Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Despair in the Suburbs

The idyllic life of the suburbs has been a concept that has been constructed and destroyed many times over in our culture and media. People tend to move out from city centers to suburban areas with the good intentions of providing their families more space, better schools and as a escape from the hustle, frenzy and crime in the city. Of course, scratch the surface and you see that all is not hunky-dory in the suburbs, either. This whole premise has been captured in movies such as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road (apparently, director Sam Mendes really had a bad suburban upbringing and has devoted part of his career to fight the machine).

On occasion, this rears its head in close proximity when it hits my town, as it did a few weeks ago when rush hour trains were suspended after a man allegedly commit suicide at our neighborhood train station. It hit home not just because it happened in my town, but it actually suspended the train I was taking back home (the incident occurred 10 minutes before my train was going to pull into the station) and I saw the aftermath many hours later, first with the emergency vehicles and the sand presumably covering any residual human remains on the track the next morning.

The police haven't officially ruled it as such, but with an eyewitness account that the man dived on the tracks towards an oncoming train, the deduction seems reasonable. Interestingly, the comments section below that same article led to an interesting exchange which perhaps is emblematic of the culture of coldness in suburban life. Here are some of the entries:

Wow! This is becoming a commonplace. Very sad and selfish way to end it.

I think it is unfair to call this man selfish. He clearly had major problems in his life to do this, ones he could not cope with. We won't know what those issues were but regardless, its still not right to add a "selfish" label to him. This was an act of desperation and mental illness. Its very sad that there was no one that he could have turned to for help in working out whatever issues he was facing.

There was a whole train crew that had it a lot worse than being "late for Jeopardy". So yes, committing suicide by jumping in front of a train is an act that no amount of depression or mental illness excuses. And the horrible consequences on others from the act should be the prominent factor in any discussion of the event.

I would say that even the most depressed understand the implication of jumping in front of a train and its extreme impact on others (and I mean mostly the impact on the crew) and do not deserve any kind of a pass for making that particular decision. Jumping in front of a train is a willful decision to make the maximum impact, its effect on others be damned.

I just have compassion primarily for the train crew and any others who saw what happened. They are the only victims here and they are the only ones who need and deserve sympathy and expressions of concern.

I have no sympathy for the victim, but I do for his family. To have the options available to take care of business in private and disrupt only their immediate family/friends merits sympathy. To do it in a public place where innocent bystanders are horrified witnesses, to traumatize the engineers/conductors who are unwillingly facilitating their death and to then hold up thousands of passengers coming home from work is the definition of selfishness. What other reason would they go out this way other than to get attention? I do not need to be a shrink or have a PhD to know when someone is being a dick, most people can tell right away.
There was a mix of people who were outraged that the man was so selfish to kill himself to the distress and inconvenience of everyone else, and those who were outraged that people had the nerve to call suicide a selfish act. What is universal is that nobody is surprised in the least bit that this happened. There's no illusion that upper-middle class suburbia is paradise, and even our little community of good schools and relative financial plenty is somehow immune from despair which drives someone to end their life. Accounts like this simply become additional sad fodder for the reality that there's nothing that money can buy or human hand can fabricate to replace the God-shaped hole that resides in every soul.

As far as the harsher reactions of some of the fellow suburbanites, I'm not sure this is proof positive that suburbanites are any more or less insensitive or callous than your average city dweller. The knee-jerk (and probably unfair) deduction is that suburbanites, by their choice to live in a suburb, value convenience, privacy, self-order and the accumulation of material possessions at the expense of shared community, human interaction and spontaneity. Thus the focus on the inconvenience of thousand of suburbanite commuters instead of a sympathizing with a tormented soul who felt that ending his life at the wheels of a train was the best option.

I don't think it's that simple. I think a bigger part of it has to do with the human condition and how we're all plagued with sin. We're terrible at putting other people's needs above our own, and have lost the discipline and the culture of the Good Samaritan. Today's American version of the Good Samaritan too often ends with the Samaritan furious that the beaten traveler is reducing property values by drawing attention to rampant crime in the area. As far as the suburban idols of convenience, privacy, self-order and accumulation of material possessions? I'd say those are American cultural, if not universal idols prevalent no matter where people live.

