Monday, November 26, 2018

NBA Pioneer Leader On and Off the Court

One of the pioneers of integration in the National Basketball Association, Willie Naulls passed away recently at the age of 84. Willie Naulls became the first African-American team captain in "integrated professional sports history" when his New York Knicks teammates voted him into the captain role early in his career.  When Naulls played in his first All-Star Game, in January 1958, he joined Bill Russell and Maurice Stokes as the only African-American players on the court. He once held two Knicks scoring records--a single-season mark in 1960-61 with 1,846 points, an average of 23.4 a game, and a record for scoring at least 30 points in seven consecutive games. He was a leader off the court as well on the court.  Naulls spent the final five decades of his life helping underserved youth through a nonprofit organization he founded, and became a minister who wrote eight books to inspire others.I often saw him riding on the NYC subways going to the old Madison Square Garden for a game, and he was always very friendly and approachable, and encouraged his younger fans to get a good education while rooting for the Knicks.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

One Voice

I got to know Pittsburgh through my daughter, Natalie's husband and his parents. They warmly welcomed us to Pittsburgh several years ago and they showed us around Pittsburgh, including Squirrel Hill, a vibrant, welcoming, and supportive community of 15,000 or so that had a special sense of togetherness, stability, and warmth. I felt at home from the first time I’ve visited there.
I don’t know Jeffersontown, Kentucky, a suburb of Louisville, but I suspect it’s an equally vibrant and welcoming community.
These two communities came together tonight at a local synagogue, Rodef Shalom, through a community service for the victims of the two tragic shootings that took place in these communities this past week. The synagogue was overflowing with representatives of numerous religions, many community organizations, government officials, public servants, and so many residents of the community.
There were tributes to the law-enforcement officers, and other first responders who helped to save lives. There were words of healing, hope, and caring; there was no negativity, no political statements, nothing divisive--just unity. There was poetry, prayers, and plenty of music, all filled with flowing harmony. The music was anchored by a moving rendition of "One Voice" written by Ruth Moody (popularized by the Wailin' Jennys), and sung this night by Robbie Schaefer of the group, Eddie from Ohio.
Though it was senseless violence that brought us together, it was so sensible that we gathered as one community, and one voice, unified, positive, and welcoming to all.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The World Serious

While the Boston Red Sox -- LA Dodgers matchup in the World Series is ideal in many respects, I miss the plucky, innovative and scrappy playing (and managerial moves),and the smaller market (over the top) fan enthusiasm of the Milwaukee Brewers and the Houston Astros.  And then there was Game Three...

In the first two games of the Series, the home town Red Sox handled the visiting Dodgers with workman-like precision showing why the Bosox won 108 games during the regular season; and why they had been able to easily top the champions of last year, the Astros, in the playoffs. But now it was back to Los Angeles, for a key third game (an especially critical game for the hometown Dodgers). And the Hollywood plot-writers could not have crafted a more thrilling drama of epic proportions--last night's eighteen inning classic. The skills, the strategies, the heroic efforts (and the less than heroic efforts), the contested plays, the many plate-protecting fouls hit to all parts of the Ravine, and the stunning pitching and fielding, if not clutch hitting filled the plot, and sub-plots with attention-grabbing (close to eight) hours of excitement. I was glad to witness this memorable game (even if only by TV viewing) that might well be discussed for years to come.

The next night--and the fourth game--was a different story.  What started as a pitcher's duel ended as one pitcher running out of gas and the other pitcher being lifted out of the game too early.  As a consequence, the hitters started to strike through and as the score went to four to four in the ninth, there was the prospect of another extra inning epic game.  But that brief flirtation with history, ended abruptly as the Boston team went back to its expert and uncanny bursts of expert and timely hitting and the Dodgers now went from almost tieing the Series to facing elimination--what will tomorrow bring. 

