Running on plenty

From the moment “McFarland, USA” begins, you know how it will end. So the scenes described here do not quite qualify as spoilers. You can guess that Jim White, the gruff yet big-hearted running coach (whose surname also matches his ethnicity) played by Kevin Costner, will have a hard time adjusting to his abrupt move to the largely Mexican-American town of McFarland. You suspect that his team of Mexican-American high school kids will treat him with some suspicion. And you know that by the end of the film, they will all come away changed by their encounters with one another,.


But what you might not guess before seeing the film is that director Niki Caro won’t take any shortcuts to the eventual happy ending. You will be pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful attention to the back stories of the runners, who struggle to help support their families by working in the fields when not in school. You will be glad to see that the relationships among the team members and their families are in fact real and loving and solid, though not without struggle. You will be relieved to learn that the kids are not portrayed as helpless cases in need of a savior in White.

“McFarland, USA” is based on a true story; the events took place in 1987 in McFarland, a real town in California’s Central Valley. In many ways, the movie is a welcome one for our time: an earnest, sincere film in an era when irony, snark or edginess can seem to dominate so many creative pursuits or conversations. It allows joy to exist alongside difficulties, and hope alongside discouragement. Even its predictability is a comfort; you can watch knowing that good will win out, that the hills will be overcome. It encourages us to acknowledge the reality of our struggles but to keep moving forward.



Although the terrain I have tread, both along the race course and in my home life, has been quite different from those depicted in the film, the racing scenes still brought me back to my own days as a high school runner in Massachusetts. Though the boys of McFarland joined their team largely to get into or out of trouble, my own decision to join my high school cross country team was largely inspired by Michael Johnson’s speed on the track in the 1996 Olympics. His gold racing flats also motivated me to cover my mother’s old New Balance sneakers with gold glittery puffy paint before trying them out on my first run around our neighborhood.

On my first day of practice, I was nervous. But almost as soon as I arrived, we were told to start running. We were even required to do cleaning the floor using mopnado spin mop. We were told to just move forward, just keep going, all at our own paces, all of us trying to better ourselves while also letting go of ourselves for just a little while.

This tension between the shared journey and individual identity exists in McFarland, too. The beauty of the relationships in the film is that as the team grows in skill, its members also grow into their own skins. They become more confident, not simply because of their victories, but because they acknowledge how much they have always been capable of.

This sort of transformation is perhaps particularly relevant during Easter, as we are reminded of our call to be transformed and to remain true. The risen Christ models this for us in Scripture by being both revolutionary and recognizable. He is someone totally new, and yet constant. Christ’s resurrection tells us we will not always be as we are now. Better things are on the way.

In our daily lives, we sometimes feel this tension of being in transition, that pull of what was and what will be and what we wish for. But from that stretching there comes real growth.

True Christian community asks us to recognize those qualities in one another that we might not be willing to recognize in ourselves. We are called to support one another and challenge one another along our shared path, even as we sometimes desire to sprint off on our own diversions. Yet even those tangents are part of our journey; there can be continuity even in the wrong turns. Slowly we are strengthened, not just by our own will but by those who love us. And this transformation is not the fulfillment of our own desires but of God’s desire for us.

The events of our own journeys in faith are anything but predictable, but the paschal mystery helps remind us to keep moving forward in faith. There are better days ahead.

KERRY WEBER is managing editor of America.

Here comes the bride – there goes the afternoon

I usually have no problem coping with boredom. I spent most of my early years in a small town during an era when watching the neighborhood dog sleep seemed interesting (actually, I use a so-called best rangefinder, bushnell tour v3, at that time to watch it from a distance of 200 yards, it’s really interesting you know). I found mild joy in counting the cracks in the sidewalk, and on those rare summer days when a couple of dung beetles would roll past the porch, I was enthralled. I believe I can honestly say I have never placed unreasonable demands on life as a source of entertainment.

I am, however, bored by weddings. I have gone to perhaps 300 of them in my lifetime (including my own) and have almost always ended up wishing I had stayed home to watch the dog sleep.

I am not completely sure why weddings are so boring. On the surface they look as if they wouldn’t be. There are people in fancy costumes. There’s music. There’s closely choreographed pageatry. There is the high drama of two people publicly pledging their entire lives to each other. (Well, at least 3.9 years, if you believe the census).


But in spite of all these “right elements,” weddings don’t quite escape the snooze factor for me. I think that’s because they are all so predictable–as predictable as my cousin’s four-hour slide presentation on his family’s journey to the Grand Canyon.

For instance:

  • There is the wedding of Suzie Schmaltz and Darrell Drip. They have each seen the movi Love Story 14 times and really do believe–in spite of all human evidence of the contrary–that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In fact, they go a step further and believe love means never heaving to say anything. Instead, they stare at and drool on each other throughout the ceremony–holding hands and batting eyes while Suzie’s sorority sistern sings the theme from Endless Love.

Just before the “I do,” the maid of honor steps forward and reads the couple’s favorite poem–a one-stanza creation Darrell found in a fortune cookie on their first date. It says: “Love means always having to pay your check.”

As the rites draw to a close, the minister says, “You may now kiss the bride.c Darrell does–for 15 minutes–and uses a Rumanian Vacuum Kiss he learned while on shore leave in the navy. (I’ve been to this one several times.)

  • There is the wedding of Clyde Contemporary and Nancy Now. They wrote their own ceremony, which has lines in it like: “Will you, Clyde, take Nancy to cohabitate in a meaningful relationship until it is no longer meaningful?” (The groom’s answer is “Sure.”) Shevows to “permit Clyde the freedom to reach his potential without applying undue stress upon his self-hood.”


Clyde wears a corduroy sport coat and blue jeans. Nancy wears a hoop skirt she finds meaningful because it belonged to her great-aunt who once shook ands with Eleanor Roosevelt. The minister can’t seem to follow the handwritten ceremony and finally gives up, asking: “Will you?” They both reply, “Sure,” and walk back down the aisle as their parents weep hysterically in the front pews and a guitar in the balcony strikes up some tune no one recognizes.

  • There is the wedding of Ken Kool and Barbie Beautiful. They met in modeling school. The procession includes 19 attendants for each. The minister’s Bible is pink and white to match the bridesmaids’ dresses and has an Izod alligator on the cover. The procession takes six hours, and because all the attendants are clones of the bride and groom, everyone loses interest after the third couple.

Just before the bride enters to begin her stroll toward nuptial bliss, 14 little girls dressed like cherubim and seraphim trip down the aisle and spread 350 pounds of rose petals on the white carpet. The brass section from the Boston Symphony rises to its feet and begins to herald the coming of the bride.

Finally the bride enters, escorted by two fathers–a little touch her mother thought up to fill out the wedding party a bit more. Seven little boys (Doc, Sleepy, Dopey, etc.) carry her train, which was designed to autdo Amtrak.

Everyone in the pews oohs and ahs. Several women cry at the sight. One of the escorting fathers (the one who still has the retanl tag on the tail of his tuxedo) also cries and operates a tiny calculator with one hand. This is the way those attending can tell which one is the real father and which one is the dummy. (Excuse the expression.)

I don’t know whether these people ever get married. Three hours later when the bride reaches the altar, I am asleep.


