Saturday, December 26, 2009

Giving to the Needy

A year ago, some people in a very affluent suburb wanted to do something good and helpful for Christmas. They passed around the hat, collected some money, and made an anonymous donation to a family in the inner city. It was a very generous act, they are truly good people, but was this act thoughtful, or even helpful?

I feel a bit like Scrooge even asking that question. Well maybe it’s the rhetorical nature of the question that has me feeling Grinch-ish, because I already have an answer. No.

This group of people gave the gift to someone they knew of, but did not know. They gave it to me.
Why me? Without asking it was easy to surmise; they first, knew I exist, and second, knew I live in the “inner city”.
They knew of my family’s existence due to our both being part of a larger religious community. My activities in this church often bring me in contact with those who do not attend my regular congregation, so it would be easy for someone who does not know me personally, to have some small familiarity with my name. That would easily combine with their knowledge of the geographic boundaries of my actual congregation, but this is the extent of our intimacy.
These well meaning people have a view of what it means to live in the inner city, and in many cases it is accurate, but they never go there. Not only do they not go there but people who live “there” rarely if ever, venture out. News cameras broadcast reports from the grimiest of places and tell the saddest or most sordid tales, and an image is permanently cast.

This image is not entirely false. I could introduce these people to countless associates of mine with stories worthy of “Extreme Home Makeover”, or more likely” Cops”, either way, people in need of a gift. I am surrounded by those in need. But those are not they to whom the gift was given, it was given to me. At the time I was in the fifth year of a career with a Fortune 500 company, enjoying a nice salary, a regular bonus structure, a company car complete with gas card, and even a healthy expense account. Of those who attend my congregation my family would have surely qualified as one of the least in need of outside assistance. This has made me think a bit.

Many want to help. Many even take steps, especially at this time of year, to do something helpful. I fear most of these efforts are wasted. Maybe not wasted but rather squandered. How can any of us help another without first knowing what help they really need? That is the hard part, identifying the true need. It’s the nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts of helping, it’s the dirty work. Not only is it dirty, but it takes time, more time than December provides.

Maybe it would have been a better idea to have given me a phone call first. I could have passed them along to someone else more deserving, or accepted the gift with the charge to pass it along to someone else.

I would hate for those who have, to stop giving to those who don’t, but we can do better. Let us start thinking things through to the end. Let’s take the next step and make sure we know the situation before we act. Let us try to actually solve the problems we think are out there rather than just make a little dent in them. I know it’s hard. I know most people don’t have the time. I understand. In the end, maybe these folks, while a bit unknowingly, did the best thing.

If you don’t truly know the needy, give to those who do.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rugby Movie!

The first time I saw “The Power of One” was with my friend Pete.
It was the night before he was to leave on a two year mission for our church. Now what you do on your last day before leaving is significant. During the next two years a 19 year old missionary will not watch any TV, listen to any radio or secular music, not email or make social phone calls, and no movies.

Pete despite his popularity, was never all that social of a guy. On his last night of social freedom he just wanted to relax and watch a video. I had never heard of that movie, nor had anyone else I knew. I have no idea where he picked it up or why. There was no preface, we simply popped it in and sat back.

I loved it. A coming of age tale wrapped in a message of the individual’s responsibility to stand up for what is right. It seemed appropriate for one about to embark on a religious mission. I filed it away in my memory. Wished Pete well, and then followed his footsteps two weeks later. I went to Atlanta.

Upon my return, older and strangely aware of race in a way I wasn’t before, I went on with my life. Part of that life, a big part, was rugby.
A big enough part that I have suffered two broken noses, surgery on that nose, two broken thumbs, or rather the same thumb broken twice, two concussions, 32 stitches on my head or face, I am not sure how many times I have lost the toenail from my big toes, and I experienced the joy of surgery to replace my ACL.
This affair with the egg shaped ball has continued over thirteen years, four states, and five teams. I plan to nurture the romance as long as the lady will have me, or as long as I have insurance.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of playing with or against all sorts of people from all sorts of places once touched by the British Empire; Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, the islands of the South Pacific, and of course, South Africa.

