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 Post Racial Wasteland

The current state of race relations in America has been boiled down to the recent outrage over police brutality in minority neighborhoods. While many barrels of ink and pixels of screen space have been used to decry the deplorable state of policing in at-risk minority neighborhoods, very little has been used to look at the root of the problem.

Self-selecting communities have been a little mentioned effect of the post civil rights era. As strict institutional barriers regarding mobility among races fell by the wayside, the less rigid barriers erected by the free market took their place. What we now face, is a prototypical South Africa drawn up on the lines of wealth as opposed to institutional racism.

I had the opportunity to see Johannesburg, South Africa through a variety of lenses typically unavailable to an American tourist. After 5 months of traveling through Australia and Southeast Asia, I landed in Johannesburg to take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders showcase. Alongside the literally towering figures of Dikembe Mutumbo, Andrei Kirilenko and the first African born GM in NBA history, Masai Ujiri, I saw 50 of the most talented young athletes on the continent, while taking in sites from “the other half” or more accurately the other 90% in post-apartheid South Africa.

Our days were spent at the gleaming American school on the outskirts of Jo-Burg proper. A facility that would’ve made many prestigious American schools blush with inadequacy, the school was a shining beacon. It was also surrounded by the ubiquitous razorwire fences that had become as much a part of the South African landscape as the baobao and marula trees. Post-apartheid South Africa dealt with the institutional policies that made racism a part of the land, but in an economic climate that sees white South Africans bring home an annual income nearly on par with Americans, the black population sees on average 1/7th of that.

The first thing that I was told in Johannesburg was to exercise extreme caution. Expensive jewelry, phones and computers were to be kept in a bag, if not locked up away from your person. To be mugged in Jo-Burg is not a matter of “if” but “when.”

That crime was considered such a fact of life was a concept completely foreign to me. Besides a few minor dustups in Vietnam and Thailand, I had encountered no such crime in my travels up to this point in areas far poorer by per capita GDP measures.

As I wandered, Christopher Columbus style for the lack whites that I saw, through the Central Business district, I realized that the crime seen in South Africa was not a case of absolute poverty so much as the corrosive nature of relative poverty, a condition much more likely to yield violent and volatile results. White South Africans (and a growing black plutocrat class) live behind their razorwire fences in compounds more reminiscent a Westchester hamlet than the shantytowns of nearby Soweto, where I visited a primary school where an astounding 39% of students are HIV positive. This problem was defined far more by economics than race.

The America I inhabit looks more and more like that South African scene every day. While the rich suburb of Carmel, Indiana dickers over a new 27 million dollar youth sports facility, the potholes just 6 miles south are large enough to eat a VW Rabbit.

Indianapolis found itself budgetarily unable to plow side streets this winter, but the Monon Running/Biking Trail used primarily from the wealthy “Yuppie” class found itself plowed nearly on the hour. Our self selecting society and parochial local tax structure has combined to essentially create a tale of two cities in nearly all of our major metropolitan areas.

The ties that bind Americans together are more fragile than ever before. Whereas the post-war generation saw managers and laborers living in the same neighborhoods, sending their children to the same schools, and taking in the same entertainment, the Jim Crow of today has replaced the “Coloreds Not Served” sign with one that looks like $. Racism has been replaced by economic elitism; the color of money washing away the color of skin in the new segregation of the haves and have nots.

There’s no need for a sign on the door telling who isn’t welcome when the cocktail is $14.

A quick look around the rural portions of my state will reveal a growing ghetto, made up not of blacks but of a largely white economically disenfranchised population. The HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana caused by intravenous drug use has shown that social issues are also color blind. Their problems are a mirror onto those of the Great Society Generation that saw the lower class inner-city family unit fall victim to drugs, broken homes and a lack of economic opportunity.

Discretionary handouts do not replace economic opportunity on either a moral or results basis. The problems of drug use, teen pregnancy and violence have gotten progressively worse as opportunity has become more distant. These policies served only to excuse the thriving upper classes from economically disenfranchising their lower class brethren.

As multiple generations saw economic disenfranchisement become the only reality that they’d ever known, an economic evolution took place which threatens to separate the socioeconomic classes into entirely different species.

