My First True Taste of Michigan v. Michigan State Football

The Paul Bunyan Trophy. To Michigan State fans, this is what they play for each year. To University of Michigan fans, this is the 2nd most important game of the year, only to Ohio State, which is usually played for the Big Ten title. Sorry Spartans, that’s just how it goes.


1990 was an odd year in college football. The season ended with a split national title between Colorado and Georgia Tech. Colorado was helped along by the famous 5th down against Missouri, and what Notre Dame fans call the “phantom clip” in the Orange Bowl, which negated a 91 yard, game winning, and national title winning, touchdown from Raghib Ismail. The controversy surrounding the season led to the creation of the Bowl Coalition, the prototype for the BCS.


I was 14 years old, and getting the chance to see my first Michigan v. Michigan State game at the Big House in Ann Arbor. I had watched the games on TV, and school was always heated the week before this game, because my friends and I were always split pretty evenly. This was bragging rights for the rest of the year. Even though I had been to some big games, I still could not be prepared for the atmosphere that awaited us in Ann Arbor that day.


Michigan was coming into the game 3-1 and ranked #1 in the nation. The fact that a one-loss team was #1 after week four should have been an indication as to the kind of wild season 1990 ended up being. For Michigan, this was the first season since 1968 that Bo Schembechler was not patrolling the sidelines, and throwing his head phones, hat, and whatever else he could get a hold of. There was pressure on Gary Moeller to follow in the steps of a legend. His offense featured 3 sophomores – Elvis Grbac at quarterback, Derrick Alexander at wide receiver, and Desmond Howard at wide receiver. Nobody knew who these guys were, or what impact they would have in the future. The star of the offense was running back Jon Vaughn (who was a typical “between the tackles” Michigan running back in the style of Chris Perry, Tim Biakabatuka, Chris Howard, and Leroy Hoard), along with a massive offensive line. Moeller installed a no-huddle offense, which at the time was being used heavily by Sam Wyche and the Cincinnati Bengals.


Michigan State came in unranked with a 1-2-1 record, behind their veteran coach George Perles. They had just graduated several key players in the prior two years, and were working with several relatively unknown guys with a decent amount of talent. Their quarterback was Dan Enos, who was a slick, shifty, smart quarterback. He didn’t have a great arm, but made up for it with good decisions. They also had a two-headed monster at running back – Tico Duckett and Hyland Hickson. Both of them were sturdy, quick, hard-hitting runners who could wear down a defense.


Both teams started the game by going right down field and scoring a touchdown. Michigan used a mix of pass and run to move the ball, while the Spartans ran the ball right down the throat of the Michigan defense, with Enos running a quarterback keeper for the score. Later in the first, Michigan was again driving when they got first and goal on the Spartan 3 yard line. After 4 runs out of the wish-bone, Michigan turned the ball over on downs at the MSU 1-yard line. After this, the game turned into a typical “3 yards and a cloud of dust” Big Ten football match-up. Both teams were focused on the run primarily, and they were hitting each other hard.


Another thing to mention came in the 2nd quarter, when time was running down on the half, and MSU had the ball. With about 26 seconds left, Enos was pressured into throwing an interception. Immediately, Grbac threw a deep route to Desmond Howard, and Michigan had a chip-shot field goal attempt going into half-time. They missed. I remember thinking at the time that those 3 points were going to prove costly in the end.


The third quarter again saw the teams trade touchdowns, making the score 14-14 going into the 4th quarter. The moment the game turned is easy to find – it was when Elvis Grbac threw an interception near midfield. This gave MSU momentum, and they used it. It is odd how little I remember of the prior 3 quarters of this game, but the 4th seems to go on forever in my mind, as I watch both teams march up and down the field and beat each other up. I would swear to you that the teams score more points than they did, because of the action and intensity, but somehow I have managed to blow it up in my mind.


Michigan State scored on a 26-yard run from Hyland Hickson to make the game 21-14, in favor of the Spartans. Next, they kicked off to Desmond Howard, who caught the ball at the 5 yard line, and sprinted 95 yards for a touchdown. When I think of the most electric moment I have ever seen in sports, this is it. Michigan Stadium at this time was not considered a loud stadium, but I swear the place exploded, and the noise was deafening. A lightning storm could not have added more electricity to the stadium than it had at that moment. It was simply magical. This is the play that made me a die-hard college football fan.