Then again, would the reaction have been the same in suburban Indianapolis? Maybe it's a New York metropolitan suburban thing.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Next Stop, Commercializing Arbor Day

As I've grown up, I've developed an increasing appreciation for the holiday of Thanksgiving. As a child, Christmas was always at the top of the list when it came to holidays, which made sense because it offered:
  1. Getting stuff, namely stuff that I couldn't afford to buy myself
  2. A full week or more of vacation
  3. Good vibes that I've partaking in a spiritually uplifting experience
As twenty years have passed and I've grown to adulthood, these three benefits have been tempered by the respective realizations that:
  1. I'm capable of buying anything I really need, plus any gift big-ticket items is being taken out of my own bank account
  2. With young kids, work is arguably less physically less tiring than staying home. Also, a smartphone culture puts me "on call" even when I'm on vacation
  3. What happened to Christ being in Christmas? As Charlie Brown and Linus lamented, the commercialism has overwhelmed the holiday. I vaguely remember seeing a New Yorker-type print cartoon with a man asking his spouse in front of a card kiosk asking, "What the deal with all the religious stuff on these Christmas cards?"
Thanksgiving, at least relatively speaking, kept the focus on the universal importance of giving thanks. Regardless of religious belief or philosophy, it was universally held that t take time to give thanks for all that one had and experienced was a good thing, so logic followed that society at large could agree to keep commercialism out of it. In theory, we'd all agree to make this a holiday about friends, family, and reflection and acknowledgement of all that we have to be thankful about.

But then came Black Friday, and what was once a small afterthought in post-Thanksgiving tradition has become a behemoth worth hundreds of millions of dollars in American commerce. Black Friday is becoming dangerously central to the holiday to the point where Thanksgiving dinner is merely the meal to gear up for the shopping marathon. Black Friday has become a week-long event. Not only are people getting increasingly absorbed in finding sales, people are resorting to violence to ensure they get the best deals.

Of course, there are some people who are trying to fight this machine, and I'm oddly finding myself cheering for the Occupy Wall Street crowd as they blast the idiocy of the Black Friday obsession and craziness. In fairness, I root for OWS in this case more because I think Black Friday madness has gone to far, but not because I begrudge companies' right to maximize their revenues for the benefit of their shareholders. If their point is to inform shoppers that there's a better use of their time and money than to stand in a line at midnight and join a mob to buy a $5 copy for Green Lantern, then go for it. But the stores aren't completely to blame for the gullibility and stupidity of consumers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Living and Dying Well

Last week I came across an article about the fatal shooting of a Newark cop in Paterson, NJ:
Police released grainy images today of two "individuals of interest" and a vehicle that may be linked to the shooting death early Monday of an off-duty Newark police detective outside a Paterson strip club.

Detective Michael Morgan, 32, was the last officer to leave Sunrise Gentleman’s Lounge on Straight Street after a birthday party for another Newark cop on Sunday night, authorities said. When Morgan and a dancer from the club walked outside around 3 a.m., they were approached by a man in his 20s who tried to rob them at gunpoint, police have said.
I want to make absolutely clear that I think that this is a tragedy, and I hope those thugs who took this officer's life are brought to justice. I have a great deal of respect for those who serve in law enforcement and I'm mindful that these men and women put themselves in harms way to protect and serve the citizens in which we live and work. The account makes it clear that the officer wasn't looking for a fight when he was in the parking lot, and got jumped by two men who were looking to score some quick cash.

That being said, is it at all troubling that the officer was walking out with a stripper at a dance club? I'm not going to question the legality of his actions or conduct. It's completely legal for a person to pay money to drink and watch people take their clothes off and dance seductively. It's also completely fine for men to escort strippers out to their car. Maybe Detective Morgan wanted to ask the dancer out for dinner or to take her home to show his baseball card collection. It's all completely legal. We'll probably never know his intentions that evening. It's possible that Detective Morgan was just at the strip club as a community outreach, and was talking to the dancer about self-worth, and how she didn't need to objectify herself to the lusts of men.