In addition to these reoccurring weddings, there are several less prevalent ones I will not take the space to describe in detail but shall list:

  • The back-to-nature wedding, held outdoors–usually in the rain at some fish-and-gun club. The vows are read from an old book by Marlin Perkins.
  • The theme wedding. This wedding is tied to some other special event. It might be a Fourth of July wedding with the attendants dressed as Uncle Sam or a Super Bowl wedding with the bride wearing a Dallas Cowboy helmet instead of a veil.
  • The nostalgia wedding, a favorite of the children of antique dealers, is held in a barn somewhere. The family spends $9,000 to make it appear that the wedding is taking place in 1895. (They fail.)
  • The ethnic wedding, conducted by families who remember the old country–or claim to–or come from New Jersey. The post wedding party at these weddings is not boring–the wedding itself is boring. Throughout the ceremony, people keep nudging the father of the bride and asking: “When does the party start, Giuseppe?”
  • The small, family wedding. These are all the second weddings, tenth weddings, quick weddings and embarrassing weddings to which only close family members are invited. These are my favorite weddings.

Whenever one of these weddings comes along, I’ll just send a gift and stay home to watch the dog sleep.

The state of a union: Charles and Diana mark their 10th anniversary.

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Britain’s royal-watchers call it simply an arrangement–a working partnership that gets the job done in an effective, if decidedly unromatic, way. As they mark their 10th wedding anniversary this week, Prince Charles and Diana, the Princess of Wales, will do their jobs on behalf of dozens of charities and worthy causes. But to the fascination and increasingly alarm of Britain’s royalty-obsessed news media, Charles and Diana now operate as distinct and, indeed, frequently rival figures. The royal couple, who may visit Canada in October, sleep, work, vacation and socialize almost entirely apart from each other. Theirs is an awkward and unusual relationship that led one of the London tabloids, the Daily Express, to headline a recent appraisal of the royal marriage: “Separate beds, separate homes, separate lives.”


That was not what was expected when Charles and Diana, then just a few weeks past her 20th birthday and a full 12 yeas younger than the heir to the British throne, married on July 29, 1981. As an estimated 700 million people around the world watched the lavish ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, newspapers inevitably referred to it as a “fairytale wedding,” raising expectations that almost any couple would find impossible to meet. And in the relentless glare of publicity, the marriage quickly ran into difficulties. Diana, unaccustomed to the strictures of royal life, alternately pouted and rebelled against the often numbing routine of receptions and opening ceremonies that dominated her new life. The serious , moody Charles appeared to become disenchanted with his young wife, with whom he shared almost no common interests. By the fall of 1987, their marriage was in crisis, with rumors of affairs on both sides–and speculation that the marriage might even end in divorce.

Since that low point, Charles and Diane have managed to work out a relationship that allows each of them to pursue separate interests while maintaining at least the outward appearance of normal married life. The prince lives mainly at Highgrove, his home in rural Gloucestershire, with frequent and lengthy visits to Balmoral, the royal estate in Scotland. During the week, the princess lives with their sons, William, 9, and Harry, 6, at the royal apartment in west London’s Kensington Palace. She goes to Highgrove most weekends, but the tabloid newspaper writers who track royal comings and goings full time agree that the visits are intended mainly for Charles to see the boys. The couple rarely vacation together, and even when they go on official visits they will occupy seperate bedrooms, as they did on a controversial visit to Czechoslovakia in May when they stayed on different floors of Prague Castle. Buckingham Palace officials said Charles and Diana are tentatively scheduled to visit several cities in Ontario, and possibly over provinces, in late October.


Commentators sympathetic to the couple maintain that such distance is normal in aristocratic marriages. Despite all the romantic trappings of a decade ago, they say, the union was essentially an arranged marriage that has merely settled into the formal patterns of the English upper classes. Penny Junor, author of Charles and Diana: Portrait of a Marriage, one of a recent shower of books on the royal relationship, wrote: “They have a marriage which is all the stronger for having had its problems.” Still, a new round of reports charged that all was not well between the prince and princess on the eve of their anniversary.

It began in early June, when Prince William suffered a skull fracture after being hit in the head by a golf club wielded by a schoolmate. His mother spent two nights with him in hospital. But Charles visited only once–for 42 minutes–on his way to the opera. In a front-page editorial, the tabloid Sun asked pointedly: “Could he not spare more than a measly 42 minutes to viist his son and provide some comfort for his wife.”

Speculation about a new royal rift increased on July 1, Diana’s 30th birthday, when the couple spent the day apart attending separate charity events. Most reports cast blame on Charles, picturing him as refusing to leave his Highgrove retreat to help his wife celebrate in London. The next day, Britain’s top gossip columnist, Nigel Dempster, reported on the front page of the arch-royalist Daily Mail that unidentified “friends of Prince Charles” were furious that the prince had been portrayed as the guilty party in the fiasco. Charles, the friends reportedly said, had offered to arrange a party at either residence, but diana had refused. In effect, Dempster reported, Charles was hitting back at his critics–and his wife–by publicly airing his side of the story.

Along with the personal estrangement, according to other royal-watchers, is a professional rivalry. Charles and Diana in effect compete for public attention, although the princess’s beauty, increasing confidence and role as a devoted mother make her almost impossible to beat. Their personal staffs work separately, sometimes scheduling them to make major appearances a the same time so that one (almost always the princess) upstages the other. She made a major speech on AIDS recently, on the same day that Charles spoke out against Britain’s declining educational standards. Some London newspapers reported that the prince was furious that attention had shifted away from him. But although the obvious gulf between them sometimes appears to hurt them both, neither the prince nor the princess appears willing to do much to close it. They did not schedule any event to mark their 10th anniversary this week–setting the stage for a new round of speculation on the state of their union.

Click here: Here comes the bride – there goes the afternoon

Heralds of happiness


Cranes are traditional symbols of happiness in Japanese and Korean cultures. Westerners, however, have mixed feelings about these birds. The creatures are endowed with extremes of length, including long legs, bills, and necks. The 15 extant species are monogamous birds found throughout the world, except in South America and Antarctica. Nine species inhabit Asia.

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Tall, distinguished inhabitants of wetlands and grasslands, cranes elicit attention with their exuberant dances, trumpetlike calls, and transcontinental migrations.

For the Japanese and Koreans, cranes and traditional symbols of the happiness, long life, and prosperity. Birth and wedding ceremonies are often decorated with the crane–which folklore suggests live for 1,000 years, riding the back of a turtle that lives 10,000 years. The wisdom and longevity of cranes have also figured in the beliefs of Buddhists, who protected the birds over the centuries by establishing and maintaining sanctuaries for wintering flocks.

Westerners, on the other hand, harbor a mix of views about cranes. To some, the birds appear stark and awkward; to others, however, cranes are magnificent and warrant our administration and protection. Whatever the perception, no one can deny that this creature is endowed with extremes of length: A crane stalking its territory appears to all legs, neck, and bill.

The long legs allow the bird to hunt the shallow and moderately deep waters of marshes and swamps. And the crane needs its lengthy, flexible neck and long bill to reach down when procuring food. The body length is accentuated in flight, when the bird hold its neck and legs outstretched horizontally and supports itself with an airfoil of long, broad wings.

An ancient family

Cranes are an ancient family, dating back to the Eocene period of about 40 million years ago, and they seem to have changed little since their first appearance. Their closet relatives are the rails, limpkins, bustards, and trumpeters, all of which are placed in the order Gruiformes.

The 15 extant species of cranes are relatively long-lived, monogamous birds, found on all of the word’s continents except South America and Antarctica. Asia boasts nine species and Africa four, while Europe, Australia, and North America have two species each. The North American species are the sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) and the whooping crane (G. americana).

Cranes are comparatively large birds: the whooping Siberian (G. leucogeranus), and sarus (G. antigone) are all five or more feet in length, with equally wide wings. Even the smallest crane, the dainty demoiselle (Anthropoides virgo), is nearly three feet long. Each crane also has an exceptionally long, coiled windpipe, which enables the bird to produce trumpetlike calls that can be heard miles away.

