The General and Mary Jane

At the small Catholic school I attended from Grades 2-8, we had the same three teachers for grades 5-8. Year in and year out, Mrs. Fish taught English, Mrs. Kern taught Social Studies and Religion, and Mrs. McGill taught Science and Math. Mrs. Kern punched her ticket to heaven twice dealing with me for four years in subjects that I wanted to constantly argue. According to a radical catechist who ended up getting thrown out of the room by Mrs. Kern, I punched my ticket to Hell at least once.)  Mrs. Fish, more than any other person in my life, made me the writer I am today, and deserves a gold star for patience at least. Mrs. McGill took enough stitches out of my ass that she got hers over four years, but I still learned plenty.

Mrs. Fish was a slightly reformed 55-year-old hippie by time she was asked to teach me. She’d grown up barefoot on a small farm in Iowa with an alcoholic father, and became a hippie in response.  On her road in life, she became a phenomenal writing teacher as well as a devout Catholic. I remember vividly for some reason, that she went on a tear about ouija boards once, and how we should always stay away from such tools of the devil. I’d never heard of an ouija board before and immediately jumped onto our 28.8k dialup when I got home to figure out what she was talking about. Speaking to the dead sounded fun, but a 15 dollar piece of cardboard seemed like a questionable method of doing this at best.

After getting back from Seattle on July 4, I was still wired for west coast time, and I couldn’t sleep. I wandered over to my bookcase and found Season on the Brink, a famous book by John Feinstein about the 1985/86 IU men’s basketball team. Actually, it was a book all about Bobby Knight, told through the lens of one season in the locker room. In local Bedford lore, this was the book that put Damon Bailey into the national spotlight as an eighth-grade guard at Shawswick.

In Christianity, there is the Holy Trinity. In the very religious town of Bedford, there is the Holy Quadrarchy, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Damon Bailey. His 1990 state championship game still stands as the most people to ever watch a high school basketball game. His 3,134 career points still stand as the one untouchable record in Indiana high school basketball. Every day of my high school career, I walked past the shrine to Damon nestled between the two gyms at BNL.  As much as I would’ve given to be a great basketball player, I’ve often sympathized for Damon. No one should be asked to be a god at the age of 13. In my interactions with him, he deserves much praise for dealing with it with poise and grace.

Bobby Knight was a tyrant in the Roman sense of the word. His word was absolute law in Bloomington, and in that respect, he had no equal. A line in the book makes reference to this, when speaking about the Athletic Director at IU (nominally Knight’s boss) and how grateful he was that Bobby allowed him to keep his job for as long as he did.

Coach Knight was coming off a disappointing season, dramatically capped with his infamous chair toss during Purdue’s Steve Reid’s free throws. Feinstein somehow finagled unparalleled access to Knight in his element, the basketball court, and talked at length about the complex man that had so much success on the hardwood.

As I opened that book and read voraciously, I started thinking about the date. Two years ago, as I was sitting in Koh Lanta between Muay Thai sessions, I got an email from Dad saying to call home. I did, and the first words out of his mouth were, Mary Jane died last night.

Mary Jane was my great-aunt equivalent, wife of Uncle Bill, who may or may not be living a second life in Buenos Aires. Skinny as a rail with a voice that would cut through galvanized tin, she was my paternal grandmother’s best friend since grade school. The Moormans were Purdue people through and through, but Mary Jane was a Bobby Knight disciple to the max. I was looked at as an apostate growing up in the hometown of Damon being a Purdue fan, and it hardened my heart greatly towards IU. It was really the only method of survival.

Mary Jane and my grandmother were the quintessential “Hoosiers” in the sense that they lived and breathed college basketball. I don’t know if Meemaw’s husband Dr. Fred was what brought her over to the rabidity of Indiana’s state religion, but by time I could remember, she could talk about the deficiencies of a 2-3 Zone or the magic of a motion offense with any of them. Mary Jane would actually take her phone off the hook during IU games. Her family was far enough away that there was nothing she could do about an impending death that couldn’t be dealt with AFTER IU was finished.

As I read through Season on the Brink, I found myself laughing out loud about Bobby’s tactics. Today, Bobby would’ve been locked up for his near constant mind games (or verbal abuse) of his players. He believed in doing things the right way, and he graduated something like 95% of his players while at IU. His temper was matched only by his acts of kindness, and Feinstein has many examples of Bobby reaching out to the less fortunate and giving them VIP treatment at IU games. This was the Indiana equivalent of Thor inviting you to an all access tour of Valhalla.

