after our reunion, it was still raw and emotional.

It’s only been four days since I got him back, but he hasn’t wanted to leave my side. I’m so thankful to so many people who have helped me, from friends and family (at one point we had a search party of seven cars looking for him at once) to random strangers texting and calling for updates, and the many online groups that do an excellent job of mobilizing communities around the all too many lost animals. And especially the dental hygienist who decided to take him to her house so he would be safe. I feel like I will never be able to fully repay her for reuniting me with this animal who means the world to me.

After Brubeck returned, a number of people admitted that they were following his journey, rapt with each update and hopeful for Brubeck’s return. The hundreds of shares, likes and comments on social media bears this out. These same people told me that others (many whom I’ve never met and didn’t know me before this point) were just as anxious about his return.

When I stared out into those fields and vast wooded areas in this rural section of Ohio, I felt all alone, my heart aching for this animal with whom I’ve connected with more than any other animal and most people. But in reality, there were countless others hoping for his return who were in a way there with me and I didn’t even realize it. Hope was a shared experience. Perhaps this hope helped guide me and compelled me to keep looking even when that balloon was deflated.

Were the awful Cherry Sisters one of our earliest memes?

Were the awful Cherry Sisters one of our earliest memes?

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(Photo: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Cherry Sisters were widely known as one of the worst Vaudeville acts of the early 20th century. Their performances were so bad, in fact, they eventually triggered a fervor of sold out shows and hysteria to some level, as patrons threw overripe vegetables and eggs at the sisters. Heckling, shouting at and degrading these innocent Iowa farm girls became a pastime of sorts for American audiences.

Some spectators got creative, throwing liver and turnips at the hapless musical act, and even nonfood items. And adding to their lore was the report that netting was used to protect the sisters against the fusillade of rotten vegetables and other items when they took the stage.

But despite their lack of ability, they made it to Broadway with their show “Something Good, Something Sad,” selling out New York venues for 10 weeks straight. Their terribleness was terrible on such a magnificent level.

The Cherry Sisters also inadvertently created a legal precedent for the press to safely criticize bad performances.

While Vaudeville promoters would purposely hire untalented acts to clear out theaters at the end of a show, the Cherry Sisters, by all accounts, thought they were good, infusing this reportedly bad music with spoken word, recitations, religious tableaus and inspirational quotes. It was like some sort of heavy-handed art school project. And they apparently lived chaste lives that followed their stage personae.

As a culture, we usually expect the best of performers, but at times, we relish in the incompetence of others. Viral videos bear this out, with hordes of people championing those with minimal talent, often laughing at them as much as with them. They become memes that are shared and passed along, transcending their originators.

The Cherry Sisters were apparently so terrible, their name became cultural currency. NPR reports that as the sisters became well known, their name was used as a figure of speech to denote badness and lack of talent.

In retrospect, this band seems like it was an elaborate form of performance art, which brings about the question of whether they were in on the joke, complicit in the sham. The fact that the audience was so vehemently involved in the performance to shout insults, throw things, and get so emotionally worked up, could point to the sisters’ effectiveness as performers.

And it could be easily assumed that people could have walked out had they really not liked the performances. Instead, there was an assumed level of hostility and poor musicianship exchanged between performer and audience. To add another bizarre layer to the equation, the sisters were Puritanical in their morality and innocence, often singing songs of Patriotism and austere values, which made the fact that they created a career in such a salacious industry all the more puzzling. All of them apparently went to their grave having never been kissed.

Three_of_the_Cherry_Sisters_-_Addie,_Jessie_and_EffieThere’s one known recording of Jessie Cherry, a record whose whereabouts are currently unknown, so we may never learn just how gloriously bad this band was. Records that do exist, however, are the overwhelmingly bad press reviews, so much so that the Cherry Sisters set legal precedents for freedom of the press and the extent of legally allowed criticism.

After an unfavorable review in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the sisters sued the newspaper, which was promptly followed by a raucous trial that included the sisters performing their music in the courtroom as evidence. The editor was found guilty, but a later case brought about different results.

One particularly scathing review in 1898 stated, “When the curtain went up…[t]he audience saw three creatures surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness. … Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and anon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom.” (and the review just gets worse from there)

After the Des Moines Leader reprinted this blistering criticism, another libel suit ensued by the sisters, but this time the suit was dismissed, a decision upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court. The Court proclaimed, “[T]he performance given by the [sisters] was not only childish, but ridiculous in the extreme. A dramatic critic should be allowed considerable license in such a case.”

These actions set the stage for criticism for all the terrible acts to follow the Cherry Sisters throughout history, like the Shaggs, a sister band of the late ’60s, who have been called “a lobotomized Trapp Family singers” by Rolling Stone magazine.

After the youngest Cherry sister died of typhoid fever in 1903, they retired to an Iowa farm with around $200,000 in earnings, which they lost within a few years. The remaining sisters moved to Cedar Rapids and opened a bakery, with some sputtered attempts at careers in show business and politics.