Crane color seems to be a function of habitat and behavior. White cranes nest in the vast open wetlands and high tundra of Eurasia and North America. Their shiny feathers may help advertise territory and maintain contact between nesting pairs. Conversely, cranes that nest in smaller wetlands at lower latitudes are generally dull gray or brown–colors that help shield them from predators of adjacent forests. Some cranes even “paint” their feathers with the iron oxides of mud to help them hide while nesting.

Habitat and social life

Swamps, marshes, reed beds, salt flats, river valleys, wet prairies, and lake shores all offer nesting and feeding habitat for most cranes. During migration and on their wintering grounds, some may also feed in farm fields and prairies. Two exceptions are the demoiselle crane, which occupies the steppes and deserts of eastern Europe, Central Asia, and northeast Africa; and the blue crane (A. paradisea), a bird of upland veld and savanna in southern Africa.

For much of the year, cranes have a rich and varied social life. They flock, feed, and roost together, busily communicating with one another vocally and by complex body language. Early on, they establish the flock’s social order through ritual displays of preening, feather ruffling, and bowing stiffly to one another, to sort out the dominant one from the subordinates.

The flock stays together by low contact calls throughout the day, while screamlike sounds help the birds find one another when they’re scattered. Alarm calls help alert the flock to danger, and prelight calls spread the word that the flock will soon take flight.


Spring brings a change in the flock’s social order, as males and females sort out their “feelings” toward one another. Most males develop a bright red forehead patch that signals their availability for pairing. Pairs form tentatively at firs, as two adults stand near each other, then walk rigidly back and forth together Finally, they announce their pairing by unison calls that ward off intruders or other, would-be suiters.

As courtship is completed, often over several days, the two become a team and dance together, often leaping high in the air with oustretched wings, tossing sticks about. While such movements undoubtedly help cement the pair bond, a flock may also engage in spontaneous “happy dancing” during the non-breeding season.

Meanwhile, the first-year young and unpaired adults are left alone to form loosely knit groups of their own within the flock. As the time for migration draws near, both paired and unpaired cranes become increasingly restless–sometimes calling or dancing together, at other times flapping their wings and running back and forth, as if anxious to start the long flight.

Breeding cycle

Most cranes have separate wintering and nesting areas, occupied at different times of the year. The northward spring migration of whooping and Siberian cranes, for example, takes them thousands of miles over several weeks. The flights are often at high altitudes, in V-shaped formation or in echelon. Like may large birds on long migrations, cranes conserve energy by making extensive use of thermals (updrafts of warm air) and soaring whenever possible. Upon arrival at their traditional nesting sites, paired cranes stake out territories, which sometimes cover several hundred acres.

Most cranes build a platform nest of dried plant materials in shallow water of their eggs and young. The larger cranes generally lay two eggs in a nest, separated by a two-day interval, but crowned cranes may lay three eggs, and wattled cranes, a single egg. The male and female share incubation duties for the eggs. usually with much unison calling, thereby reinforcing the pair bond.

The eggs hatch in about four to five weeks, and the precocial young may leave the nest almost immediately to hide in nearby vegetation. Yet the adults keep busy guarding and feeding the young. Although most nest contain two chicks, usually only one of the them fledges–the older and stronger one, which demands and gets most of the food. During periods of foods scarcity, the dominant chick may drive the weaker one out of the nest or even kill it.


There is often a dichotomy in eating habits between the nesting and nonnesting seasons. For example, during the nesting season, wetland-associated species (such as the sandhill, whooping wattled,and Siberian cranes) prove the soft mud and vegetation for aquatic invertebrates such as minnows, snails, crayfish, frogs, and even mice and young rats, as well as a variety of plant tubers, berries, and seeds. During migration and on wintering grounds. they may feed on grains on corn, wheat, and barley, along with an occasional rodent, bird, or small snake taken from farms and grasslands. Some cranes, however prefer coastal habitats, where they feed on clams, crabs, and the soft roots of salt marsh plants.

When on the tundra, the young must fledge and learn to fly before the first snows arrive. After remaining on the breeding grounds for a few weeks in their parent’s company, the young will accompany the adults on their southward migration, apparently learning landmarks that they will need in future years. Depending on species, the young become sexually mature in about two to three years, and the breeding cycle begins for them as well.

Cranes in trouble

Most cranes were probably always restricted in number and distribution because of their specific habitat requirements and low reproductive rate. The birds must also contend with a host of a natural hazards: Severe storms can decimate adults on their nesting and breeding grounds; high winds may blow them off course during migrations; and short, cold summers sharply threaten the survival of chicks.

Crane populations have further decline because of human activities, notably hunting, pollution, and habitat encroachment (such as the conversion of wetlands to farmlands). Today, no fewer than 9 of the world’s 15 crane species are threatened or critically endangered, and conservation efforts have focused on saving them and protecting the others from further habitat and population losses.

Perhaps the best example of a recovery program is that for the whooping crane. Illegal shooting and habitat losses had reduced this once-common species to a single wild flock of 15 individuals in 1953. Recovery efforts began by establishing the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Texas, to protect the birds on their wintering grounds, and the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, to shelter them in their nesting area. Bulletins to hunters and monitoring of the crane’s movements helped protect the crane during its periodic migrations.

Moreover, captive breeding programs were established in Maryland and Wisconsin, as potential sources of young that could someday be released to augment numbers in the wild. These efforts have led to the gradual recovery of the whooping crane, which today numbers some 133 in the wild, about 120 in captive breeding flocks, and another 50 in an experimental, nonmigratory flock in Florida’s Kissimmee Prairie.

The establishment of sanctuaries and feeding stations has also helped stem the downhill slide of at least some cranes. In Japan and Korea, for example, artificial feeding stations have greatly helped white-naped (G. vipio), hooded (G. monacha), and red-crowned (G. japonensis) cranes survive on their wintering grounds.

As demands for farmland and humanized landscapes increase, such efforts will continue to be needed to ensure the future survival of the world’s cranes. Fortunately, many species take well to captivity, and the successful development of captive breeding and releasing techniques promises a future for even the most critically endangered of these heralds of happiness.

Dwight G. Smith is professor of biology at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut. He has studied cranes in Siberia and Arizona and has authored books about birds. His most recent book is A Student’s Guide to Plant Science, published in January 1998 by Simon and Schuster.

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Say it ain’t so: a back injury sidelines Wayne Gretzky


Los Angeles King hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky suffered a herniated disk in the thoracic region of his back. The unusual injury was not immediately diagnosed during the 1991-1992 season. Prospects for the 1992-1993 season are analyzed.


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Ever since he became a public figure at age 10, hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky’s life has seemed like one perpetual highlight film. He shoots, he scores. He breaks records, he wins games. He hoists the Stanley Cup, he marries a beautiful movie star in a ceremony that rivals a royal wedding.

Hollywood stuff. But last week, fans of Wayne’s world got a reality check. Having left the Los Angeles Kings’ training camp to be with his wife, Janet Jones, for the birth of their third child, Gretzky was felled by a terrible pain in his ribs and chest that, for a time, left him struggling to breathe. He was admitted to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, where doctors found a herniated disc in the thoracic region of his spine. They said that Gretzky may yet recover completely with rest and rehabilitation–but they could not say when. And there was no guarantee that Gretzky would respond to treatment. Suddenly, fans had to grasp the unhappy possibility that the man who had elevated hockey to something approaching performance art may have put on his last show.