Bobby believed in loyalty over all else, those who were loyal to him or the IU basketball program were given the opportunity to ask anything of the General. Those perceived as disloyal however, were treated as enemies to be crushed at all costs. Former players who made cameos in the book talked about how they did absolutely nothing right for 4 years playing for Bobby, but were immediately elevated to sainthood upon graduation.

Reading the book, I found myself wondering if this was Mary Jane, calling back from the hereafter, letting me know that she was still thinking about me. To pick up that particular book on a shelf with hundreds on the second anniversary of her death seemed like more than coincidence to me. Given my disbelief in the ouija board, I felt like I had finally found how the dead speak to us. It isn’t the shaky hands of those looking to engage with the occult, it is the echos of lives lived and how we find them every day.

In the words of JK Rowling through her incomparable character Albus Dumbledore: “You think the dead we loved truly ever leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly in times of great trouble?”

Pulling that book off of the shelf at a time when I needed discipline and vision more than anything else, I find her words to be true. Thank you Mary Jane, for leading me to that bookcase for exactly what I needed.

If I can give one piece of advice to my readers, remember those who came before you, and live your lives as a testament to their example.

Mary Jane Kay was just another one of the fine examples I was given in this life, and I’ll never watch a Purdue/IU game without envisioning her shrieking at the television with her “Dammit IU” doll getting tossed on the floor after a poor play.

Few things can bring a smile to my face when Purdue is losing, but at least I’ll always have that.

 

The End of the Beginning

There are some things in life that can’t be forced. Reflective writing and bowel movements find themselves at the top of that list for me, but that very well might be more a manifestation of my last week than anything.

I am home. The Conquest has returned to the States.

I’ve been trying to talk myself into writing some sort of a concluductory post since Monday. I had 27 hours in flight to think about it, but I avoided my computer the whole time. I had a bus ride, a few quiet hours here and there, and finally a 4 hour staring match with a blank sheet of paper.

I just never could figure out how to force it.

Then, as most great ideas do, it came to me in the midst of a hot shower (shower temperature and creative output have a correlation nearing 100% for me.)

This post wasn’t meant to be a conclusion or a hasty recap of the last 6 months, it was yet another jumping off point.

The Conquest hasn’t ended, it has merely entered a new phase. Every idea has a life cycle, whether a business, a diet, a relationship or evening plans. There is the exciting “eureka moment,” there is the planning stage, there is the long (sometimes arduous) process of execution, and then there is always the inevitable evolution.

That’s what the Conquest is going through now.

I struggled all week about “doing the end justice” and pressuring myself to make this the best piece that I’ve written the whole time. It has driven my digestive system into a dither, but absolutely nothing had appeared on a page.

I wanted there to be some great takeaway, something gained from the last 6 months that I could point to and convince myself (and others) that “see, I knew I’d find my million dollar idea out there somewhere.”

Truth is, I didn’t even find myself. If anything, I now have a more ambiguous sense of self than I ever have.

And then I realized it.

No greater treasure will man ever find.

**********

Surrounded by a sensory overload of smells, noise, colors and people, I found a life without distractions.

The difference between social interaction and social media regained a clarity lost in the digital din. Shared meals showed why nearly every society makes hospitality and “the breaking of bread” a cornerstone virtue. I got to experience the shared attributes of humanity, those which transcend language, culture, politics or any of the other “higher forms” of civilization, to reveal the most basic of human necessities.

I found in the midst of abject poverty, the existential truth in Mark Twain’s words, “Comparison IS the death of joy.”

I saw all the complications of life slip away, if even only briefly. We are born, we love and we die. The only difference is our reaction to these intractable truths.

That slavery will exist always in some iteration is an inviolable truth of the human condition. The absence of physical chains hasn’t ended slavery any more than a cloudy night ends the moon. Slavery to opinion, to possessions, and to expectations are chains more powerful than iron.

The cruelest forms of slavery will always be self-inflicted.

I found that there is much more that unites people than divides. I saw, that outside of our protected zones of comfort, people will seek to connect rather than exclude. However, when the status quo becomes its own self-evident good, divisions both natural and manmade will seek to separate each from their neighbor.

I found sustainable living in a place where my bank account dropped daily.

