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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Paul and Puzzles: What is it about Lucky Charms?

   Everyone must feel selfish after having breakfast. I cannot wake up before eight o'clock (thank you university-lifestyle) with a smile on my face. Nothing beats having to taste the remnants of last night's late night snack on the hard-to-reach part of your tongue. As sour as that flavor might be, I always feel even more bitter; hating that I have to wake up before eight one day out of the week.
   Yet, when I finally dragged myself to the buzzing cafeteria, even after ignoring the over-looming reality that lots of other people are up at this hour, I found solace in a good bowl of Lucky Charms. As another rainbow marshmallow found my lips, I can't help but think: you selfish bastard! I wake up early to go to Service Learning. This isn't about me. Well, it is actually. The Jesuit slogan for community service states 'for and with others'; implying that someone has to be there in order for the preposition with to grammatically work. Service doesn't work if my body shows up and I'm not there there. Somehow the Lucky Charms fuel me with my passion that brought me to SJU to serve.
   Again, like the last post suggested, I can't help but see my new home in west Philadelphia with a new set of eyes when I get behind the wheel of a Ford Focus. Traffic somehow snapped my college-oriented mind back to a real world setting. The radio has the similar effect when everyone has PCs or Macs to blare their own tunes off of; no one possesses a transistor radio, and no, the speakers that iPods plug into do not have FM or AM radio. They are strictly car -a symbol of autonomy- items. I chatted with my service partners that it was yet another gray day as we headed into north Philly. 
  We reached Mercy Neighborhood Ministries with five minutes to spare; I casually weaved in and out of traffic to avoid causing a bad first (second) impression. Something changed this second time we parked. I, for one, was not panicking over the MapQuest directions that were off by half a block. This allowed for a better look. What I found was that the lighting changed. It was not the actual light, for the sun was covered by a thick blanket of ominous clouds. It was more of PhotoShop effect in which someone must have toggled with the sepia and cyan tones. (Try it to catch my meaning!) I didn't feel foreign to my surroundings which could no longer be classified as "new."
   On entering, we received the same cheerful 'good morning!' from the receptionist as last time. Our arrival time happened to be, and will continue being an awkward time between breakfast and the morning's first activity. There was a lot of shuffling of feet as we seemed to be "thrown to the wolves"; two individuals sat at different tables with a staff member. One of my fellow service members went to the lady on our right while by default I found myself entering a conversation between Paul and Kim. 
   "Hey Kiiimmm!" a voice croaked. 
   "What Paul?" returned a tired voice. It was only 9:05 and cloudy. Yet Kim was wearing sunglasses inside the building.
   "Why are you wearing sunglasses already, Kim. There's no sun in here," Paul nagged; a grin hiding behind his pursed lips. 
   "I told you already. I'm taking medication for my ulcer."
   I chimed in, "Ulcer, that ain't no fun." Kim proceeded to explain that her medications had to be taken once every hour (including the night) and a separate pain killer twice a day for the ulcer in/on her eye. Sheesh! Not only did Kim's sickness explain her preposterous idea of wearing sunglasses inside, but it also set an incredibly high standard for us three new service volunteers. If Kim could come to work under such miserable circumstances, there was no way I could ever come half-assed and not ready to participate in the activities. 
   I couldn't stop smiling as Paul wanted to pick a fight with Kim if she didn't make his coffee right and the way he yelled out after staff members as they came and went from the cafeteria. However old  Paul was,  he would not let my smiling and snickering go unnoticed. 
   "What's so funny? Stop following me with that big goofy smile!" 
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Shiva Linga (the black stone represents the godhead of Shiva,
also known as Nirguna Brahman-God in the abstract form.
Shares similarities with the Christian Holy Spirit.)
A further explanation can be found here.
   We eventually found ourselves in the activities room. Other members sat around the TV as Ms. Barbara started to lead current events and gave the weather. The activity that followed hit a soft spiritual spot within me. In the middle of the circle was a plant with a tall vase of water. Libations. Ms. Barbara asked if anyone knew what libations were. The thought that came to my mind was a Hindu process of worship called Shiva Linga in which devotees pour liquids over a sacred rock. 
  While we individually poured a little water into the plant, we spoke a name of one of our deceased ancestors. This simple ritual was followed by the lighting of incense. Using a feather, Ms. Barbara wafted the smoke towards us. Cleansing, as I have learned from my participation in a Lakota sweat lodge earlier this summer, smoke has several uses in Native American practices. It was moving, to say the least, to be in Philadelphia and have a strong recollection of being in Virginia in a sweat lodge. Coincidentally, one of the aspects in sweating and in Lakota traditions is a respect for the elderly. Among the members at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries (MNM), I felt close to God in that quick instance. 
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   The other woman we first encountered in the cafeteria was named Shirley. She picked me to be her "tutor." Ms. Barbara explained to us in our last visit what that title entails for the day. Shirley was illiterate until a year ago in which she learned the alphabet, spelling, and reading. Her tutor would continue helping her learn how to spell and read. I had no idea at what level she would be writing or reading, but when we began to write letters that would be sent to a former employee at MNM, I was blown away at her capacity to write as if she was literate from an early age. I could only think about how a commonly held belief today is that the brain is a sponge. And somewhere after a few years from birth, the sponge dries up and it becomes difficult to learn at the same quick rate as a developing child. Working with kids at summer camp throughout high school, I have no doubt seen that sponge effect work. It's incredible. Yet I was stunned to watch this woman write so simplistically. I was humbled. 
   But not humbled enough. Puzzles: one of the activities closely related to Bingo as one of the elderly's activities. Shirley wanted to work on her 300 piece Under the Sea puzzle which was vibrant with two octopi, a crab, and clown fish that she dubbed "Nemo." Talk about a lesson in patience. She worked twice as fast as I did putting pieces together at a rate I could never keep up with. I ripped through the box looking for matching colors. I thought that would help until I realized there were two octopi...I really didn't want to separate the two. I felt waves of stress crashing over me as the decisions of where to start looking to put pieces together, what went with what, and how dumb I must've looked to Shirley began to fill my head. 
  Time for us to go. 'Phew' was all I could think. Puzzle solving had me worked up. And before I knew it, goodbyes were exchanged, my service partners and I were back in the car, and I found myself in our own cafeteria eating another bowl of Lucky Charms for lunch, watching how the marshmallows connected as they floated on top of the milk. Like a puzzle... 

