Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two things that make me grieve

1. The latest Rick Reilly column on ESPN.com. Ryan and I were talking at dinner recently about this story about the female wrestler named Cassy in Iowa and how her 16 year old male opponent, Joel, forfeited the match in the state tournament (in Iowa, where wrestling state championships make you a demi-god) because of his faith and a strong conviction not to engage in combat with women. It started out as a "You're either a Reilly or a Simmons fan, but not both," but ended up as a lament against journalistic ridiculousness and Reilly himself. The next morning, I was a few minutes late to leave for the International Fellowship because I read the article and was moved to respond to Reilly in a strongly worded email reply to him that I'm sure he'll never read.

I'll summarize his position (though I'm sure you can find the full article on ESPN.com). Reilly claims that his religious conviction not to engage a girl in this sport is stupid on that this is a tom-boy who wants and should be treated like an equal on the mat. Fair enough. But what he refuses to indulge is the perspective of religious conviction, mainly because, well he doesn't "get it." So what is his response? A sophomoric retort in which he employs middle school debate team tactics seen below:

"Does any wrong-headed decision suddenly become right when defended with religious conviction? In this age, don't we know better? If my God told me to poke the elderly with sharp sticks, would that make it morally acceptable to others?"

The boy who forfeited is both home-schooled and the son of a Pentacostal minister. Mr. Reilly, who has had a column for many years both with Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, clearly doesn't have the taste for doing good research down with the grunt-level reporters anymore. He couldn't care less about what it means to have a real belief that forces you to action in the "secular" world and not just on Sundays and in the confessional booth. He just thinks it's stupid that a boy doesn't want to fight and used his faith as a reason.

What makes this story worse is the end, where he belittles Joel for his foolishness of forefeiting and his weeping after being outed in the consolation round two matches later.

"I don't feel as bad for Cassy as I do for Joel. He was the fifth-ranked wrestler in the state at 112 pounds. He was 35-4. He had a chance to win the whole thing. In Iowa, that means a lifetime of people buying you lunch. It's corn-state royalty. To give all that up to protect a girl who loathes being protected? What a waste of a dream.

The last I saw Northrup, he was crying. After the default, he entered the consolation round, where he won his first match, then lost a heartbreaker in overtime, 3-2. He jogged past the scrum of reporters waiting to talk to Cassy, tears streaming down his face, unnoticed. He was done, with no chance to medal.

Neither he, nor his coaches, nor his dad, had any comment. He was reportedly on his way back home to Marion, Iowa, where his mom was about to deliver her eighth child.

For the kid's sake, I hope it's a boy."

To mock a 16 year old from the press box and ivory tower? What a show of cowardice and ignorance. He has no idea what it means to live by conviction, much less a code of any kind. He can't even give credence to Joel's father's statement of having an elevated and respected view of women. Instead, he writes a column that takes a strong position against tolerance to get more web page hits.

Griever #2: The end of Season 4 in the Wire. I'll try not to give much away, but I watched last night with the Jungs, who started watching it last semester sometime. This season chronicles four 8th graders in West Baltimore who are teetering on the edge. On one side is the drug trade where they can choose to be "corner boys," selling heroin to junkies for the promise of getting rich and moving up the ladder. On the other is choosing to live the life of school and constructive energy and making a life for themselves in the "legitimate" world.

Naman is the outspoken, brash, and cocky one who's father, "Wee Bey," is in jail on two life sentences for his role in a drug trade murder a few years ago. He lives in opulance because of his father's unwillingness to snitch on the big bosses. The bosses have put Naman and his mother up in a lavish apartment and he plays the role of the spoiled rich kid, yet while living in the inner city.

Michael is the quiet, but strong enforcer of the group. He has a natural talent for boxing and is being taught at a local community center by an ex-con who turned his life around and left "The Game." He lives alone with his kid brother, Bug, and is a responsible parent figure at the tender age of 13. He is the all around good guy and protects the weaker friends at school from bullies.