Historians may never be able to reveal the true intent of these performers, but the Cherry Sisters sure did make an impact on their audiences. If they were aware of their own terribleness and were purposely bad in order to please the audience, that would be a deep level of irony that would baffle any modern-day hipster.

An amusement death

This blog has been idle for a bit too long. Here’s an oldie but goodie from 2012. New content to come soon…

The Lonely Typewriter

The riders who strap into the single-seated roller coaster are affixed with a health monitoring system, and as the ride is pulled up the hill, they each will have an extended period of time to contemplate the fact that they will die before this coaster ends its journey.

Many of us ride roller coasters and other stomach-dropping rides because of that voice in the recesses of our minds, asking, what if this thing flies off the rails? What if I somehow don’t make it to the end? It’s that tap dance on the edge of safety that ignites our stomachs with butterflies. But what about a coaster whose sole mission is to kill its passengers?

The Euthanasia Roller Coaster is designed to lull its passengers into a sleepy state followed by a drowsy death, and is the brainchild of Julijonas Urbonas, a Ph.D. candidate at the Royal Academy of Art…

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The ghost in the deep

This elusive creature, thought to be a type of snailfish, was recently discovered, making it the deepest dwelling fish found.

This elusive creature, thought to be a type of snailfish, was recently discovered, making it the deepest dwelling fish ever found.

The strange-looking translucent snailfish ripples its eel-like body, showing the ultimate grace under pressure: this recently discovered creature swims more than 5 miles down in dark waters that would promptly crush any other living thing.

An international team recently discovered what is thought to be a type of snailfish in the Mariana Trench, setting a new world record for the deepest fish ever recorded.

For me, the Mariana Trench has always represented something horrific: that a chasm that far into the earth exists, and the thought of such a vast abyss below us, brings instant queasiness. Located in the Western Pacific, the Mariana Trench is the deepest part of the ocean, and is as unknown to us as parts of outer space.

In the embedded video (below), which has the grainy and eerie vibe of a found footage horror movie, the snailfish-like creatures (scientists are still verifying the species) seem to stand up to the immense pressure with elegance. They look almost transparent, with large fins that have the flowing appearance of wings. These fish live in total darkness, and use receptors on their snouts to find their way around.

The depth at which these fish were discovered by unmanned “landers” is very near the threshold at which any fish can exist, according to a scientist quoted in a recent Huffington Post article, who equates this animal’s motion to “tissue paper being dragged through the water.”

How can something be so delicate in a place that has so much pressure per square inch that we would explode when subjected to the same conditions? One reason is a protein called osmolyte, which helps these graceful creatures to endure the immense pressure.

Who knows what may exist further down into the Trench?

Centralia: A city on fire

CensignThere’s a city in Pennsylvania that’s been on fire for more than 50 years and is expected to burn for centuries to come. Some even believe that Hell itself has opened its gnarly mouth under this former mining town.

In 1962, Centralia, Pa., experienced a fire among its maze of underground abandoned coal mines, which led to the eventual exodus of most of its denizens and desertion of the town. Residents were forced to relocate, and the feds took away Centralia’s zip code. But a staunch few decided to stay behind, where they plan to live out the rest of their days in this modern ghost town.

There is some debate as to what started Centralia’s fire, but writer David DeKok traces the event back to a cleanup effort by volunteer firefighters, who would routinely burn trash in a landfill, located in an abandoned strip mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. But during this particular cleanup, an opening in the pit, known as a coal seam, exposed the fire to the maze of vacated coal mines beneath the ground.

Residents began to notice strange occurrences, like sink holes opening up in their yards and plumes of smoke hauntingly pushing their way above ground. When Congress caught wind of the problem in Centralia, it spent more than $40 million to relocate residents, eventually leading to the Pennsylvania governor condemning the borough’s buildings through eminent domain. Most of the residents picked up and left, but a small population took a stand, some of them believing in a conspiracy that the government was merely seeking mineral rights to the small town by evicting its residents. A legal battle was waged and the remaining residents received a settlement and can now live out their remaining days in this smoky ghost town in peace.

Centralia-61graffitiNature has begun reclaiming Centralia, as patches of sidewalk succumb to tufts of grass and weeds, and its highways and roads are cracked open from neglect, emitting carbon monoxide-laden steam. Highway 61, which runs through the center of the town, has been barricaded by mounds of dirt.

As of the 2010 census, there were 10 people left in Centralia and only five homes remained. As part of their settlement with the state government, the remaining residents have agreed to give up their homes through eminent domain upon their deaths.

Centralia has been the subject of books, movies (Nothing But Trouble (1991) and Silent Hill (2006)), music and even folklore, with some equating this modest town with the gates of Hell opening its fiery jaws.

A time capsule is scheduled to be opened in 2016, which should be a monumental experience for whomever is left at that point.