“Us vs. Them” rhetoric of has been used to great effect in politics and it has become a self-fulfilling policy. Simply glancing at a chart of obesity and birth rate by income will show that those making under $25,000 a year are more than twice as likely to be obese, and have a birth rate 80% higher than those making more than $75,000 a year. These differences are magnitudes larger in reproduction, habitat and size than those separating the distinct African and Asian elephants.

While wealthy urban elites wring their hands at the outbreaks of violence in NYC, Baltimore, and St. Louis, it is not of some deep seeded concern but instead because they are afraid that the invisible but present boundaries of privilege will not be sufficient when the feces and fan intermingle.

The only long term solution to the problems cleaving the American dream from an ever increasing portion of the populace is the economic revitalization of these depressed areas. The economists I studied in college maintained that overall economic growth was the only outcome that mattered, but if “on paper” GDP growth only goes to fund further militarization of the police force and additional social handout programs, what did we actually gain?

Urban or rural, the root of the myriad social problems seen today is not drawn along the oft-cited lines of race. To quote our famous Cajun sage:

“It’s the economy stupid.”

Water for Elephants

“We’ve got too many elephants in Kruger.”

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Good morning. I’m fresh from a 4 day safari in the South African bush in Kruger National Game Preserve. I’ve spent a fair amount of time outdoors in this life, but nothing could have prepared me for the unbelievable wildlife diversity that I have witnessed over the past 4 days.

I was picked up from my hostel in Johannesburg, slightly confused as I had planned to leave a day later. Instead, I ambled onto the bus after a half of a cup of coffee, trying to email Noah and Romola so that they didn’t think I’d been mugged and left for dead after I left them on Friday night.

The email didn’t send, and sure enough, I had an email in my inbox questioning my continued membership among the ranks of the living. I was fine though, and we’d arrived at the base camp on the western edge of Kruger in one piece.

On the drive out, I was treated to a decent sampling of South Africa’s agricultural industry. Mile after mile of irrigated corn, citrus and grape fields flew by my window. Some had massive nuclear reactors in the distance, which made for a startling contrast of wide open space to the 5 open coned reactor chimneys in the background.

As we drove, we started to see various species of wildlife near the road. Ostriches, buffalo and various antelope species were seen browsing through the fallow winter cornfields. I have seen many things in cornfields during my Indiana youth, but until yesterday, I have never seen a pack of 150-180 pound baboons having their run of the place. It was quite a surreal sight.

Upon arriving at base camp, we threw our stuff into our Spartan but clean rooms, making sure to lock our doors, not from the threat of theft, but to ensure that the monkeys didn’t help us unpack as we went on our sunset drive.

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Adam, our 24 year old guide from Fairfax, Virginia, was an excellent host as he piled us into the open air 4×4 to start the drive. Within 500 meters, we saw a small group of bachelor Cape Buffalo browsing near the road.

I laughed as I thought of PJ O’Rourke’s line in Parlaiment of Whores about Tipper Gore. Something to the extent of her uncanny resemblance to a Cape Buffalo and the need to shoot for the kill, as there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded Cape Buffalo.

We also saw several giraffes, antelope and impala species on our drive, before coming upon two “tusker” elephants, the size of which made my Asian elephant ride look like I was on the kiddie carousel outside of K-Mart.

These beasts were absolutely massive, and were pushing down trees as big around as my waist like they were bowling pins. I could’ve sat there and watched these big boys browse around in the fading sunlight for hours, but there was more to see.

Further down the path, we came upon some wildebeest, and the voice of Sir David Attenborough started to play in my mind as he narrated the “Great Migration” wherein several million wildebeest migrate thousands of miles across the plain. Adam got to take part in the “Great Migration” a few years ago, and said that it was an absolutely breathtaking experience to see that many animals, each almost as big as a Clydsedale moving with instinctual abandon.

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We finally made camp out in the bush, having a prepared dinner in a ring of pointy rocks (these supposedly dissuade charging elephants, thankfully I didn’t have to find out if it actually works.) As we sat and ate, we heard a larger herd of female and young elephants in the distance. To hear them cracking trees and stumbling across the plain as the mighty white carnivore gnaws on his chicken bone, well that was an ambiance that would be tough to replicate in a Manhattan restaurant.

