Minnesota sports: get a Kluwe

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Wild-Vikings-Wolves-Twins-Gophers

I have always been proud that Minnesota has a team for just about every major sport: the basketballing Timberwolves, the hockey-pucking Wild, the home-run-hitting Twins, the minor-league-home-run-hitting Saints, even the lacrossing Swarm (what verb is associated with lacrosse?). Arguably our best team, the lady Lynxes, just narrowly lost the WNBA championship two days ago.

The one team I follow closely, though, is our football team, the Minnesota Vikings. There’s much to be proud of this season, a year that was supposed to be dedicated to “rebuilding” (read: sucking). Everyone but the players themselves is completely surprised that the Vikings are now 5-2, and I would guess even a few of the players are surprised.

But it’s not just successes on the field that have brought the Vikings extra attention or made me proud to be a fan recently. About two months ago, Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote to the owner of the Baltimore Ravens to discourage the Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo from his open support of gay marriage. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe published a letter in response that is more than just strongly-worded in its takedown of Mr. Burns. It is so colorful, in fact, that it immediately went viral, and prompted many who know nothing about football to proclaim themselves fans of whatever side Chris plays for (no pun intended…or was it?)

Chris Kluwe: activist, punter, Guitar Hero

Kluwe puts his money–and his time–where his mouth is. This year in Minnesota we will be voting on a shameful proposed amendment to the state constitution that would declare marriage to be solely between a man and a woman. Kluwe has become the celebrity face of Minnesotans United for All Families, the chief opponents of the amendment. He has written to several legislators in the state who support the amendment to request a debate; none have responded.

He hopes ultimately to change the culture of professional sports, so that an active player may someday soon be able to come out as gay and still find a place for himself in the traditionally homophobic arena of the locker room. Kluwe explains as much in his recent profiles in the New York Times, Out Magazine, and our own local paper, City Pages.

But Chris Kluwe is not defined himself by any one label; just read his weekly blog at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. His latest post is about the meaningless of currency. He also quotes scripture to disagree with a Catholic Archbishop, supplies campaign reform solutions, and talks about the psychology of losing. Oh, and he’s hilarious.

So even though Chris Kluwe is originally from California, I’m gonna claim him as a shining beacon of Minnesota awesomeness. Go sports!

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Say my name, say my name

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London=Unfordable River Town; Wales=Land of Strangers

When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was struck by a sentence at the very beginning: “the world was so recent that many things lacked names.” How could that be? I wondered. Didn’t things always have names?

Many of the world’s origin stories include the naming of objects, such as the Bible’s Genesis, in which Adam names all the animals presented to him. And many stories were passed from generation to generation simply to remember these names. When the Vikings decided to make the unpopulated Iceland their new home, they quickly had to create legends that characterized the landscape–the Hill of Blood, the Coast of Betrayal. By following the linguistic map of the Norse sagas, a Viking could find his way around the entire island.

Can we move to Pit Dweller's Town? Or what about Curlyhead?

I started thinking about toponymy, the study of the origins of place names, after posting a map on Wednesday of the meanings of Native American names that have become standard in the United States–Chicago, Manhattan, and my very own Minnesota. While I have associations with each of these places, the associations are, of course, not based at all on the literal meanings. It’s interesting for me–an American with no correspondence between my ancestors and my birthplace–to think of those places in the world where names are still meaningful to the people who live in them.

A pair of Germans decided to create an Atlas of True Names, for which they tracked down meanings that had been previously lost to posterity. The English version is certainly interesting to look over, even comical in many places, but how do we agree upon a “true” name? Yes, the idea of the project was to find the translations of place names from their original languages. But conquerors change the names of their acquired lands, people decide to rename their own lands for political or religious purposes, stories and the names held therein are forgotten. I remember a stubborn friend asking why we couldn’t call countries by the names they call themselves–why must we English speakers say Germany instead of Deutschland, Spain instead of España? I agreed that he had a point, but would it be fair to use the Castilian España instead of the Basque Espainia or Catalan Espanya? And Spain has relatively few languages–for those countries with hundreds of languages, or a division between native language and colonizers’ language, how would we know which name to honor as “true”? Names may start out as descriptive, but they quickly become political.