The world showed me to be a fool time and time again, but acknowledgement of my ignorance was a comfort in itself. I found that those who think they know the most are always the least likely to learn, and I impolitely recused myself from membership in that self-satisfied group.

I found that a fight between two friends willing to listen to one another is one of the greatest tools for growth that man will ever find. I also found that some friendships are less permanent than we would hope, but that an end does not define the whole.

I saw the human condition at its most vulnerable, and witnessed the strength that it takes to be weak. Death comes for us all, regardless of color, income or location.

Fear only diminishes each breath that remains.

Like Cassandra foreseeing the destruction of Troy, I stood in the midst of the jungles of Laos with tears in my eyes that this too would someday fall victim to the unstoppable force of consumerism, a natural treasure sold piecemeal as presswood Ikea TV stands and glossy paper advertisements.

The dangers of confusing technical expertise with wisdom became clearer and clearer. Just as a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, so too does technical expertise lack the vision to see the unintended consequences of a “solution.”

As the West encroaches further and further into societies which grew up Darwinistically different values to our own, we will find ourselves trying to repair and improve mechanisms that we truly do not understand. Just as we have moved further from the values of our forefathers, cocksure in our belief that newer, bigger, and faster are self-evident goods, so to will we unintentionally destroy that which has bound vibrant communities together for centuries.

The list of observations I made could go on for days, but they all lead to the same inexorable conclusion. For all the knowledge that my travels afforded me, they merely showed how woefully insufficient the framework I use to cobble it together truly is. Only by acknowledging our own stunning ignorance can any of us hope to truly learn, and only by questioning those “truths” we’ve held as absolute can we ever be sure of anything at all.

Even as the world becomes interconnected at an ever increasing pace, it appears to me that individuals are retreating further and further into our own rigid beliefs. This would seem, to a mildly logical man, to be two opposing forces eventually destined for direct conflict. Will people simply pop their heads out of the foxhole after the battle occurs and acknowledge the “truth” as told by the victors?

History doesn’t seem to think so, although through most of human history, we didn’t encourage our best thinkers to become “excellent sheep.”

I hope to have avoided that comfortable affliction.

**********

The Conquest gave me what all great conquests will, the confidence to chase a new horizon.

I didn’t come back with a multi-million dollar idea and I didn’t come back with a groundbreaking novel in the can. I didn’t bring home the woman of my dreams (even if I now know a few locations where she might be hiding.)

I made some of the best friends I could ask for. I saw a side of myself that I didn’t think existed. I freed myself from the endless barrage of manipulated messages, both commercial and from a fear-inducing media, and the world I found turned out to be a safer and more wonderful place than I could’ve possibly imagined.

I saw that there are really a million ways to die, and that to live in fear of any of them is a fool’s errand. I made peace with a few deaths that I hadn’t properly processed, and I realized through bitter tears on an empty Thai beach, that you can say a proper goodbye to a loved one without a body or a suit.

I found friendships can be deeper after 3 days than some can after 10 years, and I saw the power of the human spirit in overcoming adversity.

I saw the good in man that I thought that I’d forgotten, and I saw some of the forgotten faceless in places that won’t ever get talked about on the news.

The man in the mirror looks back at me differently today.

He smiles a lot more. He reminded me that he’s the only one in this life that will take every step with me, and that if I don’t make peace with him, what the hell chance to I have with the rest of it. He showed me that I can be as happy in a bunk bed as I can in a multi-million dollar house, and that sometimes the best look we’ve got has a few tears running down our face.

I missed many things while I was gone. I missed a parcel of babies being born, and the weddings of some of my dearest and oldest friends.

Nothing is without cost, yet another universal truth that I uncovered.

The former commodity trader found that there are only two commodities that really matter.

Love and time.

As I returned home and picked up the 2 month old daughter of two of my best friends, I realized that instantly. Even if that were the only thing the Conquest had taught me, it would’ve been enough.

Thankfully it taught me so much more.

************

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to follow my blog. The support that I’ve gotten from friends, family and total strangers who happened accidentally wandered on has been stunning and humbling.

I hope you enjoyed reading about it a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it. As I re-integrate back into “reality”, there will be more posts of reflection about some of the things I’ve seen and done. There will also be some thoughts on life back in the Western world as I re-acclimate myself to a reality that was once the only one I’d ever known.