UM then kicked off to the Spartans, and MSU proceeded to again run the ball down the throats of the Wolverines. They were doing a good job of killing time while also getting into scoring range. Tico Duckett finally scored a touchdown with 1:59 left on the clock.


Michigan now got the ball back down by 7. With a young quarterback and receiving unit, we had no clue how they would respond. Grbac managed to convert two 4th down plays and one 3rd down play as they moved down field to get within striking range. With 6 seconds left, Grbac threw to Derrick Alexander in the end zone for the touchdown. Now the decision was 1 point or 2.


Since this was before overtime in college, a tie for the number 1 team in the nation did nothing for that team. There was no doubt Michigan was going for the win. They lined up with 3 wide receivers, and put one in motion to isolate Desmond Howard on the left side. When the ball was snapped, Howard put a great move on the corner, who fell down. As he was falling, he reached out and grabbed Howard’s ankle, causing Howard to stumble. The ball hit Howard in the chest as he was falling, and when he hit the ground, the ball also squirted out. The referees called an incomplete pass. The problem was, Michigan fans 1) thought it was a catch, and 2) thought it was pass-interference. There were fans on the field, and confusion everywhere. This was also before instant replay. The refs stuck to their call, and debate continues to this day, although the scoreboard will never change. I still claim it was the worst no-call I have ever seen in my life (and yes, it was worse than “Clockgate”). Spartan fans have no idea what I am talking about.


That is what I love about rivalry games. 19 years later, and the play sticks out in my head just as clearly as when it happened. Games like that also keep the rivalry vital even if the two teams are not at their best year after year. Bring on the Michigan v. Michigan State game, 2009 edition!


The 1919 Chicago White Sox Revisited

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal. The scandal was that 8 players on the Chicago White Sox conspired (or at least had knowledge of the conspiracy) to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Chicago was heavily favored over Cincinnati going into the series, which tempted bookies and players a little too much. The lure of money would be the downfall of the White Sox team. In 1920, the 8 players involved were all banned from baseball for life.


I was thinking about the circumstances surrounding this issue. We could not imagine professional players intentionally losing a game or a series today for a potential payout and lifetime ban from their sport. The main reason is that players are paid extremely well in all 4 professional sports in America. In addition, each league has numerous advantages over the athletes who played in the early 1900s. What are these advantages, and what conditions caused the White Sox to throw a World Series?


Let’s start with Free Agency. Major League Baseball Players were not recognized as free agents until 1975. For the previous 96 years, baseball worked under the “reserve clause.” This was an agreement among the owners that even after a contract on a player expired, the rights to that player still belonged to the team he was playing for. In other words, when a player completed his contract, no other owner would sign him. This made sure salaries were controlled by the owners, because they collectively agreed that if one owner broke this agreement, salaries would rapidly get unmanageable. The goal was to protect the investment and profits of the owners, and it worked.


What would happen if a player claimed his free agency anyway? The owners came up with a “blacklist,” which basically was a list compiled by individual owners each year to pass around. Once you were on the list, you didn’t get signed by other teams, and you weren’t allowed to make your living at baseball anymore. The only ways to legitimately change teams would be to get released from your team, or traded to another team. Every option was dictated by the owners.


Why not create a new major league? This was attempted several times as well. The American League began in 1901 with the idea that the players would receive better treatment by owners, and more pay. They soon adopted the reserve clause, and made nice with the National League. The last, best attempt for another major league came in 1914 with the Federal League. The timing could not have been worse, because after 2 seasons funds dried up and the nation was soon off to war. Because so many players jumped to this league, the owners did waive the “blacklist” for a short time to allow players to return to the American or National Leagues and resume playing under the reserve clause.


Why not do what modern Americans would do – sue the owners? The players did, and in 1922 (3 years after the 1919 World Series) the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the reserve clause was not interstate commerce, so it was exempt from anti-trust laws. In other words, even the U.S. Justice Department wasn’t going to mess with this one. Curt Flood also took his case for free agency to the Supreme Court in 1969. He lost 5-3.


What about the Players Union? There were several attempts in the 1800s and early 1900s for players to organize themselves under a union. All of them failed, mainly for lack of consistent funding or ability to agree as a group. The Players Association was formed in 1953, and became the de facto union. Though it wasn’t called a union for decades, it did serve the functions of a union. This was the first organized union that lasted more than 1 year in the history of professional baseball.


