Archive for May 2007

A Memorial Day Reflection

May 29, 2007

Americans are not a festive people.

Here in the United States, we have nearly total freedom to live as we wish: in the city, in the suburbs, on the water, in the mountains. “Personal space” is practically a human right here. With hundreds of television channels and video games and myriad websites at my disposal, I could spend my entire life inside my house and never get bored.

Holidays, however, are community events. Families reunite for Thanksgiving. Towns gather on the Fourth of July to marvel at fireworks. In each city I visited last year, Christmas lights were everywhere, and the massive tree in Lisbon’s town square made the season for me.

Spain is inclined toward spontaneous festivity. Saturday mornings are for weddings; marching bands roll through the streets to wake people up for Mass on Sunday; every time I visited the neighborhood park, a crowd of people was there commemorating something or other. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the daily celebrations for patron saints, including the hundred different iterations of the Virgin Mary.

I don’t mean to rip my country. Our way of life lends itself to a more diverse society with a fascinating number of subcultures. (Just look at comic book fandom.) If each person is content to keep to himself, he can forget the reason for the holiday entirely, as I’m sure many citizens forgot about our honorable dead today. Festivals also bring the community together: under the fireworks, the stranger looks less strange. I believe holidays serve an even more fundamental purpose than that. What if every day were exactly the same as the one before it, with nothing to remember or celebrate? Isn’t that the definition of depression?

Finally, I should offer some words for our fallen soldiers. One of the tragedies of humanity is that so many of its young men have died as conscripts, seized from their families to die in some windswept corner of the world for their lords’ territorial ambitions. Even our religious leaders, from Pope Julius II to Mohammed, have wagered and lost others’ lives in the game of thrones. It is a testament to our country’s nobility that our armed forces are made up entirely of volunteers and that in the most of the places they have fallen – Bull Run, France, Vietnam, Iraq – they have done so protecting the lives and freedom of others. We are lucky to live in a place where the price of a life is so high. Our soldiers are not perfect, and our generals are sometimes too incompetent to deserve them, but on balance, no organization does more to protect freedom in this world than the United States military. I am in its debt.

Our soldiers are men who, when they hear of their distant comrades who have died in battle, regret that they were not in the trenches fighting alongside them. If the average American had this simple yet fierce love for his own family members, let alone the rest of his community, this country would be an utterly different place. Cheers to our sword and shield.

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I’m so earnest about futbol, I could be a staff writer for Marca.

May 16, 2007

An Associated Press writer said this week that David Beckham’s departure from Spanish football club Real Madrid will mark the end of the Florentino Perez era. Perez devoted himself to buying the most expensive and popular players in the world so Real Madrid would turn into a global brand. In successive years, he purchased Luis Figo (£38.7m), Zinedine Zidane (£44m), Ronaldo (£26m), and David Beckham (£25m). These players sold a lot of jerseys, but they were too old and satisfied to give their all on the pitch. Since Beckham joined in 2003, each Real team has been an expensive catastrophe with no trophies to its credit.

It would be easy to compare the former Madrid GM to George Steinbrenner, but I think a historical comparison is more apt: Florentino Perez is King Felipe II. Perez, like the Spanish royalty, would have benefited from Machiavelli’s caution against using mercenaries for domestic battles. Madrid’s bankroll, like all Spanish treasuries, is deceptive; yes, the team is the richest by revenue in the world, but it is also constantly in debt. His Real Madrid, dubbed the “Galácticos” (Stars), first in praise and then in mockery, was the Invincible Armada. (Luckily, the only Madrileños who die during football season are the ones who bet the house on Atletico – or worse, the national team.)

Luckily, Perez is gone now, as are Figo, Zidane, and Ronaldo. The new management is still obnoxious and corrupt, but it is more competent. The team returned to first place for the first time in two years, and it has my support, for Madrid is my city now and forever. ¡Vaya Liga!

Campus Culture

May 8, 2007

During the Nifong scandal, Duke University launched a “Campus Culture Initiative” to determine what could have led the members of the lacrosse team to rape a black stripper and how the administration could change Duke’s culture so its students would never go awry again. The accusations fell apart, but the introspection continued, and this spring the committee reported that college students drink too much, that the school should break up fraternities and selective living groups, and that students should take a diversity class so they’ll be more understanding and tolerant. The Duke community responded to the report with either indifference or indignation: after all, some of the professors who led the Campus Culture committee denounced the lacrosse team and the student body on national television as implicitly racist and sexist some months before.