If I can offer any advice on travel, the first piece is “Do it.” Anything more specific, please reach out to chrismoorman13@gmail.com and I’d be more than happy to offer tips or advice on any of the places I’ve been, or backpacking in general. We were all blessed with a wide and wonderful world on which to live, and it is a true shame to relegate ourselves to only the small corners where we were born.

Life as a hastily planned adventure works. Just poke around my ramblings and musings on this page if you need proof.

Emotional Attachment

Good morning from hot, sticky Thies.

While the Western world might not have a cohesive strategy for ISIS, Noah and I had a detailed strategy session last night to develop a plan for dealing with the hardened West African terrorists known as mosquitoes. Having been eaten alive nightly for the last 10 days, we had to change something in our tactics.

A 3 step plan, bug bombing the room an hour before going to sleep, drenching ourselves in repellent, and changing our potentially infested mats and I woke up with…considerably fewer bites. The cost of freedom from mosquitoes is high, and requires constant vigilance.

No one will sleep while these terrorists are at large.

********

Having had a week in Thies to interact with the kids, I’m starting to become unfortunately attached. We’ve already had some setbacks, with the Embassy denying a visa to one of our Academy students, Ibrahima, who had been given a 50k/year scholarship to the elite Hyde School in CT. The fact that a mid-level bureaucrat, who probably got his job by virtue of the US political patronage system, would stand in the way of a deserving kid’s immense opportunity is both heartbreaking and intensely infuriating.  

The loss to Ibrahima is huge, but the loss to the kids at the Hyde School is really no less. Typically, 50k/year East Coast prep schools are not bastions of socioeconomic diversity. The benefit to those kids through both the cultural interaction, and the fact that they will have a face to associate with West Africa would be huge.

Ibrahima, to his credit, took the bad news stoically. I’m not a terribly emotional person, but I would’ve punted a basketball clear to Mali. He stood there, as Noah told him, and then walked over to his friends with a body language that hadn’t changed. We’ll keep looking for other options for him, and he’ll keep working hard in the gym, perhaps with no greater end in mind than being better than he was yesterday.

All this because a stuffed shirt bureaucrat was told to reject more student visas.

We keep trucking though, working with other students in the hope that this was a one-off problem. One of the captains of the Academy, Abdou Gaye, is applying to a prep school in upstate NY to further his English and gain exposure for college programs. A quiet leader whose English is good until he psyches himself into a stutter, Abdou is exactly the kind of kid that we try to develop at SEED. He’s been in the program 3 years, passed his Baccalaureate exam (only 31% of the few who take the test pass), and has been selected for both the Basketball Without Borders and the U20 National Team. He met Noah and I for lunch to work on his application, and then sent us a heartfelt message for the help after we left.

We met him at the gym to play some half court last night. I should mention that we only have one functioning light at the gym, so half court is more of a forced activity after 8PM. The other side of the court was still filled with kids dribbling in the darkness.

I grew up with some gym rats, especially some of the kids at the Boys Club. Let me assure you, I’ve never seen anyone with enough desire to go dribble in the dark until someone boots them out of the gym.

I drew the unenviable task of guarding Abdou, which was comical for anyone watching. I shouldn’t be allowed on a basketball court with well coached 12 year olds, let alone a bunch of freak athletes, the shortest being a mere 6’6’’. Abdou threw down a couple of 1 handed slams in the 3 games, including one where he almost ran his nose into the bottom of the rim.

I just tried to shuffle my slow, white and old feet in front of him as much as possible.

Noah and I tried to exploit some teachable moments, especially with respect to the physicality of the American game. These kids are all stringbeans, as Mactar found out when he challenged the “toubab” to wrestle.

Listen kid, you might have a full foot on me, but your 160 lbs is NOT going to be putting me on my back. Try again in 40 lbs.  

The games ended when Thies suffered one of its many blackouts. We shuffled to the exit, trying to locate phones and wallets before calling it a night. I think there were still 25 kids in the gym when we left. 17 of them working in lighting categorized as “semi-darkness” at best.

Noah and I headed down the dirt roads back to the apartment, crossing the railroad tracks/dump, and asking “Ca va?” to the many families huddled around radios in the darkness in the “streets.”

It is fun to see the talent and it is amazing to see the drive. It is also heartbreaking to know that all the work these kids put in, both on the court and in the classroom, can be derailed by a bureaucrat after an interview that lasts less than 3 minutes.

