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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Gonna Fly Now


I didn't know Maurice, but I've seen Rocky, his horse.

Horses are (or were) a dime a dozen where I grew up, but -- unless you go looking for them -- you don't expect to see one in somebody's yard in the busy, densely-packed suburbs where I live now.  Thus Rocky caught my eye on a couple of occasions when making my way through the back streets of Montclair, but I never learned the circumstances of how he came to be there until this week.

Besides the prize-fighter portrayed so prolifically by Sly Stallone, Rocky was also the nickname of another odds-beating dude: a young California man named Rocky Dennis who led a short but rich life despite the effects of a rare disease that eventually disfigured his face, affected his hearing and vision, and gave him crippling headaches. His life is loosely portrayed in the film Mask, directed by Peter Bogdanovich.  As deftly depicted by a  young Eric Stoltz, Rocky maintains a sense of humor and grace that wins him the respect of not only his biker/addict mom (whose portrayal by Cher won her Best Actress at Cannes in 1985) but his formerly-cruel classmates and misguided principal.  Without necessarily trying to do so, Rocky taught those around him quite a bit about life, and about themselves.

Rocky the horse belonged to another young man, the aforementioned Maurice.  Maurice was born a year to the day before 9/11 in Washington D.C.  His mother was also addicted to drugs, and was HIV-positive.  Both Maurice and his twin sister Michelle were born with a host of physical and developmental problems, and she died before her second birthday.

Maurice's prognosis was not much better.  When he was three, two men named Tim came into his life.  They were intent on giving Maurice a home, despite being told by doctors that he was unlikely to live much longer.  It took another three years to negotiate the red tape, during which time the Tims continued to care for Maurice, and he responded by growing stronger and healthier.  A year after they adopted Maurice, big brother Kindoo joined the family and they moved to Montclair shortly thereafter.

Maurice loved horses, and -- although it was certainly not the norm  -- the family's new house had enough property, so they surprised him one Christmas with a horse of his own.  Thus Rocky came to town.

I didn't know Maurice, but I know how kids act around somebody who is different.  We've all seen it, and we know that no amount of us telling them not to prevents prying questions, cruel comments, taunts. In fact, if kids get the idea that the adults treat you "special" it can just make things worse.  Sadly, adults who should know better do it, too, and there's a whole element of our entertainment culture that encourages this survival-of-the-meanest mentality.

Ultimately it is up to the individual to claim his place, assert his right to participate, and earn the respect of the group.  What kind of support the child gets at home is key here, because a kid who has been taught to believe he has worth is far better equipped to handle this kind of flack.

I didn't know Maurice, but I can tell from reading about him that he had that kind of home.  Two people who could have spent their disposable income on circuit parties and mid-century tchotchke  instead reached out to a baby the world had already decided wouldn't make it, and gave him the best life they could, and -- in their care -- he thrived despite his shaky health and accomplished quite a bit: earning a black belt, graduating from high school and volunteering to serve the poor at St. Luke's Episcopal Church.  When their own relationship didn't survive, they did the best they could to make sure Maurice and Kindoo still had a stable home with two parents who loved them.   He had goals for himself, including living independently and teaching kids with special needs. 

Maurice died this week after a sudden illness.  He was 20.  The New York Times describes him here and includes a photo of a handsome and confident young guy astride his horse. To read about and look at him, this would not be a kid that you would pity.  This was a kid that you could (and should) learn from.  I can't say more about the man he grew to be, because I didn't know him.

That is my loss.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

An Hour (And Halfway Around the World) Away

Last month, a Certain Party and I -- along with some friends and (briefly) my mom -- spent some time in Florida.  The beginning of the trip was our annual week on the beach on Captiva Island, and this year, for variety we drove across the state to visit a former co-worker and her husband near Palm Beach, then up to Orlando for a few days in the theme parks.

Our route, skirting the southern and eastern edges of Lake Okeechobee, took us through orange and sugar country, a part of Florida most visitors never see.  We had lunch in Clewiston, a busy if not thriving town with a big K-Mart and a Goodwill store, and shared the restaurant with a cluster of Mennonites, their traditional dress incongruous with the brightly colored Formica and florescent lights. 

We made a wrong turn in Pahokee, whose nickname "the muck" was aptly chosen; it is surrounded by thousands of acres of soggy fields.  Once a thriving center of commerce, big agribusiness has left Pahokee chewed up in its wake.  Most of the businesses have closed, and the 6,000-odd residents were left without much opportunity or hope, as President Obama learned when interviewed by town resident Damon Weaver, then 10.  Many residents seemed to be just hanging around, waiting for something -- anything -- to happen.  The only other ticket out seems to be football, as this tiny town has sent at least seven players to the NFL.
Pahokee 4, by Christopher Dick 2006.  Series on Flickr.
Used under Creative Commons License

From there, it was only about an hour to Hobe Sound, where our friends live.  The acres of fields and weathered shacks abruptly give way to gated driveways, manicured lawns, faux-Spanish patio homes and lush  non-native vegetation. An hour away, but it could have been halfway around the world as we chased alligators on golf carts and enjoyed drinks by the pool. 