This was not supposed to happen to Number 99, on whom the sun always seemed to shine. Never mind that Gretzky, 31, last won a Stanley Cup in 1988, or that he scored a career-low 121 points last season. He remains, in the hockey world, the Great One, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer and the man many experts consider the greatest player the game has ever known. Last week, however, the Great One was just a guy lying gingerly on a sofa in Los Angeles, taking calls from friends and the odd reporter–hardly highlight-film material. And even while the voice on the other end of the telephone last week was undeniably familiar, it was strained at times, cracking with discomfort each time he painfully shifted position. But Gretzky was quick to say in an interview with Maclean’s that after six days in hospital he was feeling better, if not pain-free, and thankfully was no longer confined to bed. “The doctors are encouraging me to move around,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ll be playing any tennis.”

Gretzky’s injury is a mystery both to himself and to his medical team. He said that he could not think of one specific moment when it might have occurred. He began to feel the pain in his chest late last winter, but the demands of the late season and playoffs prohibited him from taking time to rest. Grant Fuhr, a longtime friend and now a Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender, said that his former Edmonton Oilers teammate had taken a constant beating over the years. “I know guys would work him around the net,” Fuhr said after a practice last week at the Leafs’ training camp in Collingwood, Ont. “But they had to. It was the only way to keep him off the board. Otherwise, he’d end up with 200 points a year.”


What puzzles doctors about the injury is its location. The more common disc injuries suffered by athletes such as Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dave Stieb and Gretzky’s fellow hockey star Mario Lemieux were located in the lumbar, or lower, region of the back. Herniations of discs in the thoracic area–from below the neck to mid-back–are much less common. Dr. Robert Watkins, a spine consultant from the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles who is overseeing the rehabilitation process, said that, partly because there are not enough case studies of people with similar afflictions, he has no way of predicting when or if Gretzky will recover.

The problem was not even immediately diagnosed last season because the pain suggested other problems. “I had this pain in my chest and ribs all of March, April and May, and at the time we just thought that I’d hurt a rib,” said Gretzky, whose skating and shooting were restricted by the problem. “I had about four rib X-rays because I thought I may have broken a rib, or torn cartilage in my rib cage.” The pain subsided over the summer, but returned when Gretzky went to training camp in September. After visiting his wife in the maternity ward last week, he went to the sports clinic at Centinela, where Dr. Ronald Kvitne, the Kings’ team physician, ordered a magnetic resonance imaging test–producing a more sophisticated image than an X-ray–that revealed the herniated disc. “I just assumed that it was a small, minor thing and they were going to look at it and say: `Do this for a week or two and you’ll be back playing hockey,’ ” Gretzky recalled.

Far from coasting into his final years, Gretzky appeared to have rededicated himself to hockey. He rested for a few weeks after the Kings’ early departure from the playoffs last spring, trying to shake off the lingering pain in his chest, then embarked on the most strenuous conditioning program of his career. “In the off-season, I felt that I was still a pretty good athlete and still a long way from being `finished,’ ” said Gretzky. He rented ice time at a suburban Los Angeles arena and, with personal trainer Randy Huntington, did daily drills for seven weeks to improve his leg and upper-body strength. “I put on about 15 pounds and was probably in better shape than I have ever been in,” Gretzky says. “That’s what seems to be so strange about the injury: we put it through so much through late July and all of August, and it was fine. We did a lot of weight work, a lot of stretching and a lot of back exercises because of my [previous] back situation.”

Stir-crazy: Unused to being idle at this time of the year, Gretzky says that he is resigned to being patient and trusting his doctors’ advice. “I’ve got to keep a positive approach,” he says, “because if I start feeling antsy or thinking I can play hockey next week, I’ll go stir-crazy.” Characteristically, he has found a silver lining, saying that he is enjoying the unexpected time with his wife and newborn son, Trevor. The injury allowed him to be home last week when his daughter, three-year-old Paulina, went to preschool for the first time. And two-year-old Ty, who Gretzky says is “already a sportaholic,” has delighted his father by becoming a hockey nut just from watching games on television. “We can’t get him away from it,” said Gretzky, adding: “Quite honestly, it has been nice to spend this time at home.”

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But the Kings and their owner, Bruce McNall, will sorely miss him (page 58). In 1988, McNall traded $18 million, three first-round draft choices and two players to the Oilers in return for Gretzky and two others, in the belief that the Brantford, Ont. native could turn hockey into a major attraction in Los Angeles. For the most part, the strategy has worked. Perennial also-rans who struggled to attract fans to the Great Western Forum, the Kings suddenly found that their tickets, local television rights and merchandise were hot commodities. McNall says that the team posted a profit in the first season with Gretzky after losing $6 million the year before. Last year, the Kings sold out every home game. Marketing analysts say that Gretzky provided the superstar quality needed to attract fans in a city that was immune to mere stars. Dan Schrier, executive vice-president at Ohlmeyer Communications, a Los Angeles television production company and a transplanted New Yorker, never attended hockey games when living on the east coast. But in Los Angeles, he said, “I would go because I was drawn by Gretzky.”

The Kings also improved on the ice, but have so far been unable to win a Stanley Cup, a feat that both McNall and Gretzky have acknowledged as their main aim in their bid to solidify the sport in the major West Coast market. The disc injury is just the latest reminder that Gretzky’s biological clock is ticking, and with it his hopes of winning a cup with the Kings. Over the last two years, the club has traded away young prospects and draft choices to acquire veterans for the short term. The team even attempted to recreate the once-magical chemistry that won four Stanley Cups for the Edmonton Oilers by reuniting Gretzky with his former Oiler teammates and friends Charlie Huddy, Paul Coffey and sniper Jari Kurri.

But the Kings have not advanced past the second of four playoff rounds in four straight years, and some fans have become critical of their star. A persistent criticism last season was that Gretzky had too much influence over the makeup of the team. The acquisition of Kurri, Gretzky’s longtime winger in Edmonton, cost the team popular defenceman Steve Duchesne. “I love Wayne and I am glad he was here, but offence was never the Kings’ problem,” said longtime Kings fan Richard Rosen. “They still have firepower, but they have never corrected the defence. More than anything, I think they miss Duchesne.” Gretzky, however, scoffs at the notion that he controls personnel decisions. If he did, he said, the team would never have traded away star centre Bernie Nicholls or his friend Mike Krushelnyski, now with Toronto.

More commonly, some hockey watchers question whether Gretzky, a professional since age 17, has simply become tired. “He came into the league at 18 and averaged at least 30 minutes a game,” said Leafs president Cliff Fletcher, who saw a lot of Gretzky while he was general manager of the Calgary Flames during the late 1980s. “Then there were all the playoff games he was in at Edmonton. He has played an awful lot of hockey.”

Others suggest that Gretzky may have succumbed to the many-splendored distractions of Los Angeles. The boy from Brantford found himself in the company of movie, television and sports celebrities, and making appearances on late-night talk shows. Then there were the endorsements for soft drinks, athletic shoes and rental cars.

But Gretzky and those who know him insist that, while his lifestyle may have changed, he still puts hockey on a special, separate pedestal. He turned down the Walt Disney Co. in 1989 when approached to make an instant “After this, I’m going to Disneyland” television commercial, which the company wanted to shoot the moment he finally eclipsed Gordie Howe’s long-standing career-points record. Gretzky said that he did not want to take anything away from an important milestone in his life. And other players said they see no sign that he is shirking his vaunted reputation for playing–and practising–hard. “He was getting so much ice time,” said Krushelnyski, denying suggestions that Gretzky was any less committed last season, “and he never dogged it.”