Monday, September 26, 2011

What's With the Ineffective Wanted Signs?

Many university campus security units must have campus alerts. A basic heads up and constant reminder for university students to be wary of their surroundings, I have been troubled by the content that is posted. While I cannot really put my finger on what is necessarily wrong, I feel that it is appropriate to discuss the effectiveness and side effects that derive from their frequent appearances. 
A little informal background information of my current area would include that west Philadelphia has a predominantly black neighborhood (so I've heard,) we are NOT the south district of Philly that has experienced new curfews, and students are constantly reminded to travel in packs of at least two if not three. 
Now, the last three campus wide alerts all report a crime against university students. The general format of the warnings start with a simple explanation of what happened, (maybe too simple because I have heard the same story retold with new facts added when people gossip over it.) My confusion or issue comes from the next segment of the alert; the description of the perpetrator/suspect. The third and final piece of the alert ends on a friendly reminder to avoid being alone. 
While there is a simple issue over how much facts should be shared with members of the university, I would argue too little information, which in the last three cases prove to be evident, allows for false rumors to spread. The idea of how much information is to be shared obviously has lots of strings attached, such as the privacy of the victims.
But nevertheless, the privacy of the perpetrator/suspect is not. And of course it isn't. Typically, a wanted sign pops up after a crime is committed when the perpetrator is not found. A victim or a witness recalls as best they can the details of the perpetrator-now-made suspect.
This process is attempted in campus alerts, so I have found. While a sketch gives university members (faculty, students, staff) a rough, sometimes inaccurate portrayal of the suspect, it still gives the brain something to remember. I find that the problem arises from the campus alert, which uses words alone because the victims in the three recent instances cannot recall their attacker. This allows for all the university to use their oh-so-creative minds to formulate what the suspect looks like. What's the problem in that?
Well, for one, it is ineffective and self-demoting for campus security to only possess the means to give a half-hearted description of a criminal. It would also help for you to know that the last three crimes that ended up on campus alerts were committed by "black" people. 
At this point, I am at a complete loss what to think. Is it racist to be identifying the criminals by their race? By no means is it when a complete description of the suspect is given. However, the only characteristic that is shared is the perpetrator's race. What's to be gained from the knowledge that one black male committed a crime in a predominantly black neighborhood? The last instance goes like this: "While the precise location of the assault remains unknown, it is believed that the assault occurred inside of what was perceived by the student reporting the assault to be a taxi-cab. The vehicle has been described as being either green and white or black and white." So are university students not suppose to enter taxi cabs with any color of the rainbow with a "black male, dark complexion with a raspy voice, no accent?"
Maybe I think in a teleological sense in which everything must have an end and a purpose. But really, with a description that vague, all the reader is left with is an incomplete description of a black cab driver. So maybe the message is stereotyping. Well, what does anyone take away from the campus alert then? Be wary of taxi drivers? "Also, please make a concerted effort to notice descriptors of vehicles, including taxi-cabs and details regarding the driver, when entering a vehicle."
I do see the value, the recompense, the equality in which the victim has a right to use the resources that are given. But when the positive effectiveness of his or her description is outweighed by the negative, is it not incriminating (to say the least) to just throw a description out there?
I can't decide what to think over this. Is it racist? I don't particularly think so. But what is it called then when the description gives no more evidence other than skin color? Maybe I am over-exaggerating the ineffectiveness of the recent campus alerts. But who is being kept safe by now knowing the last three crimes against university students were committed by one of the many black members of west Philadelphia?