The debate has been active but misguided. Not one of the students, faculty, or alumni who have written the Chronicle this year has mentioned the word “love.” Love for the individual is what triumphs over prejudice. When I first see a person, I can classify his race and gender and sometimes infer his class and sexual preference as well. When I get to know him as a person, all these things become less important. The fuller I am with God’s love, the blinder I am to these categories in the first place. Without this breath of life, diversity and tolerance and understanding are just words. Political correctness, by definition, is focused on things you can’t say and don’t do. It’s the Ten Commandments, not the Golden Rule, and an outlook this negative is doomed. Don Imus, for all his professions to liberalism, was still an angry old man, and eventually that caught up with him. Surely resentment fueled the faculty, media, and Durham citizens who prematurely denounced the players. They were liberal and open-minded, I’m sure, but their failure to love subverted their ideals. The same goes for the conservative trolls who now haunt the Chronicle message boards. As for alcohol, drinking doesn’t ruin campus parties; jerks do. So let’s set the mild stuff aside and embrace a way of life that’s truly difficult.

Awakening

May 6, 2007

Faith Healing
Philip Larkin

Slowly the women file to where he stands
Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair,
Dark suit, white collar. Stewards tirelessly
Persuade them onwards to his voice and hands,
Within whose warm spring rain of loving care
Each dwells some twenty seconds. Now, dear child,
What’s wrong, the deep American voice demands,
And, scarcely pausing, goes into a prayer
Directing God about this eye, that knee.
Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled

Like losing thoughts, they go in silence; some
Sheepishly stray, not back into their lives
Just yet; but some stay stiff, twitching and loud
With deep hoarse tears, as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone, that hands have come
To lift and lighten; and such joy arrives
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice –

What’s wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache,
As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps,
Spreads slowly through them – that, and the voice above
Saying Dear child, and all time has disproved.

This semester, my friend Jess Palacios and I coordinated a Catholic Christian retreat for college students called Awakening. It was my greatest challenge of the year. The size (more than 100 people attended, and most were actively recruited), cost ($9000 budget), and location (a summer camp twenty miles from Duke) were far greater than anything I’ve run before. We had a couple dozen activities, from student talks to prayer to Sacraments music to special meals, and each one took several hours of work on someone’s part. Furthermore, previous leaders often forget to write notes for their successors, much of what we did wasn’t organized at all until we took over (or until the weekend itself). I slept 10 hours over 3 nights during the festivities themselves and spent my spring break on it. Simply put, this retreat was what I did this semester.

It was more than worth it. I still feel the grace from helping to bring God’s love to so many people. Too often our social lives, which are meant to be a release from academic competition, become competitive themselves. This is obvious during Rush, when the freshmen angle to land as high as they can on the social hierarchy, but it truly happens whenever we tear down other people. At Awakening, there’s no room for that. We balance the retreatants by age, gender, Christian denomination, major, background – anything that we can mix, really – and put them into small groups, or “table families,” with 2 staffers as “parents” and 1-2 as “gophers” who fetch drinks (go-fers: get it?) and chip into discussions. Family is family, no matter what, and it’s beautiful to see a disparate group of people forget their snap judgments and first impressions, so important at parties, and love each other as people. I rarely see as many smiles, as much hugging, as many people being genuine as I do at the end of these retreats.

The weekend was spectacular. The parents and kids clicked, and many met weekly for the rest of the semester. (A couple families even went on camping trips!) The speakers were open and inspiring. Among my favorite observations: from Colleen, one should read Scripture even doesn’t understand it at the time so that when the heart breaks, the words fall in. From Mark: we shouldn’t use the semester to prepare for a retreat; we should use a retreat to prepare for the semester. From Jess: we are broken and beautiful. From Christine: we’re all in this together. The music and gopher staffs were joyful (and if you’re reading this, CMTs, I love you very much). After a logistically challenging first day, we hit our groove, and everything went smoothly Saturday and Sunday. The Bible skits the retreatants created were the funniest I’ve ever seen. Sunday, the last day and my favorite day, was also my 21st birthday! (I couldn’t take the customary 21 shots, obviously.) Jess, our sweet MC, was spectacular. I was too occupied with running around putting out fires and talking on the phone to having any long conversations with the staff and retreatants, and at the end, I was too exhausted to function, but I sacrificed myself so everyone else could be loved, and that was beautiful in itself. I received a spontaneous standing ovation when it was all over, and I’ll remember it to the end of my days.

“Let all that you do be done in love.” -1 Corinthians 16:14

The first thing I read to the staffers in January was the poem above. This Corinthians verse was the theme of our retreat, and in retrospect, it is a natural answer to Larkin. We are all loved, but we can’t control whether people express it to us or not. We have only our end of the bargain. I fail to show love many days because I’m too busy. (Students here seem to always be busy with something or other.) Industry is a great quality, but it shouldn’t turn us away from God. The answer, then, is to do everything with love. My friend John once told me that a musician’s personality greatly affects his sound, and most of the great musicians are also wonderful people. (Yo Yo Ma comes to mind.) So we can be witnesses to Christ no matter what we’re doing, and on top of that, when we do something with love, we’ll also do it better. So don’t despair. Get out there and love your brother.