Archive for October, 2010

Letter From New York October 30, 2010

October 30, 2010

Or, as it seems to me…

The last week has been more than a bit business mad; Odyssey Networks has been doing a whole series of productions. I fell into the role of point person for them. We sent a man to Nigeria to shoot footage of the Imam and the Pastor, a Christian pastor and a Muslim Imam who have emerged from the religious warfare in that country as spokesmen for peace and interfaith hope. Pastor Wuye lost his hand in the violence, chopped off by a Muslim. It became the moment he moved beyond his hatred to embrace a different way. He and the Imam have become a team, founded a mediation center in Kaduna in Nigeria and have become world famous for their efforts.

They were honored on the 26th at the We Are Family Foundation Gala with the Mattie J. Stepanek Award. Mattie, if you recall, was the extraordinary boy who spent his brief life besieged by a rare form of muscular dystrophy, which killed him weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday. He wrote books on peace, became a national personage because of his presence on the Oprah Winfrey Show and was eulogized at his funeral by President Jimmy Carter, with whom he co-wrote a book. The Imam and the Pastor describe Mattie as a prophet, as he might well have been. Certainly his words echo beyond the time encapsulated by his short life.

I met them briefly at the Gala, introduced by Jonathan Smith, the producer whom we had sent to Nigeria to get the footage. There was a sense about them of peace and joy, calm in the center of a tumultuous world, a presence that was tranquil and slightly transcendental. It was an honor; it was a moment I won’t forget, two men, once sworn enemies, standing together now against the ravages of the violence that racks their land. Six months ago Christians and Muslims were killing each other in the Jos Valley, the place both call home. When they left New York, they were headed for Sudan where they had been asked to lead a Peace Conference in that country, which is edging toward potential violence as it advances toward a referendum that might split the country in two. If it goes that way, there is a chance war will break out and the land that is home to infamous Darfur will once again be racked by violence, the victims of which will mostly be the poor, the desperate, the defenseless.

Nigeria, the Sudan, the Middle East, Columbia, India, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan… The list of countries wracked by violence, war, revolution, counter-revolution, insurgency goes on and on. Do we think daily of lawless Somalia, home to modern pirates that regularly seize ships in the Gulf of Aden, holding them for ransom? No, probably not. But while we live our reasonably secure lives, vast parts of the globe are war zones or de facto war zones. Jonathan described the vast sea of tension and fear that swirls through the streets of Nigerian cities as no one knows when the next bout of sectarian violence will erupt, bringing more pain and death into their lives. It is not uncommon that Muslims and Christians will chop away fingers or hands [witness Pastor Wuye] to remind their victims of their hate. The streets are filled with the disfigured.

Against this tide of religious vitriol, individuals like the Pastor and the Imam work as best they can to bring sanity into the world in which they live, to bridge the hatred, roots of which are now forgotten but not relinquished.

Against this hatred are the words of a child, Mattie Stepanek, the actions of two men of God, who stand with other men of good that dot the world, seeking in some small way to change the world, to offer an alternative to the generations of killing. For if we do not find some alternative, we will never find a way out of the vortex, one that is now more dangerous than ever as religious divide, hatred and extremism fills men who have capacity to wreck global havoc.

Letter From New York October 17, 2010

October 18, 2010

Or, as it seems to me…

Proceeding south on the train into the city, the Hudson River is framed by the fall foliage, slowly moving to a moment of colorful glory. The weather has changed; now constantly cool. Sweaters have come out of the closet and jackets are required. The northern hemisphere is moving languidly into winter.

Surrounded by this inspiring beauty, it is easy to think of the world as tranquil and peaceful. This makes for good reflecting time.

Last Thursday, the world focused on the rescue of the miners in Chile, pulled out through a narrow hole drilled through nearly half a mile of solid rock in a capsule that was designed with the help of NASA. I found myself going out to the television set in the common area every while or so to watch the progression of the rescue. It was difficult not to feel a rush of emotion, joy at their return to the surface from their particular version of Hades.

Their survival is an impressive and inspiring tale; people, companies, organizations, governments worked together to make this a reality while the world watched on television. All’s well that ends well, said the bard but between the beginning and the ending there were harrowing times for these men, trapped for over two weeks before being discovered – a swath of red paint they sprayed on the piercing drill the first indication that life remained below. Attached to the end of the drill bit were bits of notes to loved ones.

They had lived below in darkness and in fear, surviving on starvation rations of what little they had when originally trapped, terrified that they might descend to cannibalism. Out of this miasma of terror and fear, they organized themselves and became an example to the world of comradeship and fraternity. After contact, they asked for a statue of the Virgin Mary and other religious articles to organize a shrine in one part of their cave home. One man became the captain, another the spiritual leader, another became the medic, nicknamed Dr. House after the television character, popular in Chile as well as the United States.