Before unionization, player representatives were invited to owners meetings, in 1946. Again, this was far too late to have an impact on early professional ballplayers. Still, at the first owners meeting with players in 1946, the reserve clause was brought up. The owners were able to keep the clause by giving the players the pension fund they had been requesting for decades.


The only leverage ballplayers had themselves was their own ability to play. Players could, and did strike. The problem was without a union to back them, all strikes were small, involving individual players, or maybe a team, but never an entire league. The first organized strike in baseball occurred in 1972. In the 1918 World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both teams did threaten to strike before game 5. The reason was that neither team felt they were getting proper bonuses for leading their teams to the Fall Classic. This shows that player conditions had reached a boiling point in professional baseball, and things needed to change. How did the owners keep the teams from striking? They reminded the players that the country was at war, and a strike would only look greedy to the public. After the series, neither owner did anything to alleviate the conditions, which led into 1919.


Now, let’s imagine you are a player for the 1919 Chicago White Sox. You are on the best team in baseball. You play in a league that is run, ruled, and dictated by owners. You have seen all attempts to unionize fail, and every alternative major league fold. You don’t want to claim your free agency, for fear you will be blacklisted. You have seen how even strikes don’t really work. Yet, you love your job, and you love playing. What would you do?


I see the Black Sox scandal as 2 things: 1) This was an attempt by players to earn the pay they deserved, and 2) this was a desperate attempt by players to shake up the rules all professional ballplayers had to play by. The owners held all of the cards, and players operated under conditions that would not be acceptable in any other work place in America at the time.


I would like to see the current commissioner of baseball take a hard look at the conditions that made the 1919 World Series occur. I do not condone intentionally throwing a contest, especially for gambling purposes. I also don’t condone the reserve clause and the blacklist that made it possible for players to consider taking gambling money to replace money they weren’t getting from their clubs. This isn’t just about 8 players who tarnished the game of baseball. This is also about greedy owners who manipulated and milked a system for their own profit and gain.


In a world where Alex Rodriguez can keep playing after being caught cheating, and where Michael Vick can get reinstated after his deplorable acts, I ask that we give the 1919 Chicago White Sox the dignity of at least being reinstated in baseball. Their acts were no better or no worse than current athletes, but if they would have been treated fairly all along, they would never have even considered committing them. Let’s judge their acts properly, in light of what we know today.

A Stadium By Any Other Name…

This last weekend I was able to attend my first University of Kansas football game. It seems like my whole life I have been going to college football games, because my grandfather had season tickets to University of Michigan football for several decades. When I think of late summer or fall, I get so nostalgic over football, especially college football.  This is my favorite time of year.


I was pretty pumped about my first experience with KU football. I had not attended a college football game since 2005, when I witnessed a Florida v. Florida State contest in the “Swamp” of Gainesville, Florida. The intensity of that game was every bit as awesome as the intensity I felt watching Ohio State, Michigan State, or Notre Dame in the “Big House.”


As I was watching Kansas pummel poor Duke, I was thinking of whether the Kansas field, Memorial Stadium, had its own nickname, much like the “Big House” or the “Swamp.” I looked it up after I returned home, and did not see one out there. I decided I would try to propose a few suggestions, and then throw it out to some KU grads to see if any of them have traction.


Way back in the 1860’s, when KU was in its infancy, the people running the school decided they wanted to copy the University of Michigan colors or Maize and Blue for their athletic department. This stuck until the 1880’s, when they changed to Crimson and Blue (for Harvard and Yale). My first thought of a nickname comes as a nod to the University of Michigan – “The Little House.” I thought of this for 2 reasons – 1) Memorial Stadium has only 50,071 in capacity (less than half of the “Big House”), and 2) the Little House on the Prairie is located in Independence, KS, which gives it a bit of a geographical and historical connection. The problem with this name is it doesn’t strike fear into any opponents.  It conjures up images of pre-teen girls running around fields of tallgrass.


Next I thought of the shape of the stadium, which is a horseshoe. Ohio Stadium, where Ohio State plays, is nicknamed the “Horseshoe” or the “Shoe.” It wouldn’t be very creative to simply copy that, so I thought what about the “Slipper?” This, again comes from the movie most associated with Kansas, The Wizard of Oz. I kind of liked that name, because it brings to mind the underdog persona that KU football represents. The problem is, the stadium is shaped like a horseshoe, not a slipper.