A few interesting toponymic lists, all courtesy of Wikipedia: the origins of all country namesplace names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations (like the American towns with the name of Berlin that changed their pronunciations during WWI to BUR-lin so as to differentiate themselves from the Germans), and tautological place names in which the native language already describes a geographical landmark that is then repeated in another language. For instance, Tahoe means “lake” in Washo, so Lake Tahoe means Lake Lake.

I studied abroad in Navel of the Moon. Nice country, that.

Virtuosic Vikings

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Even though the 2009 Vikings didn’t make it to the Superbowl, they sure served up the heroes. It was easy to love rookie Percy Harvin:

Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson is always amazing:

How to be an NFL wide receiver

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My team

What you’ll need: a fast 40-yard dash time, a good touchdown dance

Songlist: Outkast’s The Whole World (I catch a beat runnin’ like Randy Moss), Prince’s ode to the Vikings Purple and Gold

Further Reading: The Very Virile Viking by Sandra Hill, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer

1998: Year of the Tiger, year of Titanic’s titanic 11 Oscar haul, year that Bill Clinton denied he had sexual relations with that woman. Year that Nagano, Japan hosted the Winter Olympics and year that two Standford PhD candidates founded Google, Inc. 1998, year that a tall, skinny kid out of West Virginia was drafted by the Minnesota’s football team and forever changed my life.

Until Randy Moss’s rookie year with the Vikings, I didn’t understand why my dad and brother would sit around watching football for hours on end. On Thanksgivings, I gladly stayed in the kitchen making cranberry sauce instead of watching large men run into each other. For that’s all that it looked like to me: a human collision course. In seventh grade, though, my homework load increased and I left it for Sundays to finish in front of the TV. Watching Randy Moss in 1998 made me realize the true nature of football: it is stunningly beautiful. Or, as a New Yorker article this week referred to it, it is contact ballet. And thus I became a Vikings fan.

Carter, Moss, Culpepper

The Vikings went 15-1 in that 1998 season, a feat not achieved often or as gracefully. They scored a record 556 points on offense (a record since broken), never fewer than 24 points per game. Randy Moss caught 17 touchdowns, a rookie record; his jaw-dropping hail-Mary catches were balanced by the precision of veteran wide receiver Cris Carter, a man who would sooner break a bone than step out of bounds or drop a ball. Naturally, in my hero-worship state, I wished I could be as talented as those men; I wanted to be an NFL wide receiver who was paid millions to show how elegant a tough sport could be. While being a short female somewhat precludes me from an NFL on-the-field career, I wanted to live a life with as much epic drama every week as these men were showcasing.

Besides the incredible Randall Cunningham passes that spanned the length of the football field to end up firmly in the hands of Moss or Carter, we had another asset on offense: field goal kicker Gary Anderson. Hitting a perfect 35 for 35 attempts in the regular season, he seemed more trustworthy even than Carter (yes, this is where, if you remember what happened, your stomach drops). The Vikings rolled into the playoffs as the heavy favorites to win the NFC championship. They beat the Cardinals easily, then welcomed the Falcons to Minnesota’s Metrodome for the championship game.

I’ll never forget the moment when Gary Anderson missed the field goal attempt that would have put the Vikings into the Superbowl. My heart broke, my brother punched the table and left the room, and those of us left behind sat in stunned silence. It wasn’t just our brilliant season that ended in that moment, but my belief that my idols could do no wrong. I realized I could never have a job on which the hopes and dreams of thousands lay upon one single moment. It was too much pressure.

Our story turned out to be a tragedy (as all the great ones are), and I told myself I would never care as much again. But then a hero with a story so improbable as to be legendary joined the Vikings in 2009, and once again I started to believe. But Brett Favre threw an interception in the NFC championship game just over a year ago, the Saints advanced to the Superbowl and became America’s heroes, and my heart is still as broken as it was in 1999, still broken.