Shaken: But Gretzky’s 1991-1992 season was certainly his most trying, both on and off the ice. He suffered a lower back injury while playing in the pre-season Canada Cup tournament after being checked heavily into the boards by American defenceman Gary Suter. The injury knocked him out of the tournament and forced him to start the season suffering from lower-back pain. Then, when his father, Walter, nearly died from a brain aneurysm in October, he left the team for several games to be with his dad in a Hamilton, Ont., hospital. Gretzky is hesitant to comment on his father’s recovery, although he has acknowledged in the past that he was badly shaken by Walter’s illness.


But Gretzky has always been his own worst critic, musing more than once last year about quitting hockey. “I just feel that my contribution to the team last season was not up to the standard that I am accustomed to,” he told Maclean’s last week. “I don’t want to make any excuses. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen.” And Gretzky said that he shares the fans’ impatience. “One of the things I had to do when I got here was to help sell hockey, and I think we made some great strides in that area,” he said. “The next thing was to create an organization that expected to win. And I think we’ve made strides in that way too. The third thing to do was to win [the Stanley Cup], but we have yet to accomplish that. So we are two-thirds of the way there.”

Marquee: Kings officials tried last week to offset negative conjecture about how Gretzky’s absence might affect the team. “It isn’t a one-man sport, so we feel we can still be competitive this season,” said McNall. But brave words did little to counter the image that the NHL without Gretzky was like Prince Charles without Diana–still there, but not nearly as interesting. ESPN, the sports cable network that had just signed an $80-million five-year agreement to telecast NHL games in the United States, announced that it may replace its scheduled Nov. 10 Kings-Winnipeg Jets game with an Edmonton Oilers-St.Louis Blues game. “No sport can afford to lose its marquee players,” said the Leafs’ Fletcher. “Look at the National Basketball Association if Michael Jordan goes down, especially after losing Magic Johnson. Wayne is probably the most important player in the league as far as image and marketability in the United States go, and we can only pray and hope he can come back.”

The consuming discussion about what hockey would be without Gretzky obscured the more personal matter of what Gretzky would be without hockey. He said that while he is determined to concentrate on overcoming his injury and returning to play, the painful reminder of his professional mortality has caused him to look beyond his sporting life. “To say that I haven’t thought about retirement would be a lie,” he said. “What am I going to do? I don’t know.” But Gretzky quickly dismissed further thoughts of life without hockey. “If I lose my focus about being positive toward this treatment, my thought processes might turn negative about ever coming back,” he said. “So what I have to try to do is remain focused on the immediate future, which is the next three or four months, to try to do whatever I can.”

Spotlight: His determination to defy skeptics has been a lifelong trait. Gretzky has been in the spotlight since, while a 10-year-old playing in the Brantford Atom league, he scored 378 goals in 69 games. But he now recalls that year as both a dream and a nightmare, and as the first time he ever experienced true unhappiness. Subsequently, he was hounded for interviews, and he was booed and screamed at by parents of players on opposing teams, and even his own team. At 14, he had to move away from Brantford in order to play hockey in relative anonymity. “I don’t think that I was shortchanged,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want other kids to have to go through the pressures and the baloney that I had to go through.”

That said, he admits that hockey has given as good as it has got. “All in all,” he said, “I’ve been very fortunate and I think that I have been a lot of great places and met a lot of great people through hockey.” And in a time when he might slip into despondency, Gretzky appears to have landed on his feet as always–even if he happens to be flat on his back. “For me, the last few days have been really nice because a lot of my friends have been calling with words of encouragement,” he said. “The people around you are so important, and if they are positive and upbeat, then you’re going to be that way yourself.” Now, as fans get a preview of what it might feel like to do without Wayne Gretzky, they might do well to remember that hockey will go on because it is a great game. Gretzky just made it better.

Leave it to Wayne Gretzky, the most exceptional hockey player of his time, to be sidelined by what Los Angeles Kings’ team doctor Robert Watkins called a “one-in-a-million” injury. Some back specialists claim that they never see a single patient suffering from a herniated disc in the thoracic–or middle–region of the spine, where Gretzky’s injury occurred. Movement in that part of the back is limited, and the area is supported by the ribs and chest, making it less vulnerable than the neck and lower spine to injury. Specialists see so few cases that there is no agreement on even how or why such injuries occur. Said Toronto orthopedist Dr. Hamilton Hall, founder of the Canadian Back Institute: “It’s so rare that there’s really no pattern to it.”

Discs are basically the shock absorbers of the spine. Formed of a Plasticine-like material encased in tough fibres, the discs act as cushions between each of the 24 vertebrae. Dr. James Watkins, executive vice-president of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, explains that when a person with an uninjured spine bends forward, the gelatinous material in the centre is pushed against the retaining fibres. Should the fibres tear and the gelatin protrude–or “herniate”–the pressure may irritate spinal nerves. Depending on the seriousness of the disc injury, Watkins added, the resulting pain can range from slight discomfort to agony.

When the herniated disc is at an advanced stage, back specialists may opt to surgically remove the bulging portion of the disc, often allowing the two vertebrae to fuse together. But Hall says that 85 per cent of disc ruptures with nerve pressure get better on their own. A specialized exercise program can minimize discomfort and promote healing. But recovery may take up to six months or longer, and even then the incidence of the injury recurring remains high for about two years. If Gretzky’s condition responds to that treatment, after two years he will be no more at risk of a herniated disc than someone who has never had a spinal injury. But if not, then he may find that, sometimes, being one in a million has its down side.

How to survive all your friends getting married when no one’s proposing to you

I do, I do, I do hate wedding season: how to survive all your friends getting married when no one’s proposing to you

Wedding season is on the horizon. Brides-to-be are mailing out invites. You could get a dozen invitations this summer. Excited? Good for you.

Not so excited? A new book sympathizes, especially with the single woman, and offers tips and strategies on how not to go berserk from frustration, or for that matter broke from buying a bunch of food processors as wedding gifts when you can’t even afford one yourself.

Erin Torneo and Valerie Cabrera Krause are the authors of The Bridal Wave: A Survival Guide to the Everyone-I-Know-Is-Getting-Married Years. The book is aimed at fed up, unwed women in their twenties and thirties who would rather stay home and clean the toilet than attend yet another friend’s wedding.


“The Bridal Wave strikes like a tidal wave, sweeping up your friends one by one, and showering you with anxieties,” write the authors. “It’s easy to feel like the odd woman out,” particularly when strangers and relatives ask, “Why aren’t you seeing anyone?” or “Have you tried online dating?”

Even if you’ve got a boyfriend, “you’re not free from the wrath of the Bridal Wave. Those of us in relationships face the firing squad from family: ‘When are you two going to make it official?’” write the authors. Or worse, the Bridal Wave causes you to scrutinize your own up-till-now-happy relationship: “Is he the one? Is there even time to meet a new one?”

The Bridal Wave acknowledges, “We know how we are supposed to feel when we hear someone else’s good news: we’re supposed to smile and congratulate them.” But in a research survey they did for the book, the authors found that 77 per cent of women felt anxiety, self-pity, and jealousy at hearing the news of a friend’s engagement.

  • Tip No. 1. “Make a new friend who is as far from the circle as possible. She’ll be completely on your side because she won’t have loyalty to your other friends. You can talk as much trash about your Club Wedd friends as you like,” write the authors.
  • Tip No. 2. It’s okay not to go. “If this is your llth invitation and your heart sinks at the thought of going, then check the ‘regretfully decline’ box.” Furthermore, if your invitation arrives about three weeks before the actual date, “Face it: you’re a C-lister to her, so why bother stressing and showing up?”