On the same note with The Wizard of Oz, why not just nickname the stadium “Oz.” This would be kind of like “Death Valley,” which you hear from Clemson and LSU. It has the chance to strike fear in opponents who will see it as a place of flying monkeys and other oddities, which might just be enough to throw them off their game. I could see fans in the student section really getting creative with that one, too. My concern for that is Kansas State University has just as much claim on the name as KU. It might work, though.  We just need somebody to take the name.


I also thought of just keeping it simple. The Kansas City Royals play at Kauffman Stadium, which has been nicknamed the “K.” It works. Why not call Memorial Stadium the “M?” It doesn’t work.


Next I was thinking of something that would invoke images of the “Swamp” in Gainesville. Since the mascot is a bird, although a mythical one, why not call the stadium the “Coop?” This would invoke images of a cage and chicken wire (which may remind people of professional wrestling and road houses), and it may also bring to mind rabid fans and a hostile atmosphere. This one as well has potential, but Jayhawks and chickens are not at all alike.


The last name I came up with brings to mind what is most prevalent about the stadium – the track which surrounds the field. In addition to this, Kansas has historically been a track & field powerhouse (not so much these days, but it has produced some legendary runners in the past), and the field currently hosts the Kansas relays each year. Because of this, I came up with the name the “Track.” It’s simple, and it would mean something to the people of Kansas more so than other areas, but it definitely has a local feel to it which would invoke pride.


There are my ideas. I wonder what others think.  Let’s hear your ideas.  I will also run this by some KU grads, who may pass it on, and maybe something will get started. I do think that a nickname would help strike fear in opponents who come to play at the stadium, and help this program get back to respectability for the long term.  

Friday Market in Amman

Fridays in the Middle East are the days that everything shuts down, and everyone goes to a local mosque. It is almost eerie to be in a city of millions where traffic is constantly seconds away from grid lock, and suddenly finding the streets completely empty just because it is Friday. It’s kind of like going out on Christmas day in America, except temperatures are generally hot, and it happens once a week.


In Amman, my friend Steve lives just a couple of blocks from the public market, which is open only on Fridays. It sets up in the middle of a normally busy street, because there are a lot of stalls and people rolling through this thing. There is very little planning involved with regard to the layout of the market stalls; they are quite literally thrown together. In addition, because of the heat and sun, tarps get thrown up in a disorganized fashion over each stall to protect us all from heat stroke.


In short, the Friday market is a crash course in Jordanian culture. Because of the variety of things being sold, and the variety of people there, you hear strange sounds, smell interesting scents, and run into people coming from every direction. It is sensory overload, but it is truly the people’s market.


The average Jordanian family lives off of about $5,000 per year. This makes public markets and bazaars very common places to congregate for the average person, because the goods sold at these places are affordable to all levels of income. What did we see?


The first thing we were told by our hosts was for girls to stay close to guys, because hands will reach out and pat behinds. Lisa wandered off from me once and learned this lesson, so after that she kept close to me and also folded her hands behind her back to cover her hind quarters. Why does this happen? Jordan is a moderate Muslim country (Saudi Arabia being conservative, and Egypt being liberal). Muslim culture is very protective of the dignity of women, which is why you will not see scantily clad women in any advertisement in the Middle East. Abstinence is at the level in Jordan that most right-wing conservatives in America would like to see it. Combine this with the family sense of honor (which means you do not bring shame on the family), and the fact that Jordanians tend not to marry until their 30s, and you get the idea how repressed some folks in their society may become. Adultery and fornication do occur, but these are shameful acts, so they are never spoken of. This is why a man may pat a woman on the rear during market; it is sometimes the only way to deal with his repression. Still, it’s not fun for the woman, and I kept Lisa close after her encounter.


The other thing that surprised me in the market was the clothing being sold. I would say clothing represented at least ¾ of what was being sold. The majority were western style clothes, with some traditional Middle Eastern garb thrown in. You saw it all, though: underwear, socks, t-shirts, pants, dresses, shoes, hats, etc. The shocking thing for me was that I noticed most of the t-shirts were American. Have you ever wondered what happened to that little league t-shirt you donated to Goodwill 15 years ago? I saw it. There were shirts from family reunions in Wyoming that occurred 12 years ago. I saw a lot of charity event t-shirts (like 5Ks or bake sales) from small town America. I even saw shirts with racist American slogans on them, and I just hoped that the people around me couldn’t read English very well as I buried the shirts under piles of other clothes. The oldest one I saw had a date for some festival from 1991, and it looked brand new. It was definitely in the 1990’s style with neon colors and weird geometric shapes on it, but I couldn’t believe it had not aged in 18 years. My favorite shirt I found was one that asked “Got Mullet?” above a picture of a guy with such a hairstyle. It cost only 1 JD (Jordanian Dinar), or about $1.40 to us.