Another year and counting

As I recently came upon the eve of another birthday, I had the honor of doing a “state of the heart, mind and soul” presentation at the Department of Education called “Phil-Law-sophy 2.0.” It was a journey through everyday life and the law, by way of the mixing and mashing prism of my Paterson childhood, the law, education, public service, the endless pursuit of justice, rock, jazz, blues, and classical music, technology, research, art, literature, baseball, football, basketball, current events, and history (with a focus on the early America, the Civil War, World War I, and the Holocaust), while looking towards the future. It was sprinkled lightly with humor and rhythmically with music, and it was a good way to take stock and share, as I welcome a new year.  

I got some useful feedback on the presentation and thought about updating it and making it a yearly occurrence, taking stock of where i have been and where I want to go, facing the past and future with an accounting of sorts--which we owe ourselves and our colleagues.  It is good for the soul, if not for the heart, mind, and body.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Standing At the Crossroads—The Arts, and the Business of Sports

On Labor Day weekend, when summer has its last blast and the new school year is close behind it, I was standing at the L’Enfant Plaza subway stop, that warm weekend evening.
I was coming back from the National Book Festival with singles, couples, and families including small children, enthused with their learning about what the world of the book has to offer. We were met by singles, couples, and families with small children going to that night’s Nationals game against the Brewers. There was some hope and some joy among all of the riders that night, but there was a gulf developing between us.
At the National Book Festival, we learned from authors how they honed their craft, how they wrote their books, how they researched, how they thought, how they created, how stories were told. All of this gave greater depth and meaning to the books that we read or wanted to read. At one session, three thousand people were turned away; there was that level of enthusiasm and interest, and that much thirst for knowledge. People were turned away at several sessions, but they quickly recovered and sought and found knowledge from another gifted author.
People going to the Nationals game were going to cheer on a team whose owners had already given up on the season, even when they still had a chance at the pennant. About 10 days ago, the Nationals started to unload some of their most talented players like gifted hitter Daniel Murphy, and prime pinch hitter, Matt Adams, and more recently former twenty-game winner Gio Gonzalez, who always pitched his heart out. These were key members of a team built over several seasons,
These “unloadings” or trades were made with little explanation, and with little or no attention to the fans or the other players. There was no reason given for giving up so fast and on such good players; there was no explanation of what they were doing or where they wanted to go in the present or the future. They just seemed to want to save some salary money, while they wanted their fans to still pay their hard-earned money to see the remaining games. There were no reasons or refunds offered to the fans, and no explanation to the other players who remained..
It is a sad lesson indeed to teach to children and to adults--giving up early with no need to explain. That sadly was the destination for fans going to one stop on the subway line—it would be just another night, and another sad loss. From another stop, fans were being urged to pursue more knowledge, more depth, and more analysis, and to never give up writing, reading, listening, and learning.
There were high expectations and knowledge was honored and treasured at one subway stop, and there was low expectations, giving up, and no explanations at another stop. We all shared that weekend night with some hope and some joy; we were in that subway station standing at a crossroads.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

