Saturday, November 22, 2008

It's feel-good rugby for an Obama Age

By MICHAEL FIELD - Fairfax Media | Sunday, 23 November 2008

America's All Blacks

It was a long bus trip back from a weekend camp for the two rugby teams aboard: one white, the other African-American. They stopped at a convenience store and one of the black kids looked at the newspaper rack to see a report on the murder of his best friend.
Audio: Hyde's rugby
Audio: Girl's rugby
Audio: Racism in rugby
Video: The NY Times documentary

A fat white biker came through the door.

"What the fuck are these crows doing in here?" he barked out.

Tal Bayer, teacher and rugby missionary, says he is no brawler but if somebody wanted a fight "I didn't mind finishing them."

His inclination was to head-butt the guy but Bayer had devoted his life to teaching rugby values and didn't want to suddenly losing them in front of his team because of some idiot.

The boys, he told the biker, were his team and he walked out.

"At that moment I knew I grew up."

And the boy reading the paper, that was Patrick "PJ" Komongnan and rugby was changing his troubled life.

This week the story of Hyde Leadership Public Charter School, has been on front pages as the first US all-African-American high school rugby team. Buried in the text is the extraordinary story of the New Zealand connection.

Bayer, 38, discovered rugby as a military brat when his father was posted to England. In the US he began a career in business but tossed it in to teach at Hyde, then opening on T Street, north east of Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

"Sometimes I come to class with a black eye or a split lip, and that sure gets the kids asking questions, like, ‘have you been mugged?'" Bayer said in an interview.

It was a rugby injury, he'd reply.

About all the students knew of rugby was that it was a white man's game. Bayer told them about the All Blacks. They misunderstood and Bayer admits using the confusion.

He showed them a scratchy video - "a copy of a copy of a copy" - of Jonah Lomu charging down the wing in the 1995 World Cup semi, crushing Englishmen left and right.

They were sold and Hyde is now the first US all-African-American high school rugby team.

Five years ago, as Bayer puts it, "three white guys in suits" showed up at Hyde.

They'd crossed from the glamorous side of DC: they were from the New Zealand Embassy.

They were looking for a ground to host a new rugby competition, the Ambassador's Shield pitting embassy selected expatriates against a Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union team.

John Woods was then ambassador.

"Just accidentally we discovered there was this high school in DC which had a rugby programme and a field ... a field that was pretty run down but it was a rugby field," Woods said.

"It is a tough tough environment."

Renting the ground began a relationship between Hyde "The Pride" and the Embassy that has turned into a deep friendship with the shield match raising US$10,000-$15,000 a year for the school.

The school administration liked rugby as its cheaper than gridiron and produces fewer injuries.

Some families have taken some convincing as 15-year-old scrumhalf Salim Lancaster puts it.

"They thought I was crazy when they said I was playing rugby. Their eyes got big and they said are you crazy? Now I have played it and I just can't stop....

"Rugby is a fun sport. Everyone comes together, joins as a family, that's what I like about rugby.... We all play as a team, its not a one man sport and if you play as team you win games."

At first Hyde's rugby was a bit like rugby's origins.

"It was a mess, no passing, just a lot of wrestling, mauling and mayhem as we tried not to knock ourselves out...."

Washington's Metro Area Varsity Rugby Conference involves mainly private white schools. Hyde joined.

"That first year was a rough one," Bayer says.

"We lost 12 games and must have had 800-900 points scored against us."

PJ was a really tough kid who had been tossed out of schools and once had been handcuffed and led out.

He threw broken glass on the rugby ground and when confronted he said he did not care as no one could ever tackle him.

He was made to pick up the glass and then show his skill.

"He ran over my kids, he ran through them, around them. We couldn't stop him. So at the end I said, ‘tomorrow you're going to play rugby with us.'"

Last year PJ played for the US Eagles at the Wellington Sevens and the tough kid's story isn't yet over.

Much of the school knows death up close. One of their props was shot in the head and killed. PJ's friend was murdered.

One day there was a body on the school grounds. Bayer, who says he knows a bit about life, found it hard to take. The students thought little of it.

"That was, to me, when I really began to understand how different it is here....

"I bet if I asked the question, ‘how many of you know somebody directly in your family, or a very close friend, that has been killed?' You're probably going to get 80 to 90 per cent of kids here who will raise their hands."

Hyde's rugby motto is "Step Aside for the Pride". That's pride of lions and reflects a big part of Hyde's programme of family renewal.

"We also consider our school, teams and classes families unto themselves. In addition, we are trying to instill a sense of pride into all of our students."

Hyde is an alternative to DC's troubled public school system. For some, Hyde is their last chance. Fifty percent of male African-Americans in Washington never graduate high school; 100 percent of Hyde's students go on to college.

Bayer says rugby was crucially different for its values; playing vigorously on the field and joining the opponents after to share.

"The kids used to get really wide-eyed when we'd tell them we were going to have a burger with the other team after the game."