The next day, we woke early and were taken out by Adam and Mombobo, a local guide for a 4 hour bush walk. While we weren’t coming face to face with many animals, (some hippos and an incredibly rare river otter notwithstanding) we were able to take some time to learn about actual life in the bush. From reading tracks, to discerning both species and freshness of dung piles, to learning which trees to burn and which to leave alone in a pinch, my savannah education is much further along than it was a week ago. The amount of information left in every square meter of the bush is astounding if you know how to process it.IMG_0338

 

The next day we travelled within the bounds of Kruger for nearly 10 hours. During this time we had not one, but two great leopard sightings. Words can’t describe seeing a cat like that in its natural habitat. It is both exhiliarting and terrifying, knowing that a predator of that size, speed and grace is within 30 meters of you. We watched this male for probably an hour, as he lazily stretched over a tree branch before finally becoming bored and stalking off across the plain. I was nearly shaking from the excitement of the whole thing. A leopard in a zoo will never compare.

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By the end of my journey, we’d identified nearly 50 different species of mammal and lizard, and countless birds. The guides all know to play to a Western audience by putting things in terms of Lion King characters whenever possible. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see a lion during our time at Kruger, only the day before a group we’d met had seen a pride of female lions take down and devour a giraffe, which must’ve been incredible.

Talking more with the guides about the state of affairs in the park, I was saddened by the news. Nearly 3 black rhinos are being poached every day. With the Eastern market (re:Chinese) paying nearly $150,000 US per kilogram of black rhino horn as an aphrodisiac (the average adult horn being between 4-6 kg) the incentives are massive. Kruger is a park the size of Wales, and patrolling that much is an impossible task. This year alone, nearly 600 rhinos have been killed for their horns, out of a population estimated to be 2500. In China, Dao elders have now made excommunication the ban for using such endangered species. Buddhists have always been against the senseless killing of animals, but the consumption at all costs culture of the Chinese elite continues to pay top dollar for these incredibly rare and beautiful creatures.

With respect to the quote at the beginning, the Kruger park has a carrying capacity of 10,000 elephants, and is currently running near 18,000. Most people would say more elephants are great, but the 400-600 kg a day that an adult African elephant eats, puts the ecosystem at risk if there are more elephants than the land can support. An adult will push over as mnay as 3 trees a day during the dry season to get ahold of the mosture and nutrients found at the root ball. The land simply can’t support that much destruction, even if it occurs naturally.

Therefore, hunting has to be allowed in Kruger. Many animal rights activists decry this, but it is for the good of the whole ecosystem. Adam thought that one could get an elephant permit for around $100,000, the money going directly back to conservation and anti-poaching efforts. I know my former boss will not eat at Jimmy John’s because of some pictures of Jimmy shooting large game in Africa, but in the case of the elephant, it is a necessary culling of a herd without natural predators. And if more land is bought to abut the preserve, that shooting will save more elephants than the one that was shot.

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Habitat destruction is a major issue. Adam kept bringing up the fact that there are 7 billion people on this earth and less that 2500 black rhinos. He has spent time going out to tag black rhinos, of the 20 he tagged in January, 3 have already been poached.

The effect this has on his psyche is marked, but he knows that there is really no way to combat the forces of a faceless market offering nearly one million dollars to people who scrape out a subsistence living.

Also, the farms that I saw on the way to Kruger have destroyed millions of acres of natural habitat. While it is funny to see a pack of baboons in a corn field, the fact remains that that cornfield is the one that is out of place.

Any farmer reading this, please don’t take a drink for a few minutes. We are destroying the natural habitat of lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos for land that yields approximately 45 bushels per acre when planted in corn.

I put that statistic together last night and checked it 3 times because I was sure that I had made a mistake.

45 measly bushels per acre.

Even the worst farmland in Indiana will yield nearly 4 times that much in an average year, and we didn’t tear down any natural habitat for elephants to get it.

I sat and laughed at the absurdity of a world that allows this to happen. We’ve had more than enough food to feed the global population since the green revolution of the 1970s. Yet we are still scraping the most marginal of land, tearing down savannah, rainforest and jungle to do so.

Every action has an effect on this world. Even loading up that 3rd plate at Golden Corral.

 

Old Friends in New Places

A lack of internet, power, and time has conspired to get me way behind on my blogging. There is a heap of activity to recount.

Last week we went out to Halong Bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the more awe inspiring places I’ve ever been. Imagine Norwegian fjords surrounded by crystalline blue waters. It is the cliff of every Bedford limestone quarry chopped into 1969 islands and speckled with jungles. It was both home and a surreal land wrapped into one place.