What was also interesting to me was the amount of food being sold in this market. Smells pervaded everywhere, some good, and others pretty bad. We saw people cooking (while under the tarps) standard Middle Eastern stuff, and it was tempting. The sanitation was of question, though, so we passed. The guy I could not take my eyes off of was the man carrying, on his back, a large container of some sort of punch. It looked heavy. Around his waste was a belt with about 6 plastic cups. You could just walk up, hand him a JD, pick the cleanest dirty glass and have a drink. I kept daring Steve to do it, but he told me a story of an American friend who did try it, and immediately felt sick to his stomach. Still, it was interesting to see this “old world” tradition carrying on.


We walked through the market, and had some laughs at some of things we saw. After the events, though, I came to realize this really is no laughing matter. The people who are running the stalls are trying to make a living, and from what I heard, the price to rent space at the market, ramshackle as it is, is very high, which requires them to sell a lot to make any money at all. In addition, prices can’t be too high, because there are dozens of people selling similar goods who will cut their prices below yours to make a sale. Also, most of the people simply can’t pay the high prices for these goods, which is why they come to begin with.


I also noticed about Jordanians that they aren’t interested in being materialistic like Americans. They don’t own clothes they can just relax in, like us. Jordanians will wear their best clothes every single day, even if they only own 1 outfit. All of the people I saw were very well groomed, and took a lot of pride in their appearance. This becomes that much more important when you live in a society that isn’t wealthy. Even though I was wearing nice clothing for the entire trip, I often felt under dressed among people who only made a fraction of what I make in a year.


Today I am getting ready to go to work, and get myself stuck in Friday, American traffic. My mind is wandering to the Fridays I spent in the Middle East, where I awoke to the beautifully sung call to prayer, and I walk out into the streets that are virtually empty, because it is time to relax, reflect, and pray. I can’t help but think of the markets and bazaars which present such a cross-section of wonderful, peaceful, hardworking, and kind people. It is just another slice of life that has changed my own.

How Safe was I in Jordan?

What is the question I have received most regarding my trip to the Middle East? “Did you ever feel threatened?” That question generally took on 3 contexts – 1) Did I come across a terrorist or extremist, 2) How did the people feel about me being an American, 3) Did the events we see on the news carry over into Jordan?

Asking if I came across any terrorists is like asking a visitor to America if they came across a white supremacist. We know they are out there, but they are such a small part of the actual population that the chances of coming across one is very small. Coincidentally, who do Jordanians think they will run into if they visit the states? The Mafia. They have the same source of information we do – TV. Jordanians think the shows they watch on satellite TV are a microcosm of America. Based on that, it looks to an outsider like our society is full of crime, and organized crime. It doesn’t help that America is providing them with the perspective they have on our society. How could they think differently if they don’t travel to the US and find out for themselves? No, I did not see a terrorist, an extremist, or even a protester in Jordan. I did meet countless wonderful Jordanians who were just trying to have a nice, peaceful existence, and were very interested in trying to understand me better.

What about being an American in Jordan? Did that work against me? Americans are often shocked at how much military presence we see in other countries. Jordan has quite a military presence. You might get randomly stopped along the road, and asked what you are doing in that area. The trunk of your vehicle will be searched when you enter any parking structures in Amman. This is to avoid any Oklahoma City kinds of bombings. Did I feel singled out? Yes. I felt I was given the royal treatment by all military and security personnel. When they saw my passport, or saw that I was an American, I was expedited or moved to the front of the line. The message was clear – I was a guest in their country, and I was not the problem.

I also think there is a large military presence because Jordan has a problem with unemployment. A normal rate of unemployment is 20% in that country, and it often gets above 30%. In my opinion King Abdullah is doing what he can to keep his people working, and to help them retain their dignity. This is also why we had to see 6 people and get 4 signatures at the post office just to pick up 1 package. On that note, you will not see beggars in the streets. The poor will sell you something, maybe as little as a box of tissue, but they will not beg. They would rather starve than degrade their sense of honor.

Remember also that up until 1999, when King Hussein succumbed to cancer, Queen Noor served along side King Hussein.  She was American-born, and made a wonderful ambassador on behalf of us, and to this day is beloved by the Jordanian people. She released an autobiography in 2004, which many Americans would find quite eye opening.