Bayer likes the way rugby lets all the students get a run.

"All of them have an opportunity to run the ball, tackle and different things and they are not pigeon holed and stuck into being linemen in gridiron, or if they play basketball they might get cut because they are too short or fat. In rugby there is a position for every sized kid."

Two years ago a girl told Bayer they wanted rugby and he told her if she got enough signatures he'd find them a coach. Four hours later he had 45 names from a school of 110 girls.

Bayer found a coach; PJ.

"That was kind of cool, to see the alumni coming back and while he is still going through college."

Then there is that link with New Zealand, something Bayer says is "almost indescribable how important it has become to the programme."

As well as using money raised from the annual Shield game, the school has been able to meet the All Black Sevens, talk and swap shirts. They meet New Zealanders, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans and some odd Australians or two.

"It's awesome for them to learn more about the world."

It's not a one way thing. Hyde go to the Embassy's annual shield barbeque. A player's mother went with them last week and told Bayer that she was blown away by the experience.

He told her that he was proud to have taken the players there, for the impact they had on "the kiwis".

"You've got to understand how much of an impact these kids are having on the embassy folk," he said.

"These guys do much to dispel wrong notions of African-Americans."

Current Ambassador Roy Ferguson said it was a priceless opportunity for them, noting that this year Congress Democrat majority whip leader James E Clyburn and the entire board of US Rugby came along.

"(Clyburn) had never seen a game of rugby in his life but he was very impressed because he had heard through his staff what a difference this game and the discipline it had bought to the lives of these inner city guys," Ferguson said.

The congressmen spoke to the Hyde boys at the embassy.

"That was particularly moving. He basically said to these young guys, look you can be anything you want to be if you just set your mind on it in this country. ‘Look at me, I am the most senior African-American in Congress' and he has become a real friend of New Zealand."

Ferguson said it was hard to convey how tough an environment Hyde was in.

The cost of the shield function did raise questions about value for taxpayers, Ferguson said while noting the contacts and attention it was gaining.

"I think it conveys the sort of image of New Zealand that I feel comfortable with, a country that does care about other people and does want to do its bit to assist in what ever way it can."

Woods started the Shield in 1996, wanting to leverage off what he calls the most successful sports team in world sport history.

"Americans appreciate that...

"It is an opportunity to promote us, promote rugby for our own national self interest and to introduce those special characteristics to the United States."

They did not get Wellington's permission: "I am not sure where we cobbled the seed money from, we will draw a veil over it."

He was hard headed as well, wanting to use rugby for New Zealand's gain.

"You are always looking out for some competitive advantage that you've got as a country in the capital of the world's only super-power to advance your interests. This in a modest way, but I think a quite effective way, is one of them."

It would not have worked without Bayer.

"Somebody who devotes himself to that kind of endeavour is a great man."

Bayer's rugby heroes include Christian Cullen and Lomu. Students are a little more up to date.

"They love Tana Umaga, I think it's a hair thing."

Salim Lancaster likes Dan Carter and admires Joe Rokocoko.

Bayer thinks deeply over this; has rugby saved lives?

"It has definitely saved some kids in terms of their decisions where their lives make take them."

Without rugby, many students would have given up.

PJ was one.

"He has often said the only thing that has kept me in this building was the game."

Life and value began to make sense, in the frame work of being in the team.

"Rugby is merely a vehicle to teach them values...."

In a first, the New York Times put a rugby scrum picture on its print front-page over the headline "A rugby scrum, knocking down barriers".

The New York Times said the school loved the international atmosphere and quoted a school senior, Mathew Brown, providing the ultimate seal of approval, saying, "Those Samoans are ballers," he said of one New Zealand player of Samoan playing the shield.

"While diplomats and representatives from USA Rugby sipped cocktails and mingled, the Hyde players escaped the formalities and gathered outside," the Times' Will Bardenwerper wrote. "One of them found a rugby ball. Before long, he was teaching youngsters how to play on the moonlit lawn."

Video: Watch Hyde school play – and visit the New Zealand Embassy - a New York Times video

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What to serve for dessert...?

So I'm in charge of making Thanksgiving dinner this year, and I'm in a bind as to what to serve for dessert.

Since I'm not so good with the decision making and I'd prefer not to short circuit my prefrontal cortex just before the holiday, I'm leaving it up to y'all:

What should I make for dessert on Thanksgiving day?

There's a poll on the right hand side of the blog; just come on over and submit your vote. You can choose more than one, although if you would be so kind as to limit your choices to two, that would be awesome.

Oh! And if you feel that none of my suggestions sound tempting, feel free to suggest an alternative. I'm open to recommendations!

Thanks for the help!


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Note to self: Do not check baggage on flight home this holiday

Of course I would find this story the second after I confirm my flight home on the same airline...

Wheelchair-bound Elfride Kuemmel was on her way back home to Tampa Monday when a US Airways employee wheeled her on to the wrong connecting flight.