There's no need to trample on someone's grave or dishonor those who have been victims of violent crime. From all accounts, Detective Morgan was a highly respected member of the force. An article after the shooting spoke of him as being a highly dedicated member of the force who was "a role model at the precinct and at home".

But what I don't get is whether it's the desire to paint the deceased in the best light (fine and understandable) or the changing values in our society (not so fine and understandable) that spins the story. For example, I don't want my son to see someone who goes to strip bars to be a role model. I'd like him to have a much higher view towards women and a more elevated view towards sex.

The point isn't whether Detective Morgan's death was tragic and whether we should mourn his loss. It clearly was, and it should outrage all of us that he was a victim of violent injustice. It doesn't at all detract from all the good he's done in society and in the line of duty. But at least to me, getting killed in a robbery outside a strip club he was patronizing isn't exactly the best way to go. Dying while saving kids from a burning building or slain while providing cover for innocent bystanders under a hail of gang-related gunfire probably would have been preferable. It's possible that Detective Morgan doesn't care either way, and felt no moral hesitation around attending strip clubs. But at least for me, I'd prefer not to be recognized posthumously as a hero while foiling a robbery at a porn theater or at a KKK meeting.

Maybe there's a lesson here that given that life is so fragile and death can come at any turn, we ought to be careful on how we conduct ourselves. But even more so, I wonder if there's a lesson around how we live our lives supposedly in secret. I remember visiting a church classroom where Sunday school was taught and on the wall was a poster which said something along the lines of:
Don't say anything you wouldn't say if Jesus was standing in front of you.
Don't do anything you wouldn't do if Jesus was standing in front of you.
I think the point was that if you believe in an omnipresent God, this is the reality. If people who are Christian live with the sincere belief that God is in their midst, would we sin as brazenly or flippantly as we do? If "just because it's the right thing that God commands of us" isn't sufficient reason for living rightly, maybe leaving the right legacy might provide a little more incentive.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Loss of Innocence at State College

There's something that just seems especially wicked about pedophilia. Maybe it's the concept of corrupting those that are innocent, or the brutality and injustice of someone who is powerful using force, coercion and manipulation to abuse one who is vulnerable. Maybe for parents, it's the projection of such crimes being done against children who we hold so dear and place under our own care and protection, swearing that we'd even give up our own lives to keep them from harm.

On the other hand, you have the Penn State football program, one of the most storied college athletic programs in existence. At the head of this program is Coach Joe Paterno, who at 85 years old, has been steering the ship since 1966. This iconic coach is the all-time winningest coach in Division 1 history and a two-time National Championship winner whose success in the field is actually overshadowed by the esteem he is given as a person of the highest character. Joe Paterno, otherwise known as "JoePa", has been recognized for his integrity and his leadership in the community, ranging from his charitable giving for educational causes to his high standards placed upon the young men in his care. Many former players have cited Paterno's positive influence in the lives as being crucial to their own success.

The violent collision and unwelcome juxtaposition of these two things has rocked the sports world, with the news that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children in Penn State facilities on multiple occasions, using his Second Mile charity for underprivileged children as a conduit to victimize underage boys. The accusations attest that Sandusky lured young men with access to the football team and the promise of free sneakers and equipment, and on multiple occasions would would sexually assault them in the locker room shower area. The "smoking gun" occurred when a graduate assistant apparently witnessed such an act to Coach Paterno, who reported it to university administrators. The fact that university administrators did nothing about it - and Paterno didn't follow up - are drawing charges of institutional cover-up and malfeasance. So beyond the question of "What did Sandusky actually do?", another question that is looming is "What did Paterno know, and what did he do about it?"