If it’s a “destination wedding“–as in, you’re expected to fly to Croatia–“these are the easiest to decline,” according to the book. “That said, you still have to send a gift.” However, “if you think their plan is to get as many gifts as possible with as few attending guests as possible, you can always make a charitable donation in their name. No present for them. No wedding for you. Score one for charity.”


As for the wedding gifts you will be purchasing, The Bridal Wave says, screw the registry. “Once you find something you like, say, silver candle holders or an elegant silver tray, buy in bulk. Repeat, I will not go into credit card debt.”

To avoid further maudlin feelings at home, steer clear of celebrity magazines, and romantic comedy rentals. “Hearing about a celeb’s impending nuptials can have the same result as getting your umpteenth I’ve Got Big News call [from an engaged friend],” the book says. “Repeat after us. I will broaden the range of books and magazines I read so I don’t lock myself into a world run by the money-making celebrity machine that perpetuates happily-ever-after myths.” For movie entertainment that doesn’t end in “I do,” the authors recommend Thelma and Louise, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lost in Translation, and D.E.B.S.

A friend’s wedding can easily send a single woman into despair about her future security, and whether she’ll ever be a mother.

  • Tip No. 3. Buy real estate. “Buying a home is not an act of resignation, or a symbol that you’re doomed to be single. It’s a smart investment that can double your money in five years.”

What’s more, if you’re financially independent, and if your biggest fear of never marrying is that you’ll never have kids, you can make the decision to be a single mom. “Maybe it’s no one’s fantasy to drive to a sperm bank and play select-a-dad … but opting to have a baby doesn’t mean the end of the line for you romantically,” write the authors. “They can be separate things. It is 2007, after all!”

  • Tip No. 4. Skip the ceremony. “But don’t tell the couple how bummed you are that you missed the actual tying of the knot. What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”

Women and song: Three releases shed light on the evolving role of the female singer-songwriter

Ever since Joni Mitchell’s confessional ballads first filled smoky coffeehouses back in the 1960s, Canadian women have been drawn to the singer-songwriter form. Although the instrumentation has evolved beyond no-frills guitar, Mitchell’s influence continues to loom over many female artists. Lilith Fair may have been Sarah McLachlan’s baby, but Mitchell was unquestionably the music festival’s midwife. Three recent Canadian albums reveal just how much the female singer-songwriter form has changed.


Toronto’s Jane Siberry launched her career as a coffeehouse singer while studying microbiology at the University of Guelph in the late 1970s. During the next decade, she released a series of critically acclaimed albums with unusual song structures and quirky poetry. Since abandoning a major-label record deal in 1996, Siberry has established herself as a successful entrepreneur (owner of her own Sheeba Records) and issued several live recordings, a collection of songs she wrote as a teenager and one experimental album that involved a 29-minute tour through New York City.

Now, with Hush (Sheeba/Sounds True Records), the always unpredictable artist has released her most surprising project: an album of traditional American and Celtic spirituals. Accompanying herself on piano, accordion, harp and harmonica, Siberry taps into the melodic purity of such classics as Jacob’s Ladder and O Shenandoah. While the world hardly needs another version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Siberry’s exquisite readings of Pontchartrain and As I Roved Out make those old Irish ballads as moving as anything in current pop.

Like Siberry, Sarah Harmer was bitten by the music bug during her college days, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. After performing in the alternative rock band Weeping Tile, the singer-guitarist set a solo course for herself and released a charming collection of her father’s favourite country tunes, titled Songs for Clem, which she recorded on her back porch. But with You Were Here (Cold Snap/Universal), Harmer has emerged as a singer-songwriter of exceptionable depth. Blessed with a distinctive voice that occasionally breaks into falsetto, Harmer deals with the emotional nuances of love gone sour in songs such as Around This Corner. She also captures the joys of romance on Open Window (The Wedding Song) and Lodestar, a vividly detailed sketch of a starlit boat ride. You Were Here signals the arrival of a major new talent.


Vancouver’s Kinnie Starr is herself a formidable young talent, but she has little to do with acoustic folk or pop music. Instead Starr, who released a startling independent debut album, Tidy, in 1996 and appeared in Lilith Fair the following year, prefers spoken poetry and the rough-and-tumble worlds of alternative rock and hip-hop. That eclectic mix attracted the attention of Mercury Records, which signed Starr to a recording deal. But Starr headed out on her own again after Mercury was absorbed last year within the Universal Music empire, and the self-described “feminist half-breed” — she is Metis — found that she and the label had different artistic agendas.


Not surprising: it’s hard to imagine many major record companies issuing an album like Tune-Up, which Starr has released on her own Violet Inch label. Full of spiritual chants, baby cries, programmed beats and urgent rapping about love and unity, it’s experimental in the extreme. Some of it sounds raw, even unfinished. But the best tracks, including the slow, sexy Warm and the dark Miles have an undeniable power. And the patient listener who leaves the CD playing after the last song, Unspun, has finished, will be rewarded with two hidden tracks — one a sensuous bluesy number, the other an ode to “friendship and creativity,” both of which bode well for future recordings. Although she doesn’t fit the traditional singer-songwriter mould, Starr is an artist with a deeply personal message that would make even Joni Mitchell proud.

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Straight to his listeners’ hearts: Word of mouth makes McDermott a star

John McDermott can sing — the 44-year-old is one of Canada’s best- selling performers — but he is also one heck of a talker. Almost from the moment he steps onstage at a high-school auditorium in Toronto’s west end, the audience is with him. Every quip sends a ripple of laughter across the spacious hall, and even though it’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, the place is packed ight up to the back rows. The traditional Irish and Scottish ballads that McDermott is known for aren’t hip or cool, but that is of no concern to these people. They are here to listen to the songs of their childhood, delivered in McDermott’s warm, rich tenor, interspersed with a liberal sprinkling of convivial banter — it’s almost as if they were sitting in their living rooms, listening to a favourite son. The adoration appears to be mutual. During intermission he is out in the lobby — as he generally is before and after each show — signing autographs for a long line of well-wishers. “He’s a very down-to-earth person,” says die-hard fan Marion Richardson. “Personality — that’s what it’s all about with him.”


McDermott, in fact, is something of a phenomenon. Although he only began singing professionally in 1993, he has sold 1.3 million recordings in Canada and the United States. That puts him near the top of the heap for a Canadian artist. Only big pop stars like Celine Dion or Amanda Marshall sell more albums. Astonishingly, it is word of mouth, not airplay or music videos, that has created this massive fan club: he is on the road almost 10 months a year, touring Canada, the United States and Europe, and a year rarely goes by without a clutch of new McDermott projects. In March came The Irish Tenors, a TV special and CD recorded live in Dublin with Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan that was so successful the trio are kicking off a 12-city North American tour this month. In May, McDermott released Remembrance in the United States, a collection of war songs honouring veterans. Mid-July also brings the re-release of Love Is a Voyage, a 1995 album that will include five new tracks, most notably Daughter of Mine, an original wedding song written by Newfoundland grandmother Madeline Thomson.