As kids we visited Florida a number of times, always driving down.  I remember only snippets of those trips, but I'm old enough that overt signs of institutionalized racism were likely quite evident to someone who knew to look for them.  Now, as so many of America's towns have been pounded into corporate cookie-cutter sameness, it's harder to get a sense of what was, and easy to forget how badly we acted, not very long ago.  But you only have to look at the differences between places like Hobe Sound or even Clewiston and Pahokee to see that -- while some of us have been lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of progress -- there are still plenty of us who have been left behind. Those distinctions are not always drawn on racial lines, but the pattern of boxes you check still makes a big difference in how big your slice of American Pie will be.

Thus I was glad to hear that the Cathedral Church of St. Peter & St. Paul in Washington DC (known by most as the National Cathedral) is in the process of installing a bust of Rosa Parks above a doorway.  I learned recently that it was at the pulpit in this same church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the last Sunday sermon, entitled "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution"  before his assassination in 1968.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Buyer Beware! The Episcopal Church is "No Longer Christian"

Did you get the memo to take the cross down?

In today's edition of Fundies Behaving Badly, one Michael Youssef of "Leading the Way Ministries" and the Evangelical Anglican Church of the Apostles in Atlanta (Both? Ambitious guy!) opined in an American Family Association newsletter that the Episcopal Church became officially "no longer Christian" when the Right Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, Bishop of Massachusetts, witnessed the marriage of Katherine Hancock Ragsdale (dean and president of Episcopal Divinity School) and Mally Lloyd (Shaw's Canon to the Ordinary) at St. Paul's Cathedral in Boston, an action which Youssef describes as a "defiance of church cannons" (sic). Right Wing Watch has the full story.

I always thought of 'piskies as peacenicks, actually, and thus was surprised to learn that we had cannons. Nevertheless, if we do, then it was rather brave of these folks to stand up to them.  Assuming he meant canons, at the most recent General Convention in 2009, the decision he refers to -- which we were pressured into by Canterbury -- was reversed and bishops were given "generous discretion" to meet the pastoral needs of their constituents.

Meanwhile, in the business world, a splinter church like this that used the word "Episcopal" or "Anglican" in its name could be sued for trademark infringement on the grounds that the public could get confused into thinking the defendant was an agent of the larger organization publicly associated with those words.  I'm fairly certain no formal communion exists between Mr. Youssef and the Present Occupant at Lambeth, nor our own Presiding Bishop and Flying Ace.  If the famous clothier could make an (ultimately unsuccessful) case of deliberate deception against aberzombie.com, surely the same is true here.

Watch out for those cannons!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

When the Ship Comes In

Hilary of Poitiers - Bishop & Doctor

Okay well it has been an embarrassing amount of time since I have posted anything here.  My friend David described this in a similarly apologetic post as having "gone galt" so then of course I had to go see what that meant, and another ten minutes were lost.

So, what's been happening?  Well right after Thanksgiving, we went to Florida, which was fun although really cold (for Florida) which meant we had a great time in the theme parks because there weren't any lines to speak of.

We got to visit a co-worker from years back and her husband, ride round on golf carts and see alligators.

Then there was Christmas, and a ridiculous snowstorm or three.   We're in the thick of winter here, now, but as someone pointed out earlier, it was still light enough to see at 5 o'clock, so the days are starting to get noticeably longer again.

We did have a rather unfortunate experience on New Years' Eve at a restaurant in Montclair called Costanera.

Queen Elizabeth 2 in 2008
There is an interesting maritime event unfolding in New York Harbor as we speak, although I am unfortunately not participating.  All three ships of the storied Cunard Line are berthed in the city at the same time: The Queen Mary 2 at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, and the quasi-sisters Queen Victoria and the new Queen Elizabeth at the Passenger Ship Terminal on Manhattan's west side, the latter having just completed her maiden transatlantic crossing.  My friend Doug Newman was aboard, and you can read his account on his blog.

This is is only the second time the entire fleet has been together in the port, which speaks as much about the modern need for marketing pomp as it does the state of the company's affairs: in the 1950s they operated over fifty vessels, now they have just three.

Queen Victoria at the Passenger Ship Terminal
The first was three years ago, for the Victoria's maiden arrival.  At that point the legendary QE2 was still in service, and a friend and I took a boat trip out into the Upper  Bay to watch  as the the three ships preened in front of the Statue of Liberty under a fireworks display.

I was also on hand for the mammoth Queen Mary 2's first visit to the city; in fact my dad and I were aboard, having made the maiden crossing from Southampton in April of 2004.