"The Ghost Writer" Rest in Peace

.I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to do some work that was bothering me that I could not get to during the day, or to explore a piece or pieces of music (old or new), or to read an article or a book that I could not get to earlier, or some combination of the above. This past night, I thought of the passing of novelist Philip Roth and a discussion earlier this week at an Office of the General Counsel lunch time Book Club, and wrote about it and wanted to share it. I hope you do not mind because it is a bit long. You can stop here and I will not be offended.
But, in any event, whether you read on or not, I hope you and your families have a pleasant and peaceful holiday weekend and that you have a chance to relax and maybe read a good book. Have a great holiday.
Philip Roth passed away the other day after “retiring” from writing a few years ago. I thought about it in light of our most recent discussions at the OGC Book Club about what we are reading. No one mentioned that they were reading Philip Roth at this time, yet I suspect many of us have read him along the way. I certainly did.
After reading a number of his novels and short stories, I had reached out to him when he was a visiting professor at the college I was attending at the time, and asked if he would be interested to talk at the literary society that our students had just started. I met him at the door to his office, and he seemed a little rushed, cold, and remote. He was somewhat dismissive in his response—he simply “was not interested.”
It did not really bother me, but I carried this moment with me for many years, and thought of him as a cold, somewhat impolite man of letters who was not like his books or its characters, or what I would have expected of the author of his books. That did not stop me from reading more of his books and enjoying them on different levels. But there was that gap caused by that disappointing moment.
A few years ago, I learned that the period in which I talked with him, was a low point in his life, filled with working out a troubled first marriage that was about to dissolve, and other low self-doubting moments. I was then sorry that I bothered him at the time and my feelings and complaints about him quickly dissipated, and he continued as one of my favorite authors.
I recently learned more about his attitudes on writing and on life. Zadie Smith wrote a recent piece about him in the New Yorker and said about him:
‘At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. “Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,” he once said. For Roth, literature was not a tool of any description. It was the venerated thing in itself. He loved fiction and (unlike so many half or three-quarter writers) was never ashamed of it. He loved it in its irresponsibility, in its comedy, in its vulgarity, and its divine independence. He never confused it with other things made of words, like statements of social justice or personal rectitude, journalism or political speeches, all of which are vital and necessary for lives we live outside of fiction, but none of which are fiction, which is a medium that must always allow itself, as those other forms often can’t, the possibility of expressing intimate and inconvenient truths.
Roth always told the truth—his own, subjective truth—through language and through lies, the twin engines at the embarrassing heart of literature. Embarrassing to others, never to Roth. Second selves, fake selves, fantasy selves, replacement selves, horrifying selves, hilarious, mortifying selves—he welcomed them all. Like all writers, there were things and ideas that lay beyond his ken or conception; he had blind spots, prejudices, selves he could imagine only partially, or selves he mistook or mislaid. But, unlike many writers, he did not aspire to perfect vision. He knew that to be an impossibility. Subjectivity is limited by the vision of the subject, and the task of writing is to do the best with what you have. Roth used every little scrap of what he had. Nothing was held back or protected from writing, nothing saved for a rainy day. He wrote every single book he intended to write and said every last thing he meant to say. For a writer, there is no greater aspiration than that.”
I imagine he told me the truth of how he felt that day and I appreciate that—he did not hold back. We all have our bad days and bad eras and he was honest about it. We should not hold it against anyone. I did not.
Which brings me back to the book club and what we learn from each other through what we are choosing to read and our shared impressions. We read for many reasons, and what we choose to read may provide insight into our true selves, our fake selves, our fantasy selves, but whatever it is, it is a welcome time to share stories.
I shared my first name with Philip Roth and little more than that, other than I read so many of his words that I felt that I knew him, but I probably did not. And that is fine as well. His second wife, Claire Bloom described him as self-centered and much worse, and he denied that, but he soon became even more of a recluse, a man with far from perfect vision. Philip Roth was not for everyone--a friend said that he "did not have enough angst about himself to enjoy Philip Roth's writing." I am not sure what to make of him in his life, but he was a good writer and I am saddened that he will not share with us any of his new ideas made of words.

P.S.:  As I reread the last paragraph a few months later, I acknowledge that I share more than my first name with him--I share my home state and more of my heritage.  His Newark had some similarities to my Paterson, but they seemed like stops and separate exits along the Parkway of growing up in New Jersey--not adjoining or part of an expanse of similar grounds.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

jazz affirming

Yesterday, on a beautiful spring Friday, the U.S. Department of Education hosted its sixth annual Jazz Informance (part performance, and part jazz lesson) in collaboration with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It was, as always, an awe inspiring event, bringing joy, pride and unbridled hope for the future to the packed audience of area school students and educators.
It is rare to witness the product of learning played out so gloriously in real time with a proven jazz master teacher, but this was that rare event. A septet of students from DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Newark (NJ)'s Arts High School played flawlessly the compositions of Rollins, Monk, and Ellington alongside Grammy-winning, saxophonist/teacher Wayne Escoffery.
Dr. Dyas of the Institute creatively taught how jazz really works, and I had the honor of introducing this great event. I related what I had learned in my six transformative years of attending the Informances, seeing other forms of music through the values of jazz. I also discussed why Professor Gerald Earley of Washington University in St. Louis concluded that what people would remember about America 2000 years from now, will be the Constitution, baseball and jazz—all capture the spirit of America through freedom, equity, improvisation, communication, and teamwork. But it was the students who brought that spirit to life.