All this seems to leave the Glasgow-born, Toronto-raised McDermott somewhat bemused. “I’ve been so lucky, it isn’t funny,” he says over chicken-and-rice soup in a distinctly untrendy north Toronto pub. McDermott was raised in the neighbourhood and still lives there, as does his 82-year-old mother and several of his 11 siblings. His father’s 1995 wake — a three-day event — was held in the same restaurant and it is clear that McDermott, the world traveller, maintains a profound attachment to his roots. He describes his parents’ home on a Saturday night: chairs around the basement walls, lots of friends and neighbours, lots of singing. His father’s rich voice led the way and often, as in a McDermott concert, each song was served up with a dash of history. Many people have lost touch with their past, McDermott says, “but there is a silent majority who haven’t and that is why I’m successful.” That shows in their thirst for the old songs — Danny Boy, Guardian Angel and One Small Star are perennials at his concerts.

perfect-wedding-planning-2McDermott doesn’t seem perturbed by the indifference of Top 40 junkies. He never expected to have a singing career, he says, recounting how a chance meeting with Conrad Black while he was working in the circulation department at The Toronto Sun led to Black providing most of the financial backing for his first CD. And McDermott loves performing — “they have to get the hook out or I’d sing all night.” He is married and has no children, appearing to spend most waking moments planning more projects. He is giving a series of concerts in the United States to raise money for local veterans’ charities and a proposed Second World War memorial in Washington. McDermott also wants to get a fund going to help new performers, something that will allow them to get that crucial first CD made without debt. That idea is still a gleam in his eye, but given McDermott’s successes so far, it’s one that stands a pretty good chance of coming to pass.

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ormal cheesy wedding

Lighting the Way


A writer and editor describes his trip to Myanmar. Topics include the origin of the Buddhist Festival of Lights, the cultural context of the marriage ceremony, family relations, the care of older parents, and the disparity between the force of its military government and the graciousness of the people.

Full Text:

A Myanmar Journey

Scrambling from the ferry’s bow, I stepped onto the narrow plank. The precarious walkway bounced and wobbled as it supported my weight above the expanse of the Irrawaddy’s muddy riverbank. Dry land was a meandering scratch of path beaten into the dark goo. I followed it up into the blackness of the trees. The heat and stifling humidity of the evening closed about. In a few cautious strides, I could stop watching where I trod and look about to see where I had come.

Only the glow of torches and the faint glimmers of the night sky above the trees relieved the darkness. Then I heard the rustling and murmurs of people discreetly withdrawn into the shadows. Some voices ahead, a light or two in gardens and homes, the silhouettes of bamboo poles and thatched roofs, and I realized we were in the village itself, walking up a bare-earth main street lit only by the occasional lamp or candle. This was Thadingkyut, Myanmar’s Festival of Lights?

I realized that I should say hi, smile, wave to the people. They stood in shy groups, seemingly stunned at the sight of these large white people plodding along the path between their homes. Then a response– half bows, smiles, cries of “Aaaah,” echoes of “Hi”–and they were all around. Grandmothers beamed and giggled, men diffidently shook hands, young women coyly smiled and retreated, and children’s tiny hands reached out to clutch one’s fingers. Little faces gazed up, beamed, and then we were all walking along in proud, noisy procession. Kids swung from each of my arms, pulling my fingers in every direction. Their chests puffed out as they bravely strutted and shouted so close to the stranger.

The village was no more than a cluster of homes and sheds. It had no electricity or running water. Our hosts explained that oxen and buffalo are used to tend the fields and paddies, which are sown by hand. In a matter of a minute or two I felt I had stepped into a different century, stumbled into an alien world, and then, in the noisy swirl of children and beaming adults, discovered the simple essence and reassurance of our common humanity.

All too soon we were back at the riverbank. I hastily passed out hard candies dug from my pocket, said a dozen or more “bye-byes,” and headed back to the ferry. The muddy trail now seemed familiar, free of apprehensions, and our group was animated and chattering as we strolled back, retreating to the comforts of the “White Mermaid,” the Venice Simplon/Eastern and Oriental Express’s luxurious riverboat Road to Mandalay, which lay bathed in moonlight.

Back on board, we watched as crew members lit torches carried by paper hot-air balloons and floated them up into the night sky. From the pitch-dark riverbanks came enthusiastic cries and scattered applause. Then the night fell quiet, save for the buzzing of insects and the placid lapping of the Irrawaddy. The fire balloons drifted silently downriver, forming an arching chain of flickering, glowing mystery above the shrouded horizon until they too fell dark.


A Buddhist ‘Lent’

Balloons are integral to the celebration called Festival of Lights in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Held in late September or early October, the festival occupies the three days around the full moon. People release five balloons during the month beforehand and decorate their homes by setting out candles or lamps during the evenings of the festival. The ceremony welcomes Buddha’s return to earth after his sojourn in fairyland (paradise).


The shrines of the massive Shwedagon temple complex in Yangon (Rangoon) are decorated with thousands more candles than usual, but no big public celebration takes place in the city. Far-flung local celebrations occur. Street entertainments, stage shows, and displays of traditional dance may appear in towns of any size. In farms and homes, special meals are prepared, and lights are hung where rice or cooking implements are stored to bless them for the year ahead.

The celebration has been somewhat muted in recent years because the military government discourages large public gatherings and any activities that might require street closures. Nevertheless the festival is an important moment in Myanmar’s calendar. It marks the end of a three-month period (July through September) regarded as the Buddhist “Lent.” (The English term is commonly used, one of many reminders of the country’s British colonial heritage.)

Belief has it that after Buddha’s mother had passed on to paradise, Buddha longed to see her. So he went to visit her. After three months he returned to earth. He found his way home, welcomed back by the full moon and the candles lit by his faithful followers. Each year the people commemorate the event. During the period of his absence, the faithful observe certain precautionary restrictions, and monks do not stray far from their monasteries. But the period’s most significant sacrifice is that marriage ceremonies are prohibited. Buddha’s return initiates the start of Myanmar’s wedding season. The Festival of Lights thus marks the dividing point between a period of loneliness and the time of new beginnings and the fullness of life.

The waiting period also affirms the significance of marriage, deferring individual desire and gratification to the higher values of the community. Couples generally marry between the ages of 25 and 30, and marriages will be arranged if something hasn’t happened naturally. Divorce is extremely difficult and rare. “We only want one marriage in life,” commented one young man. “No extra wife.”

Although most matches are made for love, both sets of parents must give their approval before a wedding can take place. Gaining that approval is no small matter. Few of the Myanmar I met would speak of any personal matters. Discretion and cautious prudence marked every conversation. In general, they call themselves “Myanmar people.” Myanmar means “many people,” a reference to the country’s approximately 130 ethnic groups. Its former name, Burma, is the corruption of the name of just one group.

Aboard the Road to Mandalay I met Myn, a man in his late twenties whose pleasure at the Festival of Lights could be directly attributed to his impending marriage. Scholarly and erudite, Myn was a diminutive fellow even by Myanmar standards. His wide smile, oval face, and slight, almost childlike, physical appearance belied the seriousness of the commitment he was making. He explained that first the would-be groom must convince his own mother that he loves and wants the girl he has chosen. Then he must make his case to his father. In Myanmar’s family matters, Myn explained, “Mother is No. 1, father No. 2.”

The mother then interviews her prospective daughter-in-law. If she and the young man’s father approve the choice of bride-to-be, the aspiring husband may then approach the young woman’s parents. They will question him closely as to his feelings, situation, income, and prospects. Each of these steps must be fulfilled in turn and may require several meetings and repeated discussions. If the agreement of both sets of parents is gained, the couple must then visit all their aunts, uncles, and senior extended-family members to introduce themselves and discuss the hoped-for match.

Living with parents

In this way, all family objections and concerns can be aired. Everyone must be satisfied. The union is a joining of families before it is the romantic attachment of individuals. The reputations, characters, and circumstances of the young people are a matter of common concern. Couples must take financial responsibility for the cost of their own wedding service and reception (ideally at a big hotel). There is no question of a dowry or any such compensation made to parents.