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"This is where the dragon lay"

“This is where the dragon lay”

We took a 4 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay, which was…intriguing to say the least. The theme of Vietnam being a hodgepodge of old/new, rich/poor, Eastern/Western continued. Most of the drive was a trek through vivid green rice paddies. Upon close examination though, one sees graves interspersed throughout the watery fields. When I say graves, I’m not talking a mere headstone, I’m talking full up marble sarcophagi sporadically placed throughout otherwise virgin fields. I haven’t pinned any locals down on the “Why?” yet, but it is a fascinating wrinkle in a place wrinkly as a slept-upon bedsheet.

Upon arriving in Halong Bay, we stood at the quai for about 15 minutes before embarking on the boat. Much to my delight and surprise, I started hearing my name be called out through the din of the crowd. Suddenly Mark Schneider, a giant of a friend from home started wading through the masses to where I stood. Mark and I knew that we were going to both be in Halong Bay, but the fact that I was getting on a boat, and would only be on the mainland for a few minutes, coupled with the lack of cell phones for either of us made meeting up an improbability to say the least.

Bedford Boys in Vietnam

Bedford Boys in Vietnam

Apparently Vonnegut was correct in his description of the Indiana accent when he said

“where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.”

Ah, we lucky Hoosiers. An accent recognizable anywhere.

I figured the chances of two native Bedfordians being in the same spot in Vietnam independently of one another were far less than one in a million. It was a poignant moment for me, to see a guy I’d grown up with for years and years in a place so far from home. Standing next to 3 Australians diminished it somewhat, as those people travel like mad and run across one another in countries both near and far, but to understand where Mark and I came from, a place where Vietnam is a nightmare to be forgotten, not a sliver of earth to be seen, really put the whole trip into a more focused perspective.

It was a meaningful hug between two men an awfully long way from home.

Upon embarking on the boat, we quickly realized that we were in for a treat. Our Kiwi guide Jack was “on” from the moment the tinder pulled away. The junk was owned by a woman affectionately known as “Mama” who lives and operates the boat 19 out of every 21 days. She has an incredibly profitable enterprise, between renting rooms on the boat and selling what we’ll politely call “liquor of dubious strength.” She plays her part to a T though, smiling and laughing through whatever nonsense this crew of backpackers gets themselves into. She employs 7 family members, all of whom sleep on mattresses on the back of the junk including Mama’s 7 year old granddaughter Hai, who looked at our crew suspiciously through her cutting dark eyes.

Many Westerners would consider this living arrangement barbaric, but as is always the theme in Vietnam, everyone seems quite happy with their lot in life. Again, it puts into perspective what one really needs in life. This is a family that eats every meal together in a place as majestic as I have ever encountered. Sleeping nightly under the stars seems a small price to pay.

Once we arrived on Castaway Island, we were greeted to “rustic” living facilities. Our huts were placed mere meters from the beach, and as I woke up, huddled under my mosquito net with the sun glaring off the white sands I considered how far I’d come. Gone was the 5:15 wakeup in a -15 degree Chicago. I was seeing the world and taking what it had to give.

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That’s what I came for.

We climbed and kayaked, ate and drank, and shared stories under the stars on the edge of the beach. Our crew of about 20 was made up of Scottish, German, English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Australian, Vietnamese and 2 Americans besides myself. With a group that diverse, there are constantly new viewpoints and experiences to be discussed.

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Through my travels, I’ve gotten a chance to discuss Scottish independence, the situation with Ukraine, German thoughts on the Euro, the impending World Cup disaster (the Braziallian’s words), and the viticulture of New Zealand. These weren’t articles read on an iPad on the way to work. They were real conversations with people who LIVE the realities of different situations. Boots on the ground, no profit motive or pretensions, timely and candid.

Being the former trader, I always want to put a price on this kind of interaction but it isn’t possible. These are experiences that can’t be bought and sold like a newspaper at the bodega. The world becomes smaller but more intricate with each passing day on the road.

And so the conquest continues.

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It was great to have a run-in with a friend as old as Mark bookended by an experience like Halong Bay. It puts into clearer perspective how unique it is for the two of us to have interactions with people from all across the world. It makes me appreciate the Conquest even more.

And so it goes.