The ability to have hard work rewarded is a fundamental component of the American Dream.

It is not however, a universal truth.

Discomfort and Perspective

For the second time on the Conquest, I’m settling in for an extended period of time. Noah and I got back out to Thies, yesterday (pronounced “Chess”) and got down to the business of settling in.

We’re staying with Sara and Laura, two Peace Corp volunteers who are partnering with SEED for the first time this year. Both are “hardened” Peace Corp veterans, with Sara spending several years in West Africa already, and Laura having come from spending a few years in Western Ukraine.

We rolled up to the apartment, and Sara took us to go pick up the essentials for living here in Thies. We went down to the “toubab” market, (toubab being a catch-all West African phrase for white/foreigner) and picked up some food.

The vegetables were bought in a transaction marred by badly broken French, from three austere looking women in brightly colored traditional get-ups. They sit for 10-12 hours a day under a makeshift umbrella fashioned from sticks and doubled up black plastic wrap. The most ambitious vendors whip around the tail of something to keep the omnipresent flies at bay, but most know a losing battle when they see one. The stench from the market was bearable today because it is dry, but it could make a seasoned garbageman retch after a solid rain.

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Having been in SE Asia, where everything is so cheap that it is comical, it is almost painful to pay the prices in the market here. Food is, at a minimum, 200% more expensive here than in Asia, with some things outstripping the prices I would pay back home. The prices of manufactured goods are also very high, although that is less surprising given the lack of manufacturing seen in this part of the world.

As we darted in and out of some of the “boutiques” looking for a frying pan, I came upon 3 men watching the Senegal-Philipines game. They were watching on a 20 inch tube TV, but they were into every shot, and they quickly realized a fellow fan as I swore when Gorgui got hacked in the lane. While we couldn’t really make out much of what the other was saying, the identification of a mutual goal was near immediate, and we shared the smiles of success and the multi-lingual curses of failure for most of the second half of the game.

It put what I’m doing here back into perspective quickly. These guys, standing and sweating in a storefront that might bring in $200 on a good day, had something to be excited about and there we stood, toubab and locals, swearing at a TV which would’ve been thrown out of most US households 10 years ago. It brought me back to the memories of childhood, watching Purdue games on old TVs, never thinking for a second that we needed to see the sweat dripping off of a shooter’s nose more clearly, just glad that we got to see it at all.

The unifying aspect of sports is powerful. In that moment, we transcended a cultural and language gap to care about the same thing, at the same time. For a few minutes in that shop, I forgot how annoyed I was at the heat and the stench. I wasn’t particularly worried about where I’d find fresh meat for dinner or the fact that there would probably be a blanket of flies at the apartment when we returned.

I just cared about a game, and about how my efforts were going to help the next generation of that Senegalese national team. I thought about Ibrahima, and prayed that his visa interview went well so that a kid who grew up in conditions that make American poverty look laughable, will be able to take his full scholarship to a $50,000 a year prep school on the East Coast.

And we’ve just gotten started with the girls. SEED has the ability to move the needle on female education in this country, and produce some of the best women’s basketball players in the world. Nothing increases human capital faster than increasing the educational outcomes of women, and we’ll be sending these girls to US schools in droves in the next few years. 

Then I thought, “Shit, I’d better work on fundraising to keep this dream alive.”

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We grabbed some sheets and a fan, and went back to the apartment to set up our “beds” which consisted of two cushions on the floor. I took my first cold shower of the trip, which was…quite refreshing. The fact that I won’t be seeing AC or hot water for a month is a little disconcerting, but roughing it is part of the territory here.

After we got our limited creature comforts taken care of, we headed over to the gym to watch the last scrimmages of the night and work one on one with a few of the kids.

The gym was probably 95 degrees at 8PM, but the kids were still clamoring to get on the court. Noah and I worked with Mactar, a 6’9’’ 16 year old who MIGHT weigh 160 lbs. He was one of the kids who was invited to play in the NBA showcase in Jo-burg. For about an hour after he was done with practice, he responded to every pointer Noah and I gave him, smiling the entire time, until we made him do push-ups, which was reminiscent of two strands of cooked spaghetti trying to stand upright.

Little extra chicken and some coaching, and the guys in that shop will be watching him some day.

My temporary discomforts look pretty small by comparison.


For more information or to donate to SEED Project, please visit www.seedproject.org