Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hey Mexican National Futbol Team, Here's What to do in Philly

First of all, let me say, Bienvenido. Nuestra cuidad es su cuidad. Having spent a lot of time traveling in Mexico, enjoying the beauty and culture of your country, I wanted to offer some tips on how to spend the time you have in our corner of the world.

1.       Get a cheesesteak. It’s our thing, what we’re famous for here in Philly. So unless you’re vegetarian, then yes, get the requisite cheesesteak. Dalessandro’s is the best cheesesteak in Philly, but, it’s a bit out of the way, in Roxborough (600 Wendover St, Philadelphia). You can’t go wrong with Jim’s (400 South Street), Tony Luke’s (various locations) and most people like Pat’s (1237 E. Passyunk Ave.) I’d avoid Geno’s, since they have an obnoxious order--in-English-only policy.
2.       If you’re looking for a taste of home, go to the Italian Market in South Philadelphia – now full of Mexican restaurants and markets. The Taqueria Veracruzana (908 Washington Ave.) is my favorite, but feel free to shop around.

3.       After filling your belly, be sure to wander down South Street. Night or day, something interesting is always happening on South Street. It’s a great place for people-watching, for shopping, for wandering.

4.       From South Street, head into Old City. Here is where you’ll find Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. You can learn about the early history of the United States, including fun facts about the hot and sweaty summer when the Constitution was debated.

5.       Round out your visit with a stroll down the Ben Franklin Parkway, modeled on the Champs Elysees in Paris. Walk the wide boulevard, enjoying the fountains, flowers and sculptures. Duck into the Barnes Museum to see an amazing collection of modern art, the Rodin Museum if you enjoy sculpture, or head to the mother museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where you can see a bit of everything, including two works by Diego Rivera.  

6.       Finally, no trip to Philly is complete without running up the steps of the Art Museum, like Rocky, and jumping up and down at the top. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s mandatory. Just do it. Then take your picture with the Rocky statue at the base of the steps.

There are many more things you could enjoy here in the summertime: a Phillies game, a trip to the Jersey shore, an afternoon at a winery, an outdoor concert at the Mann Center, dinner at one of our many world-class restaurants. Do it all, and come back again. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Wish for All Young Ball Players

And in honor of my dad and the St. Bernadette's Beavers...

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 15, 2015
Julie Owsik Ackermanis a writing coach for college applicants

Spring means crocuses, robins, and baseball. The Phillies come back to town, and little boys and girls are fitting their hands into leather gloves, running the bases, and swinging a bat. I began playing baseball on a boys' team, at the age of 5. I hated it. I would have preferred dance class, but no one was going to tell my mom that her daughter couldn't play baseball because she was a girl, and it was probably easier to take all of her children to one place. So off to the baseball diamond I went week after week.

After that first season, my parents switched me to the girls' softball league, which I liked better. I had three brothers, and lived on a block with all boys, so having girls around, at least at the ball field, was a relief. But did I even enjoy softball? I don't know. It's hard to like anything while you're learning. In those first years I just remember being at "The Field" all the time. We practiced when it was still so cold that my hands were red and raw, and would sting when I caught a ball in my glove. Other days we baked in the sun, thirsty and unsheltered. In the early years, I tried every position, kept showing up, kept practicing, and over time, became a decent player.

Although anyone could play in the town Little League, it was a big deal to make the St. Bernadette's school team. So when I made it in seventh grade I was pleased. In eighth grade, our coach got sick, and the call went out for volunteers. My dad asked me what I thought about him coaching. He had played Division 1 baseball at St. Joe's University, coached high school sports for years, and my brothers in many things, but could he handle girls? There weren't many options, so I said we could give it a try.

At our first team practice we told my dad we didn't want to order hats.
"What?" he asked, incredulous. "This is softball."
"They'll ruin our hair," one of the Nicoles explained. This was the 1990s - big bangs were important.

What would Dad do? Get angry? Force the hats on us? He thought for a moment, then said: "OK, I guess we'll vote on it. How many people want hats?"
A few nerds raised their hands.

He laughed, and then said, "OK, looks like we won't be wearing hats this year."
It may seem a small thing, even silly, this respect of our big bangs, but it was brilliant. With that vote, he showed us - he showed me - that he respected us, that he heard us, that our opinion mattered.

So began a magical season. With Katie Weinrich pitching, me at first base, the team's solid defense, and some good hitting, the St. Bernadette's Beavers were almost unbeatable. I'd never had so much fun. Winning will do that. Winning with your dad as the coach, and your friends as your teammates, well, that's a dream season.
The golden season tarnished a bit when I contracted chicken pox right before the playoffs. Restricted to bed, I learned the news when my dad came home from each game with his play-by-play report. It was torture to be lying at home, missing the pinnacle of everything we had worked to accomplish, but the team kept winning and winning.

