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Life In the Time of Corona (First in an unlimited series)

Life In the Time of Corona--First in an unlimited series
Baseball, where are ye?
by Chuck Cascio
chuckwrites@yahoo.com
 
Baseball, where are ye?
 
To me, you have always represented the start of the new year—
 
the presence of spring and time spent outdoors amid flowering trees and watching kids take on the challenge of the bat and ball;
 
the promise of summer ahead, replete with the gentle call of family, cookouts, beaches, and surf;
 
the ultimate beauty of fall with a series of games that defy analysis, challenge athleticism, and truly identify the sport's heroes;
 
Come back, baseball! 
 
Soon! 
 
You are missed!

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copyright text and photo: Chuck Cascio, all rights reserved.

 

The Movie "Just Mercy"--See. Think. Act

The Movie Just Mercy

See. Think. Act.

by

Chuck Cascio

     If you have not yet seen the movie Just Mercy, you should put it on your "must do" list, especially during Black History Month. It is a true story that provides viewers with reminders of past injustices, the realization that injustices still exist, and the sense of how much must be done to eliminate those injustices in the future. 

     Be prepared to feel uncomfortable but in a meaningful, important way when viewing Just Mercy. And the movie will also make you aware that there are people who truly commit their lives to eliminating injustice...and those people are the real, little-known heroes of history.

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     Just Mercy is the story of African American Bryan Stevenson (played powerfully by Michael A. Jordan), a young, Harvard-educated attorney, who in the late 1980s goes to Alabama to defend prisoners wrongly imprisoned and those not provided proper representation. The movie focuses on one case in particular--that of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx, in a moving performance), an African American in Alabama sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old girl despite abundant evidence proving his innocence. The movie captures the racism and the legal and political obstacles Stevenson encounters while fighting for McMillian's life and the lives of many other prisoners.  

   The film is produced by Participant, a media company committed to developing entertainment that inspires positive social change, and the story succeeds in encouraging viewers to recognize the inequalities that existed in the era of this movie and those that still exist today. For me, a Boomer who moved from Brooklyn to Northern Virginia as a kid in the 1950s, the movie brought back uncomfortable memories from my youth. And it reminded me that, 30 years later during the years in which Just Mercy takes place, those injustices were still evident...and that too many still exist today albeit in less immediately obvious ways. Some of the realities the film brought back to me from my childhood:

     >>> Seeing signs above restrooms and water fountains and elsewhere that said, "Coloreds" and others that said, "Whites."

     >>> The street signs on motels that specified, "Coloreds not allowed."

     >>> Raw anger rippling through some classmates as Northern Virginia started to integrate schools.

     >>> The time an African American musician friend of mine was given a different menu at a restaurant from the one I was given, the prices on his menu several times more expensive than the prices on mine. We walked out, and as we were leaving someone behind us said, "Well, you can't say that we refused to serve him."

     And, sadly, there are many more from my 1950s-60s childhood. Incidents that confused me, incidents that my parents made sure I recognized as wrong, incidents that still run through my head. They are especially vivid when I see a movie like Just Mercy, so much so that I believe the movie should be shown to high school students and discussed in depth with them. The story is ideal for a conversation around racial injustice, where it has been, where it exists today, and what needs to be done about it in the future.

     As Just Mercy reveals, Bryan Stevenson did more than commit himself to a couple of years worth of work for the unjustly incarcerated. He formed the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989, a nonprofit organization that, as stated on its website (www.eji.org),

“…provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. We challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment and we provide re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people.” 

     There is much work to be done. According to the Pew Research Center, African Americans represent only 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Hispanics make up 16% of the adult population and account for 23% of inmates. Whites comprise 64% of adults and 30% of prisoners.  

     In these swirling, fast-paced times it is important to remind ourselves of the realities of past injustices, to take time to look closely at the current lives of minorities, and to take steps for a more equitable future. So here are three things to consider doing, any one of which will stimulate thinking and expand the much-needed conversation:

1) Just see the movie.