Randy is the businessman of the group, the trickster. He buys candy and chips in bulk and resells them in the lunch room to the younger kids. He is always thinking up get-rich-quick schemes that don't involve drugs and is a leader when the kids are out playing. His parents are both dead or have left and has grown up in the dreaded group homes in foster care, often where abuse is rampant for him as a smaller, younger kid living with rougher orphans.

Then there is Duquan, or "Dookie." His mother is a dope fiend and they have been evicted from even the housing projects multiple times. He is known at school for being especially poor, rarely showering and being the runt who is easily picked on. However, Dookie has a penchant for school, where he excels in math. He is constantly teased though for his nappy hair and tattered clothes and is often tempted to find ways to get money in any way possible.

Through a series of murders and drug deals gone bad, the four boys are each tempted by the drug game while mentors, teachers, and parent figures pull the other side of the tug of war, fighting for their innocence and the redemption of their toilsome, young lives. Some have to decide between "snitchin'" and letting murders go unpunished. Ultimately some will find redemption and others will be pulled down into the system.

The fact that these are children makes it especially hard to watch sometimes. The Wire is my favorite drama of all time, but this can be a gut wrenching and gritty part. It will make you wonder, "How long, O Lord?" and consider the reality of many inner-city injustices, corruption, politics, and the condition of the human heart.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rivendell to Mordor

Every year my friends and I here get the wonderful chance to visit and be refreshed by the kingdom of Thailand for about a month. Our Chinese friends at school all go home for Spring Festival and Chinese New Year which lasts from mid January through to the beginning of March usually. Every year we love the break from Chinese winter into the eternal summer of Thailand.

Really, the only appropriate metaphor for Thailand is the Elven city of Rivendell from Lord of the Rings. Most of us come there, limping in from the last semester, missing our families in America, ready to do anything except what we've been doing continuously for the last month of December, having lots of Christmas parties, studying for exams, etc. We find western food, are given lots of encouragement, people remind us how great the vision we have here is and we see a new culture. A new culture that we see as liberating and free.

Instead of having to bust your way through a busy restaurant to order, mercilessly cutting some and boxing out other patrons, they have lines that are commonly accepted and used. Instead of cafeteria noodles, we're eating the likes of pad thai, Mexican food, and Krispy Kreme (though I only had 2 KK donuts, the fact its there is comforting enough). No longer do we have to ride battery powered scooters, but we rent motorbikes with real gas engines and real power for really cheap. Everyone understands a good amount of English there too so we don't have to rack our brains every time we need to ask for daily necessities or buy food.

So of course, it's hard going from this culture we only see good things in, back to wintry China. Why would we want to carry the ring to Mordor, to certain doom, to trials when we've grown accustomed to living with the immortal elves, recovering from injuries, and eating their magical elf donuts?? It's a tough thing remembering the 85 degree weather every day when its cold and rainy and your hot water heater still hasnt arrived yet. It's tougher still when you have less time to read, fewer friends to talk with, less time for the timeless tales passed down from generation to generation here in our Chinese ex-pat sub-culture.

Nevermind all the annoyances of Thailand. The constant nagging of massage parlors and ladyboy prostitutes. The living out of a suitcase for a month. The countless scarrings from European vacationers wearing speedos too tight or, even worse, speedos too loose. These things seem minor to us while we're there because it's nice to idealize a place as perfect for a while.

But God didn't give us Thailand so he could bring Heaven on earth and have everyone move there. Just like Rivendell wasn't created solely as an end in itself. They are what they are. Just an oasis of refreshment so that we can remember and refocus on what we're doing here in the distance between the Shire and our destiny. To remind us that God is good to those who love him and are called according to his purposes and that he blesses men abundantly. And to remind us that brokenness and unbelief are a temporary thing in this world that is passing away. Soon, in the coming age, we will have all the Krispy Kreme we can handle.