Their entire adventure became very real to a global swath of people. A camera was lowered into their cavern and we saw glimpses of their world, met men in real time living a real drama. We saw them sweat, we saw them live and witnessed their conversations with their loved ones. We were not just on the surface watching passively, we were in the cave with them, getting to know them before we knew whether they would live or not. Rescue was not guaranteed.

Their story became a local story almost everywhere. Video provides a path to intimacy and with intimacy comes investment, caring and engagement. That’s what I felt when I watched the rescue, engaged in the lives of men faraway but close because I could see and hear and thus become part of their world.

Their story has been inspiring, their rescue a feat of technology and ingenuity. The whole tale reflects man at his best. Yet to be dealt with are the causes of the tale, the dangers in the mine that resulted in the cave-in. We will watch these men, now national celebrities in their homeland and will wonder about them as they move forward, back into life. One will have to deal with his wife and mistress both meeting each other in Camp Hope, the tent town that grew to contain the waiting and watching relatives. Another has been offered a contract on a Chilean television network. Senor Sepulveda captured the heart of a nation as he gave video tours of their underground world.

Video is becoming the lingua franca of the modern world. If a picture is worth a thousand words then a story told in video is more than a novel. Twenty years ago the story of the Chilean trapped miners would probably not have been an international sensation. Putting cameras into their dire circumstances changed all that. We got to know them before knowing the outcome. They were the real reality show.

Letter From New York October 7, 2010

October 7, 2010

Or, as it seems to me…

All day rain spattered down on the cottage while I worked on some personal business that I have been neglecting, the last day of a five-day vacation I took from work.  It gave me time to ruminate about existence; nothing like a rainy day to get one’s mind soaring over the landscape of life, attempting to put the pieces of the puzzle together to tell the story.

I am fortunate to have people in my life that have chosen to linger it in it for a long time.  When I was in my first high school production, I met another classmate, Tom Fudali, as he was climbing up some scarily high scaffolding to adjust lights for the play.  He was wearing a tool belt and struck me as the kind of person who could do anything.  I was more than a bit intimidated.  But he became my best friend and I am fortunate that he is still my best friend; we’ve seen each other pass through many of the litmus tests life gives to people.  I am the godfather to his son from his first marriage; I was best man in his second wedding.  We can be together for a short time and it is as if no time has passed since we’ve seen each other.

He came this past weekend to visit and we went up to Lake George, a soul achingly beautiful 32-mile stretch of lake that anchored a significant piece of American history of which I was pretty much ignorant until I explored it this weekend.  At the southern end of Lake George is Fort William Henry, built to protect the northern edge of His Majesty’s American Empire from the French.  Thirty some miles to the north, the French build another fort, Carillon, to protect the southern edge of their North American Empire from the British.  And it was here that the French and Indian Wars were played out.  The French attack on Fort William Henry, its surrender and the subsequent slaughter of many of the British by the Indian allies of the French, became the inspiration for James Fennimore Cooper’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS, made into at least three films, the most recent being the lauded one starring Daniel Day Lewis.  Not a bad film though only loosely accurate as to facts in some cases.

Carillon, the French fort, was taken by the British not long after the fall of Fort William Henry and was renamed Fort Ticonderoga.  Later it played a part in the Revolutionary War.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold raced there after Lexington and Concord, taking the fort from the British garrison who had not yet heard that the Colonies were in rebellion.  The cannon from the fort were then dragged through the snow of the winter of 1776 to Boston, coming through my little town of Claverack on its way there.  Once the guns were set up outside of Boston, the British decided to retreat, sailing out of Boston harbor, threatening to burn the city if their retreat was molested.

I realized there was a great deal about American history that I didn’t know and certainly didn’t have a granular knowledge of it.  I didn’t know that Ticonderoga was once considered “the key to the continent” or that LAST OF THE MOHICANS was inspired by the events at Fort William Henry.

In the exhibitions, I realized how hard life was on the frontier and thought of the people who had carved this country out of a wilderness, of our strange history with Native Americans, allies, foes, oppressors, combatants, the uneasy relationship that happens when any Empire displaces another, which we did when we came here.  That is history.  We’re not unique.  It’s been happening since time began.

And since time began, history is formed and lived with relationships, friendships, loves, marriages, families, generations of folks who come and then are gone, moving into the slipstream of time while history continues to be made.  But our individual lives are punctuated by the friendships we make along the way, like the one I have with Tom.