Please share your thoughts and comments below as my opinion is far from being formulated. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Seeing the Underbelly of Philadelphia


My nerves were shot Tuesday morning. I have been spoiled this far in my first year at college: waking up incredibly early at 8:40 for my nine o’clock class. Rising for a reason non-Jack-schedule oriented was something new; Tuesday morning also marked the start of my complete first month spent away from home in my environment. Monumental, Tuesday was the gateway from my newly nested home to the bare, gray world of North Philadelphia.
                Service Learning was one of my highest reasons for coming to Saint Joseph's University. In order to continue a path of service for (and now with-as the Jesuits have put it) others, I have been anxious to begin. Having the luxury of choosing where in Philly I would go, there has been nothing but bright lights, the beautiful downtown area, and cheery SEPTA workers. Home back in Virginia was nothing like this except for the shared sense of nonchalance that came with my absent-minded consumerism on the weekends. I have to admit that the cool weather this past weekend set a pretty scene among the gridlock, but a cold front must have moved in as Tuesday saw nothing but rain.
                I drove to Mercy Neighborhood Ministries. Consequently, my perspective of my new home and its surroundings drastically changed. In a car there is safety, comfort, and protection from our external world. All of these qualities could be seen in a positive light, but having not driven for a month, I had become quite comfortable walking to classes, to SEPTA, to eat, to survive. Now, the car gave me status, a leg up on any of my neighbors in the community that had to still walk. I subconsciously judged in the slightest of ways as our 35 mile per hour speed allowed for us to zoom by anyone else I would have had to look in the eye, say hello, or walk awkwardly by without even a nod. Cut off from my surroundings as I drove to engage with the community, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.

                My father pointed in the paper to the new curfew that was set six weeks ago in Philadelphia within our sun-filled family room. I knew that community service would enable me to go at the beast head on when I reached Philadelphia; single-handedly solve all the city’s issues through Jesuit tradition! But this past Tuesday sang a different tune; one of bleakness and a never ending depth. It must have been the clouds as we drove over the Delaware River, which in my mind, had been the line drawn between my home and the great unknown.
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                My two service partners, Graziella and Earl, sat in our gold Ford Focus as we snaked through elevated cemeteries. Eerie. I felt twice as far away from home, wherever that was now, as we passed garbage-strewn streets. Litter, shady sections of cities, and the hair standing on the back of my neck have all been past experiences. It irked me, nonetheless, when the realization hit me that I would be serving here.
                I have done PACEM meals, I have worked with kids with chronic illnesses, and I have volunteered for the Special Olympics. None of the above had placed me into the direct area where my new community partners lived. Frustrated when the MapQuest directions ended with us a block away from our actual destination (without me knowing our proximity,) I panicked. Ask Graziella or Earl. I did not want to park and walk aimlessly in the hope of finding our endpoint.
                Once inside, we had a second set of doors to go through. But there was a doorbell that rang at the front desk. Again, this was a small difference from something I am familiar with back home. As to the people inside, they had nothing but smiles. Strong smiles. There was no falsehood in their words, especially Ms. Barbara, who toured us around. Leaving, I could not decide whether the five and six year olds’ smiles out did the elderly’s, or vice versa, but both rekindled my passion to get involved.

                But our thirty-six minute meet and greet had us back in the Focus sooner than we expected as I timed every little detail for our trip next Tuesday. I took note of where the young children would walk to school after coming to Mercy Neighborhood in the morning. I saw several people out and about. I wished that the immediate area had somehow cheered up as the sun came out, but I realized that dedication and diligence was more needed than wishful thinking.
                I had the luxury of sitting co-pilot on the return trip. We passed many abandoned buildings. It seemed as if every other shop was boarded up. I recognized the SEPTA emblem at a bus stop. There is a connection between the community across the river and us university students, and it is more than the transportation system.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lessons from Prison: Learning To Make the Hard Right