In a movielike ending, the doctor cleared me to return for the big game. We had made it all the way to the Archdiocesan Championship, playing to be the best Catholic school team in the whole Philadelphia area. I was so proud, so pleased, and so glad I could be there with my teammates. Pock-covered or not, I was ready to play my heart out.

The score was 1-0. It was the bottom of the fifth inning (we played only six). The bases were loaded with one out, and I came up to bat. Here was my chance, to knock in the winning runs for my teammates. I gripped the bat, breathed, waited for my pitch, and when it came I knew it. I swung with all my pent-up weeks of frustration, crushing that ball. CRACK! I knew my glory moment had come. Just like in the movies, I heard the screams, I felt the joy, then no! No! THUD. The ball landed. Directly in the shortstop's glove. I was out.
Everything went silent. It was supposed to be the best hit of my life. How could it end this way? I walked, trembling, back toward the bench, and when my dad put his arm around me, the tears just poured out.

He hugged me and let me cry, let me be the 13-year-old that I was. After I calmed down he said, "Jewel, that was a great hit. You did everything you could. I'm proud of you."

We lost the game.

When I recently asked my dad about the game, he said what he has always said, "If you had hit that ball two feet in the other direction, we would have won."

That was a good lesson to learn. Even when you pull yourself up from a sickbed and have a chance to be a hero, all you can do is swing the bat - you can't control where the fielder is standing.

I can't lie. The loss still hurts a little. But in losing, I won something way more valuable. I learned that day that my dad was proud of me even when I wasn't the hero, even when I lost. That is my wish for every child this baseball and softball season.

Our Heritage Connects us to Family

In lieu of writing any new material, I thought I'd share some work that's been published elsewhere over the past few months. Happy summer :)

Members of the Cara School of Irish Dance in Drexel Hill dance along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sunday.

Originally Published in The Philadelphia Inquirer March 17, 2015

By Julie Owsik Ackerman
Why do we care about St. Patrick's Day?

I'm a third-generation Irish American. My mom's grandparents immigrated from Ireland and my grandparents were born in Philadelphia. So if I'm not looking for an excuse to drink too much Guinness, why celebrate at all? Why does it even matter to me that I'm Irish?

For me, the answer is that it mattered to my grandmom, and I loved her. Dorothy Higgins Wade grew up with Irish parents, in St. Brigid's Parish, in the Irish community in East Falls. Although she moved out to the suburbs when she married, she carried a love of that community and her Irish heritage with her, passing that love down to her daughter, who passed it down to me.

In 1997, Grandmom, my parents, and I traveled to Ireland for a family reunion. More than a hundred family members gathered from the United States, Ireland, England, and Australia for the occasion. It was the first time my Irish American grandmother had ever visited the homeland, and she was thrilled. I was 21 that summer, a wee lass, and was suffering through a heartbreak in true Irish fashion - by drinking a lot, writing poetry, and crying on the shoulder of anyone who would listen.

The trip helped me in ways I couldn't have imagined. After arriving in Dublin, the first odd thing I noticed was that everyone there looked like my family. I'd never been anywhere like that before. This was comforting at a time when I was feeling so lost and rejected.
Also, the Irish really are the friendliest people you'll ever meet, a trait that Grandmom and I both shared. Over the course of the 10 days, we would leave Grandmom on a bench to rest while we explored, and every single time we would return to find her with a new friend. Every time.

It became increasingly difficult for me to be sullen and sad while surrounded by so many cheerful and friendly people.

After a day in Dublin, we made our way to Sligo for the reunion weekend, and we had a big party. One of my younger Irish cousins had just joined a boy band, which sang a few songs at the gathering. That band would turn into teen sensation Westlife a few years later.

After the party, some cousins and I went out to a club, and I met a cute Irish guy who kissed me in an alcove while rain poured outside. Walking home later, my cousin Julie and I lost our way and hitched a ride with the local police. Dancing, kissing, riding in police cars - Ireland was bringing me back to life.

After our weekend in Sligo, we went out to the family farm in County Mayo. As I stood with Grandmom in the doorway of the small home where her mother was born, my pain didn't disappear, but it shrank a bit.

I saw that, yes, my broken heart mattered, but in the scheme of a life, it wouldn't be the only thing that would matter. I couldn't articulate it yet, but I know now that a seed of hope was planted that day with Grandmom: I would love again; I would marry; I would travel one day with a beloved child and tell him about people I loved who had passed on; he would hold my hand while I cried, just as I did for Grandmom.

All of those things have come true.

So when St. Patrick's Day comes now, I don't start drinking at 9 a.m., and I don't go to parades or pull out a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses.

But I do make one of Grandmom's recipes, handwritten on index cards just for me. I do listen to some Irish music, even if it's just Blackthorn in my kitchen. I do call my mom to hear her say, "Top of the morning to you, my pretty colleen."

And I do remember how much it meant to go to Ireland, to be with my Grandmom and my family, and to see that I was a part of something bigger than myself. I was loved, maybe not by one particular man, but by Dorothy Higgins Wade and a whole clan of crazy Irish folks.