I have to admit that I like Joe Paterno and what he stands for, so part of me was immediately defensive around accusation hurled at him. My defense ran somewhere along the lines of:
You can't blame Paterno for doing what he was legally required to do. He reported it to the administration and you can't fault him that the administrators dropped the ball on the follow up. If he goes public, escalates the problem or continues to unilaterally press for an investigation, at what point does it become a witch hunt or a lynching without trial? After all, pedophilia is NOT one of those crimes that a "false accusation" is easily washed away, so if you're going to accuse someone, you'd better have some evidence. Isn't a person innocent until proven guilty? Was Paterno wrong is assuming that administrators did their due diligence and found that the charges against Sandusky were baseless since no action was taken? Would it have been fair or just for Paterno to ban Sandusky from the facilities without proof or a criminal charge?
Maybe some of that thinking is valid, but the reality is that like any sort of crime against children, there does seem to exist a higher standard around ensuring the health, safety and well being of victims or future victims. It's entirely possible that Paterno was protective of Sandusky's reputation. It's entirely possible that Paterno was blinded by loyalty and naively believed that he was innocent and merely a victim of a vindictive young man. Cynics will point out that it's possible that Paterno was motivated to not cast a shadow over a football program with a reputation for integrity. None of those factors should have kept Paterno from doing the right thing. And the right thing would be to err on the side of caution, and to insist and personally ensure that everything was duly investigated and cleared before Sandusky was allowed access to Penn State facilities with these children he was alleged to have seen sexually abusing. JoePa was dead wrong in the way that he handled this, and it will tarnish the ending of what was otherwise a stellar career.

But maybe the problem is us. I can't help but notice that greater rancor is pointed towards Joe Paterno than Jerry Sandusky. I get that there's wrongdoing in the lack of active vigilance towards evildoing, but are people seriously equating moral equivalency with the man who lured young men into locker shower rooms and physically sexually assaulted them? Isn't it telling that there's less bile aimed towards the pair of Penn State officials who Paterno alerted around the alleged assult, who did absolutely nothing? Let's be honest in saying tat that Paterno is largely getting blasted from all sides because of what he stands for, and because we made him an icon without blemish or fault. We made him into something that he's not.

In a great article for about the how this tragedy will change everything at once-idyllic Penn State, Michael Weinreb wrote this about Paterno:
Sometimes we (the fans) were guilty of regarding him as more deity than man,4 as if he presided over us in mythological stand-up form. He was as much our own conscience as he was a football coach, and we made that pact and imbued him with that sort of power because we believed he would wield it more responsibly than any of us ever could. (The irony to this, of course, is that Paterno tried so hard, at least in the media, not to present himself as anything more than a common man. And yet this only elevated his public stature.)
Paterno was placed on a pedestal which nobody could stand on. He's not perfect, in the same way that devout Christian Jim Tressel wasn't perfect. Neither is any football coach or athlete who we try to hold as a beacon of integrity and character. There are great teachers and civic leaders in the midst, but they're not perfect either. Neither are the brave troops who defend our country overseas. We have much to admire about these individuals, and we rightfully laud them for great characteristics and actions. But at the end of the day, the only one I can really trust not to be tumbled off a pedestal in a scandal or a failure is a man who got hung on a cross.

Where does Penn State go from here? My guess is that Paterno at earliest resigns this week, and at latest "retires" at the end of the year. Some pundits are already anointing Rutgers Greg Schiano the heir apparent, but at this point, they'll try to find the coach with the cleanest hands. The program should survive, which is ironic because you'd think the sexual abuse of children is worse than giving free cleats to a recruit, but whatever. Perhaps a silver lining to this is that grown men who are into sports will have gotten a big-time wake up call in dealing with child endangerment at work, at school, in their places of worship and in their community: Never, ever downplay the hint or suspicion of child abuse. Deal with the awkwardness of an unconfirmed accusation and make the welfare of the children paramount.