               Justin Paperny looked like a prestigious business man; the nice suit, the expensive watch that reflected one too many times into my eyes, and the composure of a sophisticated man. Yet there appeared anguish in his eyes that my almost-front row seat allowed me to catch. There, his past rested. I knew no more than that he was about to speak on white-collar crimes, a foreign concept to a humanities major. Nevertheless, his diction and speaking skills, both of which emanated his valued education, enabled me to follow his story.
               Before getting straight to the point, which must be what any business man does I presume, Mr. Paperny gave a short disclosure. “I speak in absolutes. I have no intention in indicting you or your future of becoming what my past was. I have been told I do not come across as remorseful. By the end of this talk, if you share that opinion, then I should never be invited back to speak to you again.”
               For the next fifty minutes, Mr. Paperny relived a business catastrophe in which he lost everything. As one might expect, his story started with his high post-graduation business expectations that led him down a path of quick money in return for compromising his ethics and morals. His tone suggested that he was still strong; resilient even after imprisonment. Still, I could see the pain and chaos that ensued shortly after his graduation.
               While his crime basically entailed taking a simple six million dollar hedge fund to get back at his sly business partner, (who happened to be taking 75% of the commission while Paperny received the other twenty-five,) he promised his client the impossible. His switch from Merrill-Lynch to Bear-Stearns depicted his growing greed and constant dissatisfaction with being the “rookie.” While his initial salary at Merrill-Lynch, a meager $100,000 for his first six months out of University of Southern California, was not enough, Paperny looked to Bear-Stearns where he was bullied into taking only 25% of the shared commission by his senior-partner. “Kenny” was not aware of the new six million dollar transaction that Paperny alone would handle and receive the full commission and responsibility over.
               The issue began when Bear-Sterns introduced a new policy shortly before Paperny received the six million dollar client, a former colleague at USC. Paperny recalls how he knew this business partner was shady even in college. The policy stated that no funds under $100,000 were acceptable for Bear-Stearns. When approached by this former colleague, Paperny was quickly made aware that many of the accounts and funds that he would be dealing with did not make this standard. Nevertheless, bribed by money and revenge against his senior partner Kenny, Paperny took the client.
               Among other crimes that somehow or another played into the major decision Paperny made were listening to senior brokers lie to new clients asking how their company was doing in the past year. The percent of growth switched from 25% to 27% and Paperny sat and listened to these repeated lies. One thing led to another, and when the FBI came knocking at Paperny’s door, he lied about the events listed above, deepening his crime.
               The interesting thing about Mr. Paperny was that when asked after his talk about whether or not there was a set number of clients he would take like the six million dollar one in order to get back at Kenny and the deficit created between the unevenly split commission, he said there was. He calculated five years of taking hedge funds and brokers without Kenny’s knowledge. However, even as human as his calculation made him out to be (instead of some heartless machine,) he was not any more above the law and was unable to make it five complete years with his illegal activities.
               He also spoke about his upbringing. “There was no inclination from my childhood that I was to become a criminal. Ask me how my childhood was…Perfect.” I immediately thought how he contradicted every study, every belief that suggests the childhood is the most important developmental period in one’s life. He also disproved that living successfully implied that he was living a fulfilled life. Another life lesson he explicitly stated was he knew when he was in the wrong. He knew when he crossed the line, and anyone with an education should easily be able to determine what is right and wrong, especially in the business world.
Furthermore, he put it to the whole audience that when faced any decisions, business or some other field of work, to always make the hard right. “I know that no one in this room will end up in prison like I did. But only some of you will be strong enough to make the right decision.” He painted a picture that was all too familiar to him; one in which a group of high-ranking bosses, business partners, and colleagues sat and discussed unethical decisions. Noting that it is not difficult to stand up and do what is right, he still challenged us when we graduate to make the hard right and save ourselves the prison time in which he learned to do just that.
  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Starting Back Up

The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing, and Everything In BetweenWell, after a long absence from blogging due to my extended post-highschool summer, I am back to work as a full time student. One of the nice things about being a student (as opposed to being a lowly member of the work force) is the academic exposure to literature. Possibly due to my lack of literature maturity, I have a great appreciation for professors and teachers alike that take students by the hand and lead us through various literary materials; plays, manuscripts, stories, novels, bibles-you name it, it sure beats reading The Freshman Survival Guide to College as a deep read! In addition to using my spiritual and philosophical classes as launch pads for blog posts, I had some really interesting and life changing experiences through out the summer. Hiking was a reoccurring theme that establish a large part of my identity before I embarked for my new life at college. I also had the wonderful opportunity to be the low man on the totem pole at a restaurant and work my way up to being a waiter-(a juicy topic filled with many a spiritual lesson.) Among the hectic and ever-so quick goodbyes before my grand departure, I did find the time to partake in a sweat lodge which had a profound impact on my personal faith. To say the least, there is much for me to write and reflect further upon as my academic year expands. Hopefully, I will be able to churn out some essays and, most-definitely, responses to   other bloggers that I should be following a little more closely! Eventually some in-depth reflections will come out as well!