Monday, February 22, 2010

The Miracle on Ice, 30 Years Later

Today is the 30th anniversary of the greatest sports experience in my life: the US hockey team’s improbable medal-round victory over the Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, 4-3. The Americans, made up of amateur and collegiate players and led by the late Herb Brooks went on to win the Gold medal against Finland.

I was 7 at the time and would turn 8 the following May. It was a Friday night and the game was broadcast on tape delay at 8 pm because the Soviets had refuses to consent to moving the game from 5 pm to 8 pm for American television, which would have meant a 4 am start in Moscow for Russian viewers. I guess a 1 am local Moscow time was okay by them.

I didn’t know the results before I watched. I wasn’t anxious to see the score before hand, and frankly, I probably didn’t even know it was on tape delay. I was (and still am) a huge baseball fan so that was my sport of choice. Hockey was down on my list, but the idea of the upstart US team against the big, bad Soviets was exciting for me. I watched the game with my mother, who wasn’t a hockey fan either. Yet as we watched the game unfold we jumped, cheered, cringed, and hollered as if we had been life long fans. The game, as we all know, was absolutely thrilling and when the final buzzer sounded my mother and I hugged and shed tears of joy.

My mother suffers from dementia now, so she doesn’t remember that experience. Yet I will always treasure it. We had watched our beloved Yankees win the World Series in back-to-back years in 1977 and 1978, but nothing felt better than this. I was much younger then and the emotional high was probably more to me feeding off my parents and siblings’ elation rather than my own. The Miracle on Ice was different. This was personal and shared joy at something completely unexpected.

That Friday night in February 30 years ago will always be special to me. I believe it’s special to my mother as well, although it’s hidden in her mind. It is a priceless memory, the likes of which I will never experience again.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Remembering Malcolm X

Today is the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. Personally, the most influential book I’ve ever read (besides the Bible) is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read it back in 1991 when I joined the U.S. Army. It had a profound impact on me, and Malcolm X remains one of my idols. I collected documentaries on him, and videos and audio tapes of his speeches. I even had a poster up of him in my barracks room (which confused many of my platoon mates—White, Black, and fellow Latinos alike). He’s a misunderstood figure to many, regardless of race or ethnicity. For instance, he is known for the saying: “By any means necessary.” It’s viewed positively and negatively depending on your POV. It’s ironic that his famous—or infamous—saying is taken out of context. He said it to mean that Blacks should defend themselves by any means necessary.

Many of his views were harsh, but he was willing to reassess them as he gained more knowledge. As he wrote, “My whole life had been a chronology of—changes .… Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”

There’s a subtle, but important event in the book. A white female college student had been so moved by Malcolm’s speech at her New England school early in his ministry that she flew down to New York to see him. She found him at the Nation of Islam’s restaurant in Harlem and asked him what she could do to help the plight of African Americans in this country. Malcolm bluntly said, “Nothing.” She burst out crying and ran out the restaurant. Later on in the book after Malcolm had embraced the idea of the kinship of all peoples and the races working together to end racism, Malcolm reflects that he regretted telling her that, thought about her often whenever the topic arose, and wished he knew her name to write or telephone her. It troubled me that in Spike Lee’s movie he put the rejection scene in without the context of Malcolm’s later regret in how he dealt with the situation.

A month before his murder in February 1965, Malcolm said during an interview on Canadian television: “I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being—neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there’s no question of integration or intermarriage. It’s just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.”

This was at a time when intermarriage was not only taboo in the U.S., but still illegal in some states. It was actually counter to his previous views on interracial marriage during his early times with the Nation of Islam. This was a man who evolved in his ministry and world view and recognized this evolution. It is this evolved Malcolm—El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—who is one of the forefathers of how we view race today, and we can celebrate Black History Month—America’s History Month—with an African-American in the White House.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

I went to the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in NYC this morning to get my ashes, as I’ve done for years past on Ash Wednesday. I’m a life long Catholic, with—admittedly—periods of agnosticism and atheism (a long story for another blog post). But I’ve been back to the home town religion for the last 24 years or so. I’ve been getting my ashes for so long, that I’ve lost track of the reason behind it. That’s a big no-no in Christianity. Jesus explicitly distinguished His followers from the pagans by noting that the pagans followed ritual without worship. In other words, they went through the motions without understanding why. For His followers, however, Jesus wanted them to know and understand by worshipping in their hearts and by their deeds. So, what did I do? I’ve researched Lent and Ash Wednesday!

Yes, I know that Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten season in the Christian calendar, the 40 day period of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, but I wanted to know more. According to the pamphlet handed out in St. Patrick’s, in explanation of Ash Wednesday:

“The ashes of Ash Wednesday not only describe our humanity, more emphatically, they are a proclamation of hope, reconciliation and peace. Ashes give symbolic expression to our trusting dependence in God’s merciful love.”