No matter how this plays out, this is going to get messier before it gets better.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Maybe Uncool, but not Unexpected

Tim Tebow is someone whose popularity and press are incommensurate with his professional football track record. While Tebow has been spectacularly successful in college football, having won a Heisman trophy and two national championships, his performance and projected performance at the NFL-level doesn't warrant him the amount of newsprint, internet buzz or blogger space that is afforded him.

The reality is that the biggest part of the intrigue around Tebow is his "good-guy" and "clean-cut" image which founded upon his devout Christian beliefs and lifestyle. Tebow hasn't been shy about professing his Christian faith either, weaving it casually into interviews and putting Scripture references in his eye black. Of course, there was that oh so controversial (sarcasm) pro-life commercial that he filmed with his mother before Super Bowl XLIV.

ESPN's Jemele Hill recently wrote an article criticizing the Detroit Lions for mocking Tim Tebow's faith after the Lions crushed Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos last Sunday. In what was a 45-10 whipping, the Lions defense exposed Tebow's inability to make good decisions from the pocket, and by closing any running lanes, they hit him hard - a lot. Tebow was continually taken to the ground, and in what became a controversial move, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch brought Tebow onto the ground, and then proceeded to drop to a knee in mock prayer, imitating Tebow's own actions after his Broncos had secured a comeback win against the Miami Dolphins a week earlier.

Hill captured the spirit of much of the criticism leveled towards Tulloch, insisting that the linebacker had crossed the line by mocking Tim Tebow's faith. Her reasoning had some merit, after all, would such actions be tolerated if Tulloch celebrated a sack by mocking a players race or non-Christian religion? Or if there were to be a homosexual player who came out in the NFL, do you think that taunting using a mock homosexual gesture would be tolerated? Of course not, the offending player would be banned for six games.

All that being said, I'm actually not overly worked up about Tulloch's gesture, which might be surprising given how central my own faith is to me. But at some point, I think that any sort of post-play routine or celebratory action becomes fair game for turnabout doesn't it?

Mocking and taunting players' own in-game displays is hardly news. Then Eagles wide receiver famouly mimicked Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' celebratory dance upon scoring a touchdown many years back. San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson makes a cross armed gesture whenever he saves a game, and when Dodgers third basemen Casey Blake hit a clutch homer off of Wilson, Blake proceeded to imitate the gesture, much to Wilson's ire. Interestingly, Wilson noted that his faith was in part driving the gesture:
"It shows no disrespect toward anybody. It's all positive praise. It's not for showboating. It's not to start an epidemic. It's just me getting a quick message out to the world and to Christ and that's it. I just thought, `What more perfect time to display my faith than at the end of a game?'"
So if Wilson's gesture (which doesn't look remotely like a religious gesture, but something you'd see at a heavy metal concert) is a nod to his Christian beliefs, does it mean that mocking that move is out of bounds, too? When a wide receiver torches a defender, scores a touchdown and points to the sky, are we going to call it a hate crime when the defender picks off the pass and runs it back and does the same thing?

On another note, let's be honest about a big part of what's going on here. A lot of players are jealous of Tim Tebow. Tebow's track record for a professional QB is thus far abyssmal, and he has the second highest selling jersey behind Super Bowl winning QB Aaron Rodgers. He has endorsements up to his neck and gets interviewed ad nauseum because of who he is and what he stands for. In the gladiator culture of football, there's certainly some resentment towards a player, who hasn't earned the fame on the field. But the more insidious aspect is that players personalize it, thinking that they themselves are more worthy of the fame and glory than Tebow is. When Stephen Tulloch unleashes on Tim Tebow and mocks him, he's taking out his frustrations that a man who has started two games (and played terribly in both) has already received more adulation and fame than a solid six-year veteran middle linebacker will ever get in his lifetime. It's jealousy, and any opposing player than says otherwise is lying.

As for Tebow, I think he's going to have to suck it up and realize that this is going to be the new normal for him in this league. As a devout Christian, Tebow would know that what's going on here isn't surprising at all. Maybe Tebow should consider painting Matthew 10:22 on his eye black.