Last is the question of whether events from other parts of the region spilled over into Jordan. At the time we were in Amman, there was a political uprising in Tehran over the recent presidential election. The distance from Amman to Tehran is about the same distance from Seattle to Los Angeles, and in between the two is Iraq. So what about Iraq? The distance from Amman to Baghdad is about the same as the distance from Detroit to New York, with a lot of open, waterless desert in between. In addition, back in 2003, when the US led invasion of Iraq was about to start, those Iraqis who had the means got out. Many of them relocated to Amman, which has always set itself up as a haven for those who are threatened in their own homeland. The Iraqis are grateful to Jordan for being so willing to take on this extra burden, which only caused a strain on the resources of Jordan at the time.

What about the events in the West Bank, which does run up against Jordan? Back in 1967 when Israel won their war against Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine, many Palestinians fled to Amman. Today, around 50% of the residents of Amman are Palestinian. Jordan was the only nation to give Palestinians citizenship after these events. In the 1990’s, Jordan became the second country in the region to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation, at great cost to their relationships with other countries in the region (Egypt was the first to do this in the 1970’s). Because of this delicate balance, Jordan is seen as a friend to both Israel and Palestine, which makes it a target of neither.

I will end by pointing out that I saw a lot of Christians in Amman, and particularly Madaba (33% of its 250,000 people are Christian). Jordan’s 7 million people are only about 6% Christian, but I felt I was running into them everywhere. This is not something you will see portrayed in the news. In addition, I did visit several mosques, and I did talk with Muslims about faith. Never did I feel like I was supposed to convert to Islam or leave behind my Christian beliefs. Instead, I was treated like a brother in the faith. Muslims call Jews and Christians “children of the Book.” The Book being the Torah or Bible, and since we share so many of the same prophets as Islam, we are considered believers if we adhere to the faith as it was given in our holy book. Again, I feel the media portrayal of Muslims is skewed in this regard. Because of this, I encourage people to reach out to Muslims in your own community, and just try to understand them better. I also recommend visiting a Muslim country, where your eyes will be opened to more than you ever imagined.

Watching Events from Different Places

All day I have hearing about how one year ago we heard the news of Lehman Brothers collapsing, and sending the world economic market into turmoil. What is strange about that was last year when this news broke, I awoke in Lisbon, Portugal, several hours before the American public heard it, and had a brief moment of extreme panic. For a split second I imagined Tom Hanks in “The Terminal,” as he watched his country collapse into anarchy, and he could do nothing about it. I thought I might be stuck in Europe, kind of like people who were stuck all over the US and abroad right after 9/11. The moment wore off quickly, but I was keenly aware that the America I returned to was not going to be the same as the one I left.


The interesting thing about that situation is also how interconnected I saw the world economy. Immediately after the announcement of the Lehman Brothers collapse, several banks in Europe began to teeter and fall. I watched this happen via Euronews, and I knew I wouldn’t get this much info by being in the states. It was a bit shocking, and very eye opening.


I also can’t help but think of other events that have occurred while I was away from home. In 2005, after spending a week in Alaska, and falling in love with nature as though for the first time, I was in the airport waiting for my flight. It was midnight, but still light outside, and the televisions were broadcasting the bombings which had occurred in London. What was odd to me then was how far removed I felt from that. It should have brought to mind my memories of 9/11, but instead it felt so distant, because I was still dealing with the enormity of Alaska, and my new, renewed struggles with environmentalism.


This last summer, the day after we returned from Petra, which is a life changing experience, we were all sitting in my friend’s apartment in Amman, Jordan. It was then we heard the news of Michael Jackson passing away. That was quite a blow. I can’t say I was a fan of his in the last 15 years of his life, but Thriller was the first record album I ever bought, and I have a hard time imagining my childhood without his music somewhere in the background. It was interesting, and a little strange that we kept passing the billboards posted around Amman announcing his comeback tour. I wanted to get a photo, but the crazy traffic of Amman wouldn’t allow it. Still, this also gave me the perspective of how the world saw the “King of Pop.” The remainder of the world focused almost entirely on his music, dance, and videos, and really didn’t care about his personal life. In addition, his influence in other parts of the world is still just as large as back in the 1980’s in the US.