2) Think about, document, and/or discuss your own experiences regarding racism.

3) Go to the Equal Justice Initiative website (www.eji.org) and explore it, looking especially at the various materials developed for classroom use, which can also be used  in less-formal discussions with today's youths.

   Doing any of these will stimulate thoughts about where we were, where we are, and where we are headed. Sometimes mercy emerges from discomfort.

Copyright Chuck Cascio; all rights reserved.

World Series Champs with a Lesson Beyond Baseball

WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS WITH A LESSON BEYOND BASEBALL

By

Chuck Cascio

chuckwrites@yahoo.com

      We were doing Baby Shark!

     We were slapping high fives with strangers!

     We were cheering like children while surrounded by thousands of people our age and, yes, small packs of gleeful kids!

      My wife and I and two dear friends were part of the massive crowd at Nats Park in Washington, DC, watching on a giant TV screen that rainy night of October 30 as the Washington Nationals baseball team—who persisted throughout a difficult regular season with the motto “Stay In the Fight!”—brought the first World Series championship to Washington since 1924. And amid the cheering and hugging, I was taken by the realization that something more significant than a World Series victory was happening. 

     

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Nats Park wasted no time saluting the champions!

      I have always been enthralled with the uniqueness of baseball. And while all sports at virtually all levels from youth through pros have the potential to deliver responses from fans that border on pandemonium, the seventh game of the World Series is special. It marks the culmination of the longest season in all of sports, a sport that has countless nuances to analyze and interactions that require instant response from players, such as:

     >>>judging in a split second where that 95 miles per hour pitch is headed from just 60 feet, six inches away;    

     >>>calculating at the literal crack of a bat where a ball that is launched high into the sky, sunlight, or stadium lights will land; 

     >>>determining while running full speed if you should turn the corner and risk going to the next base or play it safe and stay where you are. 

     Baseball players' athleticism may stay dormant for innings and hours at a time and then, in one chaotic moment, they may find themselves in a spontaneous burst of reaction, speed, strength, and skill that determines the outcome of a game.

     As the Nats expressed their unlimited youthful glee (we watched on the giant screen as they danced, embraced, jumped joyfully, and laughed at their own Baby Shark impersonations) and the crowd reacted in kind, it was apparent that this was a period of pure joy in a city dominated by politics, a city whose events are too often wedded to talking points, a city whose beauty and history sometimes need an innocent event to reveal its charms, charms reflected in the core of its populace.

     I have no idea—nor do I care—about the political preferences of the strangers whose hands I was slapping, whose embraces I shared. We were all of the same mind in those moments. And something in the row in front of ours made a particularly strong impact on me that night:

     In that row, a group of 10 or so men and women who appeared to be in their late teens reacted with uninhibited, spontaneous, genuine exuberance. Hardcore baseball fans? Maybe; I don’t know, but I saw them experiencing feelings they will remember forever, something that I want more of for them...for my own family...for my friends...for everyone whether it comes from an athletic achievement, a personal accomplishment, or a simple moment in time that we recognize as unique. 

     Appreciation and happiness can surprise us at any time and, of course, baseball is not the only thing that can stimulate those responses. But a professional baseball team did it in Washington, DC, on that night, and my guess is that even those World Champion Washington Nationals players do not fully realize the lasting impact they made on the people of a city. 

     Thanks, Nats. 

     Thanks, baseball. 

     Thanks, fans. 

     Thanks, Baby Shark!

Copyright Chuck Cascio; all rights reserved.