Couples are not allowed to live together before marriage. They would be ostracized by society at large and rejected by their own families, if they tried. The requirement of parental blessing is not negotiable. Engagement ceremonies can take up to three years to complete, and every detail of the couple’s characters, lives, and monetary situation is thoroughly discussed. Only when everyone is satisfied and both sets of parents have given their permission can the couple choose the day. Before that is done, they must visit a fortune-teller. “Most Burmese are a little bit superstitious,” grinned Myn with a bashful shrug. “Superstition must be considered.”

Most Myanmar will visit a fortune-teller at least once or twice a year. Myn explained that birthdates are considered very significant in determining compatibility. He was born on a Wednesday. According to folk belief, it would be fine for him to marry someone born on a Saturday but not someone born on a Sunday. Alas, the latter was precisely his situation. Both sets of parents were worried that the marriage would be plagued by bad luck.

To ease parental concerns, the couple had to have their fortunes read and make sacrifices (even a physical penance like the groom beating or cutting his skin) to protect against future misfortune. Only when everything had been decided could they live together and try for a baby. “It is important to respect these things,” explained Myn. “When we marry, we join the path of parents. We must respect our parents’ and children’s future as well as our own. We can’t divorce, even if we quarrel, because of the children.”

Most couples also start their marriages living with one set of parents, usually the husband’s. “We want our families to stay together,” said Myn. Though he still lives with his parents, he is building a small house in Yangon for himself and his wife. It will have a main living room, kitchen, and a bedroom. Although located in a poor area, it will cost around U.S. $4,000, an enormous amount of money in Myanmar. In part the couple will do this because Myn’s parents, though they live together, are painfully estranged.

For more than seven years, he admitted sadly, all conversations between his parents have been directed through their children. The parents share the household chores (his father does all the laundry, for example) but don’t communicate directly, even if in the same room. His father will instruct Myn “Tell your mother … ” if he wants to say anything to her.

I am struck by the fragility of a marriage relationship. Even in a society that creates extensive cultural supports to ensure that the centrality and gravity of marriage are understood by those entering the union, there can be no legislation for the human heart. Compromise and conciliation between the couple are paramount. A social order that tries to preclude the risk of failure in a marriage may also eradicate a primary stimulus for the reconciliation of differences.


Joined in life’s journey

Myn had to give up his own room for his father’s sake and currently sleeps in the living room, “in front of the TV.” Bringing his bride into the home is impossible from a practical point of view. I am curious that Myn does not consider it an emotional impossibility. That would not be sufficient reason. Respect for his parents and social protocol override such considerations.

“Our parents are very important,” he insisted. “They raise us, take care, feed, clothe us, so they may be really tired. When we are married, it will be our time to work and care for them.” Not that parents want to become burdensome or dependent. They wish to contribute and will take care of grandchildren and assume many other reponsibilities. There is “no need to become an isolated person,” probably the worst fate for a Myanmar, Myn insisted.

He also explained that retirement is very difficult in Myanmar. The government pension is only around one U.S. dollar a month, and the people have few formal savings. They don’t use banks or other financial institutions. I was told, however, that most people accumulate hidden wealth, usually gold and jewelry, that is kept somewhere in the home. Because crime is so infrequent, most people consider this perfectly safe.

Myn claimed that he would be very sad if he and his wife missed the chance to feed and take care of their parents. His prayer, he explained, like that of the average Myanmar, is structured out of respect for “all the parents in my life.” Prayer would honor–and be in gratitude for–first the Buddha, second Buddha’s texts and teachings, third monks and holy people, fourth parents, and fifth teachers. Myn commented that he still shows great respect to his former teachers whenever he meets them. “We have no right to criticize those who have taught us,” he said. Last of all, he concluded, one may pray for oneself, for one’s own situation and family.

Myn left for his cramped quarters in the prow of the boat, and I headed off to the comforts of my cabin. I reflected that Myanmar was one of the most exotic, alien, and baffling cultures I’d ever encountered. Its gold-encrusted pagodas seemed an illogical contrast to the poverty of its population. The dilemma of the country’s international isolation and the dreadful reputation of its severe military government were so at odds with the passivity and gracious patience of its people. I remembered the protesters outside the Myanmar Embassy in Washington, D.C., who had tried to dissuade me from applying for a visa, and the joy of the excited, slender people in the darkness of an unknown village who had innocently reached out in friendship to the strangers in their midst. And I thought of Myn, embarking on the greatest of life’s journeys, venturing into his unknown, setting out to tread the most common human path of all. In some things, after all, our lives are not so far apart.

Stephen J. Osmond is associate senior editor of the Culture section.

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The Wedding Party

Model Sasha Pivovarova, in the season’s full-of-romance frocks, and her husband, Igor Vishnyakov, reenact their “I do’s” in the dreamiest of June nuptials.

“We met at the airport in Moscow while our flight to Turkey was delayed, and he proposed to me a year later in a cafA[c] in St.-Tropez. I love practically everything about being married”


The couple, who have said their vows twice, reprise the roles of bride and groom. On Sasha: Lanvin wedding dress; Bergdorf Goodman. FROM LEFT: Vera Wang satin dress; Vera Wang Bridal House, NYC. Ralph Lauren Collection embroidered tulle dress; Ralph Lauren stores. Giambattista Valli silk print dress; Neiman Marcus. Lanvin tulle dresses; Barneys New York. Michael Kors polka-dot coat; Michael Kors stores. For the names of friends and family, see page 171. Details, see In This Issue.



The girls throw her a bachelorette fete, showing up in richly hued cocktail dressesand Sasha throws the bouquet. FROM LEFT: Balenciaga by Nicolas GhesquiA[umlaut]re mint lace dress; Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci blue satin-and-lace dress, $2,930; Barneys New York. Balenciaga by Nicolas GhesquiA[umlaut]re ivory satin-and-lace dress, $3,995; Bergdorf Goodman. Dolce & Gabbana scarlet silk dress; Dolce & Gabbana boutiques. Oscar de la Renta red-and-fuchsia jacquard dress, $1,990; Oscar de la Renta boutiques. Carolina Herrera silk-jacquard dress, $2,490; Bergdorf Goodman. Details, see In This Issue.


The girls throw her a bachelorette fete, showing up in richly hued cocktail dressesand Sasha throws the bouquet. FROM LEFT: Balenciaga by Nicolas GhesquiA[umlaut]re mint lace dress; Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci blue satin-and-lace dress, $2,930; Barneys New York. Balenciaga by Nicolas GhesquiA[umlaut]re ivory satin-and-lace dress, $3,995; Bergdorf Goodman. Dolce & Gabbana scarlet silk dress; Dolce & Gabbana boutiques. Oscar de la Renta red-and-fuchsia jacquard dress, $1,990; Oscar de la Renta boutiques. Carolina Herrera silk-jacquard dress, $2,490; Bergdorf Goodman. Details, see In This Issue.


Suzanne Couture Millinery lavender feather hat. Details, see In This Issue.



Sasha’s sister, Alyona, updates a sweet floral print with fishnets and tough-but-chic boots. Christian Lacroix silk-gazar cocktail dress with appliquA[c]d neckline, $4,940; Christian Lacroix, NYC. Stephen Russell bracelet. Proenza Schouler boots.


While Igor does a Russian dance, she’s perfectly radiant in her rosy-pink going-away frock. Louis Vuitton dress ($2,845) with petticoat ($1,423), lily-of-the-valley brooch, and beaded shoes; (866) VUITTON. Marc Jacobs bag. On Igor: his own Prada suit.