I keep wondering if I should quit traveling in order to prevent these crazy world events from occurring, as if my being abroad has somehow caused the stars to align in such a fashion to actually cause these events.  I know that is preposterous, but we manage to make our brains think that somehow we could cause events like this, or that maybe if we wear a certain jersey and keep our rituals, our favorite team will beat their rival.  I know these events are independent of my travels, but I can’t help but wonder what will happen next when I do travel.  Still, while I am abroad, I get to find new perspectives, and hopefully a renewed appreciation for the events themselves, along with how varying people see the events. Perspective is everything.

Watching God Play in the Trash

This last summer Lisa and I visited the countries of Jordan & Egypt. Included in both of these countries are several “Holy” sites to the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. For example, we were able to see the site where Jesus was baptized by John. We also stood on Mt. Nebo where it is believed Moses was given a glimpse of the Promised Land before dying. We visited Machaerus, where King Herod built a citadel/temple, and where he took the Head of John the Baptist. The question that has come up often after visiting these sites is “did you feel anything?”


Let me start by saying that the majority of the holy sites we visited are now tourist attractions. In other words, you have buses coming in and out, and in many cases you also have heavier security because of the religious significance of these sites. Still, there is room for God to speak or for people to get emotional when visiting a site, and I have witnessed this. If I am honest, however, I must say that I did not feel any heightened emotions, energy, chills, and I didn’t hear a voice or see anything special at these sites. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to visit places where I knew Jesus had been, and I knew something significant occurred, but nothing special happened while I was there.


When we were in Egypt, we had the opportunity to spend a day going around Cairo with an American who had lived in Cairo for 15 years. She decided to take us to a place you will not find in any guidebooks. In the shadow of the Mokattam mountains is the Zabbaleen Village, or what we call Garbage City. You can imagine my apprehension in going to a place by that name, but we decided to trust our guide, and at the very least we would have something to tell people when we returned home.


Garbage City is exactly that. Since Egypt has few landfills, and the Cairo metro area has a population of around 20 million, there is a lot of garbage. The villagers take their pickup trucks or donkey carts out to gather the trash, then they pile the bags of garbage impossibly high on their vehicles, and bring them back to the village to distribute. The villagers take the trash into their homes, where the first floor is set aside for sifting, and the remaining floors for living. Recyclable material is sold, and the remainder is burned or fed to their swine (and due to the swine flu outbreak, Egypt required these villagers to slaughter their swine, which has put a strain on the people). In addition, the roads in this village are not paved, they are very narrow, and there is stray garbage throughout. The smell is terrible, so we did not roll our windows down, and disease is very common in these parts due to lack of sanitation.


If you could imagine an outcast group of people, the Zabbaleen Village is it. These people have been marginalized by their fellow people and the Egyptian government because of the way they live, and because they are largely descended from foreigners who moved to the area decades ago to try to make a better living for themselves.


Back in the 1960’s the Coptic Church in Cairo began to take interest in the Zabbaleen Village. The Copts saw the conditions they lived in, the lack of education and health care, and decided they needed to try to make an impact. They found a people very open to the message the Copts brought. As the villagers accepted this message, it became necessary to get a larger church built to house the worshippers. The problem was that the government has to approve any church building, and they were not willing to give their approval to this project. How could the people gather for worship?


The answer came from the mountain itself. If a building could not be built, why not dig an open air church out of the mountain? Since Cairo only has 1 to 2 days of rainfall per year, this solution made more and more sense. Carving and digging were done without protest from the government. All blasting was done during Ramadan when the noise would coincide with the celebrations of the Muslims.


Today the Zabbaleen Village has the largest church in the Middle East, with seating for 20,000 people, and all of it carved out of stone. It is visited by Christians from all over the world, who hold conferences and retreats within the village. Artists have volunteered their time to carve Biblical images into the cliff sides, and make this church that much more striking. I heard this story as I stood in this huge open-air cathedral, and I have to tell you despite the 90+ degree temperatures I got chills. We also witnessed another group of Christians who had come to visit the church as they sang hymns and praise songs in another language in appreciation to what had gone on here. I could have spent the whole say sitting in this church and soaking in the peace that flooded over me. It was surreal, and I never saw it coming.


Since I returned to the states I get asked which holy site meant the most to me. I go through this story with those who ask each time, and I get puzzled looks. The site isn’t holy because of something the patriarchs, prophets, or Jesus necessarily did here. It is holy because God is still there, making a difference in the lives of the people, and playing in the trash.