WAR IN THE RING--A unique book about boxing, Hitler, and WWII

WAR IN THE RING:
Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, and the Fight between America and Hitler—
by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro
A BOOK WRITTEN FOR KIDS, BUT STIMULATING FOR EVERYONE
by Chuck Cascio
     Those of us of (ahem!) a certain age have heard numerous stories about World War II. Perhaps our parents or grandparents served in the military during those years, or perhaps our families were dramatically impacted by the hatred that spread around the world, or perhaps we have a specific, lingering image someone described to us about the world at that time. 
     I am sure many of today’s youth know the realities of that era--the living conditions in the United States, the surge of Nazism, and the attempts people made to "normalize" their lives—and I am sure many others do not. I am also certain that all could benefit from knowing more, especially if the history of that time is presented in a way that ties together the social, political, and sports worlds in a unique manner. Which brings me to the incredibly insightful, highly readable book, War in the Ring: Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, and the Fight between America and Hitler, by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro.

war in the ring

     The authors combine the realities of racism, Nazi power, war, sports, and humanity in compelling non-fiction that stimulates thinking and curiosity about the era. The book is intended for middle-school students, but the writing does not talk down to anyone. As a former high school teacher, I can easily how the book could be used to engage teens in unique discussions of that time. By weaving the lives and profiles of the boxers—African American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling—against the rise of Hitler and WWII, War in the Ring provides an intriguing look at history for readers of all ages.
     Louis and Schmeling fought twice—once in 1936 and again in 1938. With the turmoil rising in the world during those years, each man came to represent his respective country and each became a national symbol. The authors describe how Louis also carried the burden of being a black man in Jim Crow America. And when Louis, who was born amid the cotton fields of Alabama and raised in Detroit, lost the first match badly, it registered as a defeat for America. At the same time, Schmeling's win brought him lavish praise from Hitler himself and other Nazi leaders who saw it as a national victory. 
    Things changed dramatically two years later. Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round and emerged as one of the nation's first African American heroes, a symbol of hope in the United States. In Germany, Schmeling was ignored by nationalists and ostracized by Hitler himself.
     While many books do a fine job of capturing the World War II era, War in the Ring stands out because it is written in a novel-like manner and ties historical fact with societal and personal realities. By describing two men who grew up in poverty and used boxing as an attempt to improve their lives as the backdrop for the realities of war and all its suffering, authors Florio and Shapiro succeed in creating a grim metaphor for various aspects of life in that era. Here’s an example from the Prologue of the kind of thought-provoking imagery found throughout the book:

     “As the two fighters climb through the ropes, the overhead lights beaming down on them, men and women across the United States lean in to their radios, hanging on the outcome.

     “In Germany, it’s the middle of the night, but millions of residents have their lights on and their radios tuned to the broadcast coming over the phone lines.

      “The bell rings.”
 
      On a factual level, those words provide a picture not generally associated with war, but on a metaphorical level, the words capture the world at the time…a world in which the United States was about to step “through the ropes” and the bell was, in fact, about to ring.
     Read War in the Ring for yourself, read it with your kids or grandkids or students you teach but, most important, take some time to discuss what it is saying beyond the world of sports and the world of politics. Take time to appreciate what it illuminates about striving to normalize daily life amid the turmoil of conflict.
THE END
Copyright: Chuck Cascio; all rights reserved.
 

ENLIGHTENED...by "BLINDED BY THE LIGHT"

ENLIGHTENED...by BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

By

Chuck Cascio

     My students were adamant: "You have to listen to this guy, Mr. C.! You love Dylan, so you have to hear this guy!" One young woman waved a cassette tape in my face.

     Me: "Whoever this guy is, he is not Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is a poet, the voice of the heart and of the conscience."

     Students: "But, Mr. C., you always tell us to try new things! You always say: 'Trying new things broadens your thinking and creativity.' So come on!”

     It was 1973 and I was a young English and Journalism teacher at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, VA. I loved my students' reactions when I had them analyze lyrics by Dylan and apply them to the socio-political climate of the time, or when I would play a Beach Boys song and ask them something seemingly bizarre like, “Equate their harmonies with the textured flow of a Dickinson poem.” At first, they would look at me confused, skeptical, but gradually they would dig in and they would come up with analogies I never dreamed of. Now, they were convinced, it was my turn to grow.