Okay. Now for the explanation for Lent in the pamphlet:

“Lent is the period of forty days during which we examine our lives in order to renew our faith. Through acts of love, we become more like Christ in our attitude toward God and one another. Let prepares us to take part fully in the celebration of the Easter Mysteries during the Triduum (3 days) of the Lord’s Supper, his Passion, Death and glorious resurrection on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, the holiest days of the Christian year.”

Being a history buff, I couldn’t stop there. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Lent and Ash Wednesday first arose at different times. The word Lent is Teutonic in origin and referred originally to the spring season. The significance of the number 40 invokes both Moses and the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus fasting for 40 days in the desert in preparation of His ministry, and Jesus lying 40 hours in the tomb.

A preliminary 40 day fast for Easter arose in the Fourth Century. This was not inclusive to the then separate custom of fasting during Holy Week. This preliminary fasting period became known as Lent. By the Fifth Century, Lent lasted for six weeks including Holy Week, but there was actually only three total weeks of fasting excluding the weekends. Soon there was a split, with some Christian communities insisting on 40 actual days of fasting and, thus, Lent would last eight weeks (40 days plus non-fasting weekends) with other communities sticking with the six week tradition. By the Seventh Century the six week tradition won out, but with six days a week fasting for a total of 36 fasting days. The tradition of beginning Lent with Ash Wednesday began in the Eighth Century. It arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. The ashes themselves are from the previously blessed palms from the prior year’s Palm Sunday. By the Middle Ages, Lent consisted of forty weekdays which were all fast days, and six Sundays with Ash Wednesday marking the start of Lent.

As to the fast itself, there has never been a hard tradition. Some Christian communities abstained from eating anything that was once alive, others abstained from all living creatures except fish, and others only ate birds and fish. There was a consensus, however, that for fasting days there was only one meal a day and it was taken in the evening. Over the years, the fasting requirements were relaxed and now in the United States no meat may be eaten on Ash Wednesday, Lenten Fridays including Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The origin of making a Lenten sacrifice is more obscure, but probably arose with the relaxation of the fasting requirement.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Folly of Home Depot's Extended Warranty

Sometimes doing the prudent thing bites you in the ass.

Back in September 2007, I bought a new GE water heater from Home Depot—the one with a 12 year warranty—and it started leaking this past Friday. Yep, two-and-a-half years later it broke down. The one I had replaced was 26 years old. Go figure. I had also bought an extended warranty from Home Depot so I thought I was set. I was terribly wrong.

I called Home Depot’s extended warranty service on Friday and again on Saturday. They told me that it would take 24 hours for a local service provider (LSP) to contact me and take care of my problem. After 24 hours passed, I called them again. Still no word when the LSP would contact me. Mind you, I’m cleaning up my basement daily from the leaking water. That’s usually a sign that the water heater is shot. Very rarely can water heaters be fixed.

When I spoke to the warranty service again on Monday, they told me it would be Wednesday at the earliest before I just get the call from the LSP, forget about when they’ll actually show up. Furious, I called customer service to complain. Customer service put me on a 3-way-call with warranty service and it was finally explained that the LSP’s job was only to go to my house to either “fix” the water heater (which, as I noted, never happens when there is a leak) or tell me I need a new one. If I need a new one, it’s up to me to contact GE to get a new one and then I’ll have to pay for installation.

This was ridiculous. I was given the run around for days, only to realize that the extended warranty I had was essentially worthless. While my basement gets ruined from water damage I’m twiddling my thumbs waiting for the LSP to show up and tell me what I already know.

I said the hell with that and called my local plumber who came out immediately and confirmed that the water heater needed to be replaced. He contacted GE and I’ll get a new water heater for the cost of installation. When that happens, however, I have no idea.

It’s absurd that I had to replace a two-year-old water heater after the one it replaced had worked fine for two decades. But what is more absurd is how Home Depot is hoodwinking customers into buying extended warranties on water heaters.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy 201st Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Two hundred and one years ago today, Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin on a farm in Hardin County, Kentucky. Lincoln’s birthday is a legal holiday in only 7 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Indiana). Local government buildings are closed here in New York, including the courts.

Growing up, I had gotten used to having both Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday off from school, but that changed in the mid-1980s with the joint holiday of “Presidents Day” on the third Monday of February. I put it in quotes because the official name is still “Washington’s Birthday.” Washington’s Birthday is actually a federal holiday while there has never been an annual Federal holiday honoring Lincoln. As they say, the South lost the war, but won the peace.