Kerry Shawn Keys minibio

“I don’t know who I am, but I have many names and live in Vilnius,” says Kerry Shawn Keys, an American living in Lithuania of nineteen years now. He is a human orchestra: translator, poet, prose writer, author of children’s books, dramatist. Kerry has already become part of the Vilnius landscape and culture. The poet Sigitas Geda said about him, “by his presence and participation in the everyday life of Lithuanian poetry, he has made us stronger as well.” Kerry, though, calls himself an “outsider”, and outsiders are generally better at seeing certain things than locals or those ensconced in everyday life, in the “system”. A view from the side is always interesting, and with that in mind, the Vilnius Review has decided to begin publishing Kerry’s short, witty essays about Lithuania and Lithuanians. So, here, each month you will find "A Palmer's Chronicle".

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reflections on belonging

Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

By Kerry Shawn Keys


Basketball. People running around throwing a round piece of rubber or leather in a net. What would the Martians think if they were looking on – some kind of childish, magic ritual for eels or giants? Yet, this silly, almost provincially, urban American pastime must have galvanized the deepest revolt against the Russian-dominated Soviet Union because it became Lithuania’s national sport. Outside of the universities and black community in America, there is no longer much passion for the sport – the Empire prefers American football and even baseball, though Cuba is another king of the latter sport. Sports like empires and tastes in fashion and sour cream move along, evolve, but for exciting basketball Lithuania is the place to be, and Žalgiras the team to root for. Or getting to watch  Gelo and Melo Ball  bounce around the court and enthrall or ball the local chicks to the media’s delight.  When there’s an important game going on, half of all Lithuanians are glued to the TV set as they used to be glued to each other during the mixed-doubles potato races years ago, when the object was to see which team could gather into fishing nets the most potatoes with the most potato eyes in the regulation time and then eat them. For years, there was a Lithuanian lobby to make this an Olympic sport but for some strange reason, no takers. Donatas Petrošius is still working on it when he’s not reading Greimas or working on an anthology. Now the potato races are something similar – which team can throw the ball through the hoop the most times and score more than its opponent. It is said that in the early days when there were more import restrictions, actual potatoes were used for basketballs, and the hoops were made from verbas. There was no dribbling since the “balls” didn’t bounce. This was no problem since Lithuanians aren’t famous for dribbling or fancy footwork, but rather for their passing, playmaking, rebounding, elbowing, and gigantism. Yes, there is a special gene in the old Duchy, maybe a Žemaitian gene that compensates for their tiny breed of horses and old women. Or maybe Gulliver visited long ago and started a fertility plantation. It makes Lithuanians some of the tallest people in the whole wide world. Or it could be the diet on milk straight from cows’ udders, or maybe Watusi blood that crept into the gene pool on the long trek of the early tribes from India via Africa. Never mind my geography – it’s the theory that counts. Besides being as tall as giraffes, the “boys” can be quite aggressive on and off the court. It seems that the judicial courts and basketball courts are  in the same homophonic league, and thus rapacious abuse and hit-and-run tactics are tolerated in honor of the almighty euro. But when it comes to basketball in Lithuania, there’s no such thing as fair play or sanity. All’s fair in love and war, and the patriotic fervor is unremitting. There’s talk of arming a gang of hoopsters and sending them to Ukraine as paratroopers in a bomber squadron.

The Lithuanian team has been the European champion, beaten the American team in the Olympics, and once triumphed over Liechtenstein in years past. A marvelous record. Lots of courtyards in back of the block-housing have their own courts, and some even have hoops and nets that haven’t been vandalized. It’s a national pastime to steal the nets and hang oneself, and to steal the hoops and melt them into counterfeit coins or to send them to Panevežys to be “reworked” in the automobile bodyshops for recycling to parts unknown.

Most of the players on the Lithuanian teams are indigenous, with a few players from elsewhere in Europe or America. The Americans are usually African-Americans and add a lot of zest to the sport with their colorful dribbling and incredible jumping. And envious paychecks. Perhaps this is the way all sports should be – international like Vilnius through the ages, and interracial in scope like Chicago and Liverpool, Brussels’ Molenbeek, and Rinkeby, or sailor’s children from Klaipeda, and mutant 3-meter/3-handed fly-agaric-human strains from Ignalina.

Next time you are snowed-in in a hotel in Lithuania, you needn’t be bored. Just hunker down with a craft beer or a bottle of homebrew and potato-stuffed intestine skins, turn on the TV, and either all the stations will be featuring B-ball or kitsch Eurovision music, or the TV-set will be broken and you can use it as a mirror to see if you should make a dental appointment or go to Brazil for plastic surgery.

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