Every Afrikaner I ever met, at some point, lived up to the negative stereotype “The Power of One” planted in my mind. The first was a coach whom I overheard telling another group of players how Polynesians are not meant to play rugby as they are not built for endurance and are simply not mentally capable of sticking to a game plan when the game is on the line. This was my first day with that team and I immediately went across town and joined a Polynesian team.
The second encounter was in the office of my employer. I was alone at my desk when one of our contractors walked in and had a seat. He was a former professional in his native land, a prop forward. He was waiting for the boss to show up, but he never did. During the boredom of our wait he entertained me with feats of strength, one of which was tearing a phone book in half with his hands. After the demonstration he turned to telling stories. He told of how he used to play all over the world, how he used to hunt wild game on safari, used to drink unheavenly amounts of Guinness, and of course how his country was ruined by the end of apartheid. This included him telling me how the “natives” used to kill each other by tying someone up, placing a gasoline filled tire around their neck, and lighting them on fire. He continued that he wished they would have done it too all the black people so he could go home.
The third time, in another state, on another team, we were running a warm-up lap around our practice field. We shared the field with a local little league football team. On this particular day the football team was having a scrimmage which forced us to alter our usual course by a whopping twenty yards. As we passed behind the stands of Moms and Dads watching their kids, one of my teammates shouted something in Afrikaans that neither they nor I understood. But I did understand that one word, which allowed me to get the gist of what he must have said.

I cringed when I watched the Springboks win the most recent rugby World Cup. Why them? How could the most dominant All Blacks team ever, loose to those guys? Where is the Karma?
Then I saw Invictus.

I read some reviews from writers who get paid to write, writers who said things like, “the soundtrack is melodramatic, the slow motion is over used, but the whole feel-good cheesiness of it all is overshadowed by the fact that this is how it actually went down”.


Matt Damon, Morgan Philanderer Freeman, and Clint Eastwood have etched their way into my heart with this one movie.
Matt Damon; preppy poet, super spy, pick pocket, card shark, and janitor genius, can now add Afrikaner flanker to the list.
Morgan Freeman has been a lot of things, including God, but to me he was Jull Pete (sp?), the boxing trainer/prisoner in “The Power of One”. Jull Pete now playing Nelson Mandela? There is justice!
Clint, the king of cool, Dirty Harry, you have done what no other sports movie director has done, remained accurate.

The greatest sports movie is of course “Rudy”. So much so that I refer to that clamming up feeling one gets preceding a cry as “the Rudy feeling”. Yet that movie, as well as all other football movies, messes up the football.

There will be a clip of the team in the huddle where the quarterback will call, “flanker left 26 veer”, and then the team will run to the line and run a pass play. Or the classic final touchdown scene where the hero is running down the sideline behind the fat guy who blocks one, then another, then another opponent till the ball carrier makes the touchdown. Most players are happy to get one successful block per play let alone three. That is Hollywood. Thank you Mr. Eastwood for not doing that to Rugby.

Your scrum may have been a little long, and if I recall correctly the whistle was blown while the ball was still in play, but that is far outshined by the fact that all the players on the field looked forty years old.

The actors playing ruggers were not pretty, they did not look like top flight professional athletes, but they did look like rugby players. There was an actor who was only in a few bit parts, who said no lines, who actually looked a bit like Andrew Mehrtens. Jonah Lomu looked like Jonah Lomu, maybe a bit smaller. There were no helicopter tackles and by any movie standards everyone looked a bit slow while running.

It was real rugby!

But most of all, above all else, it made me forget my disdain for a group of people. I will not be ordering a gold and green jersey any time soon, but I will admit that Schalk Berger may be a better flanker than Richie McCaw. I will cede that they scrum better than everyone else. Mostly I will admit that they helped provide a great sports story. They proved that while I dislike most everyone I have met from there, they were worth cheering for.

Go All Blacks!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Drawing Done On Location


Above all else, above the cold, above how genuinely friendly everyone seemed, above everything, I noticed Steelers gear.

Everyone, everywhere, wore black and gold, and the team is doing horribly. I am not a Steelers fan but hats off to the Burgh for showing support...