     So I relented: “Okay, so who is it that you want me to listen to? This ‘Dylan Equivalent?' "

     They did not waste a second. A cassette player appeared, the  tape was snapped in, and the entire class stood in a circle, smiling in anticipation as they awaited my reaction.

     The first sounds I heard from the recording were surprisingly appealing--a couple of engaging guitar riffs, a subtle drumbeat, another guitar floating through, hinting at something different. A few seconds passed and I was interested--not yet hooked, but interested. Then I heard the raspy, almost whispered words…

     "Sandy, the fireworks are hailin' over little Eden tonight

     Forcin' a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this fourth of July..."

…and just two lines in, I knew I had to hear the rest. I listened intently, while my students nudged one another and some softly sang along with Bruce Springsteen's "Fourth of July, Asbury Park."

     My students did what they knew they could do--they hooked me on Bruce, and over the years I have thought often about that classroom experience (and many others)—and about how much we all have to learn by listening, looking, sharing. 

     That day, and those feelings, rushed back recently when my wife and I went to see the movie Blinded By the Light, which is based on the true story of a young Pakistani man facing the racism of late 1980s England. A friend turns the young man on to Springsteen, and his life is changed by The Boss's lyrics and music. 

     In the movie, Springsteen’s songs contribute to the young man’s development of personal strength. He experiences new insights into society. His thinking is influenced by many of Springsteen's lyrics, including one that especially hits home with him…and me… from the song "The Price You Pay": 

          “Now they'd come so far and they'd waited so long

         Just to end up caught in a dream where everything goes wrong

         Where the dark of night holds back the light of the day

         And you've gotta stand and fight for the price you pay…”

     I won't go into what are, to me, the rather obvious applications those particular lines have to life today. But it makes me think back to the 1970s when the kids I taught were experiencing a continuing era of overt racism, conflict over segregation versus desegregation, worldwide economic turmoil, a foreign war that was not formally termed a “war” by politicians of the time, talks of impeaching the president and more...and I wonder:   

     Exactly how far have we come? 

     Those kids in my classroom found a reality in the songs of Springsteen, and they shared that reality with one another and, fortunately,  with me. But they also heard and shared an element of change and a sense that life is fleeting, that people must determine what is right and what they want to pursue, and that the opportunity for personal or social change always exists…though sometimes with a price.

     Sure, they might metaphorically catch their shirts, as “Fourth of July, Asbury Park” says, on that "tilt-a-whirl down on the south beach drag" that "kept me spinnin'/I didn't think I'd ever get off…" but there is also this bit of hope at the end of the song:

          “…the aurora is rising behind us

         This pier lights our carnival life forever

         Oh, love me tonight and I promise I'll love you forever…”

     None of this is to imply that Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or some singer-songwriter today has all of the answers to the looming socio-political issues we face or to the vast personal questions today’s youths confront. But the movie Blinded By the Light  emphasizes the importance of capturing the elements of hope and change, grabbing onto them, and not being afraid to “stand and fight for the price you pay.”

     Our natural instinct is to hope that the price we pay is not too high and that what we pay for will have a lasting positive effect for us and for all. As Springsteen warns in his song "Better Days," we shouldn't be "just sittin' around waitin' for my life to begin/While it was all just slippin' away." 

     I don’t know what happened to most of those students I had all those years ago, the ones who felt comfortable enough to have me listen to Springsteen, knowing that I would be captivated by The Boss. I do hope that they are all and that they still enjoy his music, that they also see how his words apply to today’s world, and that they have lived with this simple lyric in mind from Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”:

          “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

     If you want to rekindle that fire, go see Blinded By the Light. It brings back memories, but more important, it serves as a reminder that art can spark meaningful thought, and that we are all responsible for starting our own fires.

Copyright: Chuck Cascio. All rights reserved.