I also noticed, written on the wall of a restroom, the sidewalk in front of the Fort Pitt Museum, and lastly on one of the rails of the Andy Warhol Bridge, was the "N" word.

One was a joke about death and Cadillacs, the others just a negative adjective followed by the word.

I know anyone who scrawls on public property with a marker is automatically the lowest common denominator, and I see graffiti of all sorts everywhere I go, but not that word, and surely not repeated.

You can't judge a city by the writing on the wall, but a city with "that" written on it does leave an impression.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Show your support

Living or working in Philly can be rough. Crime is not some theoretical political issue to be argued about, but a reality that is lived through.
In 2007 we averaged more than one murder for every day of the year. The thing about murder statistics is that it only counts those who die, it does not tell us how many people actually get shot or stabbed, or just plain beat up.

When the numbers, or rather the chaos, gets to this scale it can be assumed that a portion of both the deaths and the killers, will be cops.

Things have gotten better in the past three years. But not all better.
Last year, in my neighborhood, an officer was killed while responding to a bank robbery. The next day, while the department was still searching for the suspects, a news camera caught 12 officers severely beating a black man they mistook as the robber. Turns out he was not.

No one got fired. I think three were suspended.

Stories of Police beatings are many and come regularly. They don’t do all the dishing, I can recall three times last year where I had to wait for a city long motorcade carrying an officer to his final resting place.
It has gotten long past ridiculous.

Let me tell you a little bit about my neighborhood.
During the day the narrow, short, streets have few parked cars; everyone is at work. In the evening those same streets are lined with panel vans, work trucks, and cop cars. Most of the kids attend catholic school, and most of those kids’ grand parents can be found sitting on a stoop somewhere nearby saying hello to people by name as they walk by. The neighborhood is very stable and nearly all white.

The day the cameras caught the gang of cops beating the suspects in the street, I had a conversation with my next door neighbor. I expressed my disappointment in the officers’ behavior. She did not. I should have known better, her Dad was a cop. She regularly wears a t-shirt in support of the officer who was famously shot by Mummia. I expressed my understanding that theirs is the hardest job there is, along with my feeling that along with the risk comes a responsibility to hold yourself to a higher standard. She did not agree.

We got a flier in our door informing us that someone would be coming along soon to offer us a blue light bulb to use in our porch light to show support for the Police Department. We don’t have a porch light. Most here do and in the evening the streets have a blue glow. There is no doubt where allegiances lie.

Two weeks ago, in our neighborhood, an off duty police officer shot and killed his 21 year old neighbor. There was apparently an altercation at a party in the officer’s home that spilled to the streets. The officer brandished a gun and most of the crowd left. The story goes that the victim stood his ground saying, “you aren’t going to shoot me.”

He did.

The Department is making no statements but the officer is currently on desk duty. An investigation has uncovered multiple past complaints about the officer including him shooting an opossum in the street, and him threatening, with a pulled gun, kids who bullied his 8 year old son.

Now there are orange ribbons everywhere. Our next door neighbor has one. She told us that the ribbons are a show of support for the victim’s family. I see those ribbons on street signs, on the counters at the corner store, and hanging from the porch lights that used to have blue light bulbs.

I don’t really want to talk about the cops here. Who am I to say one thing or the other when I am not the one getting paid far too little to risk my life for people who generally don’t appreciate it? While I have opinions and think right and wrong are not negotiable, I have as much right to give them as advice as I do Donovan McNabb.
I want to talk about the people in my neighborhood.

Why are they supporting the victim this time? Cops shoot people all the time and in the past, when there in controversy, support is without fail, given to the cop.

The difference here is that this time, the kid was someone they know. In the past it was always somewhere and someone else.
Funny how a little familiarity changes one’s perception.
In the past it was almost always just some black kid in the bad part of town, not one of “us”.

I don’t think anyone around here has noticed the irony, or the lesson. Next time a person is shot on the other side of the tracks and the family cries fowl, will we hesitate to screw in the blue bulb?
I doubt it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Port Royal, Jamaica

Its snowing in Philly today.