Tampa, Florida -- The nightmare is over for a Tampa family after a Bay area grandma got lost by the airlines.

Wheelchair-bound Elfride Kuemmel was on her way back home to Tampa Monday when a US Airways employee wheeled her on to the wrong connecting flight.

The 83-year-old wound up in Puerto Rico, where she was initially told she'd have to spend the night at the airport.

Kuemmel's daughter Vera was waiting at baggage claim in Tampa when an airport official finally discovered her mother was waiting in the wrong city.

"I was upset, and I told them there was no way they were going to leave her in the airport all night waiting to leave on a flight at 3:30 in the afternoon," said Vera Kuemmel.

US Airways eventually put Elfriede up in a hotel, paid for her dinner, and flew her back to Tampa first class.

She arrived home around 8:30 Tuesday night.

A spokeswoman for US Airways says they're still investigating what happened.

Beau Zimmer, 10 Connects News

Monday, November 17, 2008


So I was at Target yesterday when I felt something scratching my foot. I figured it was just a splinter from our wood floor, so I took off my shoe and then turned my sock inside out.

However, instead of a splinter of wood, what should fall out of my shoe but a big, gnarly spider cricket leg! (Spider crickets - which look like small weta - run rampant in our basement, which is particularly unfortunate, as that is where our bedroom happens to be located.)

To top it off, when I turned to look at my shoe...a rather dazed and slowly dying spider cricket was staring back at me.

I'd been wearing my shoes for a little over an hour at that point but somehow managed to stifle my scream.

I've been rigorously shaking out my shoes ever since.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What the hell...?

Like a way lamer/tamer Ice Cube

So, I had a flipping phenomenal day yesterday. A good day, as Ice Cube might say.

In no particular order, here are the fantabulous events of November 13, 2008:
  1. While reading the federally-funded evaluation of the NZDS (which was the subject of my Fulbright), I noticed a certain citation in the 'Documents Reviewed' section:

    Wiley A E, MSW/MID, Whakanui Oranga: Lessons on Culture and Policy from the New ZealandDisability Strategy, Massey University, New Zealand, 2007

    That would be MY paper they're talking about.

  2. I go to the Fresh Market to place a turduckin order for Thanksgiving. They didn't have any.

  3. However, they did have a big ol' barrel overflowing with my favorite confectionery treat straight out of New Zealand: RJ's Raspberry Licorice.

    Even at $7 a bag, it's totally worth it.

  4. I finally had a chance to see (most of) the exhibits at the Walters Art Museum. For free!

  5. Bonus: The museum was handing out bucket-fulls of Hershey's Kisses.

  6. Upon walking into the grocery store, the store's sound system starts to pipe my all-time favorite pick-me-up song: I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. I maintain that failure to smile when hearing this song is proof that you have no soul.

It was a good day indeed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Who knew?


Beatles' 'Eleanor Rigby' Mystery May Be Solved

Listen Now

Rigby (300)
BIPs/Getty Images

Legend has it that Paul McCartney made up the name "Eleanor Rigby," but a 1911 document may hold the key to a different story.

Day to Day, November 12, 2008 - There are plenty of stories about the origins of The Beatles' song "Eleanor Rigby."

Legend has it that Eleanor Rigby was a fictional character — that the two names were chosen by Paul McCartney based on an actress he knew and a liquor store in Bristol. But there may well have been a real Eleanor Rigby, and Annie Mawson says she may have proof.

Mawson runs a charity called Sunbeams Trust, which uses music to help people with physical and mental health issues.

The story goes that, nearly 20 years ago, she wrote a very emotional 11-page letter to Paul McCartney explaining, she says, "the transformative power of music, and especially how some of his songs have helped our children communicate. It was just full of stories of the children who had improved so much through music, who didn't even speak."

About nine months later, a response arrived in the mail.

"The envelope was exciting, because it was a brown envelope stamped with his Paul McCartney World Tour logo, unique to him," Mawson says. "So I was very intrigued, because I knew it had to come from him. And inside this envelope was a beautiful ancient parchment from 1911, from a hospital in Liverpool. And on the document, there were three stamps. I saw it was a roll call of names, and they'd all received their wages. And one of them was a scholarly maid, called E. Rigby. And she had received one pounds three and eleven pence. And then she had signed for her money."

Though Paul McCartney has often said that Eleanor Rigby wasn't a real person, Mawson says she believes this document is proof that there, in fact, was a real Eleanor Rigby who inspired the song.

"Why else would he send me it? That's what I don't understand if it isn't," she says. "Maybe it is just another pointer into why he did write 'Eleanor Rigby.' All I know is that he sent me this beautiful document."

The page is up for auction on Nov. 27, and Mawson says it's expected to sell for as much as 500,000 pounds. "The sooner we can get the money," she says, "the sooner we can build our center."

The auction price isn't the only benefit "Eleanor Rigby" has had on Mawson's work with Sunbeams Trust; the song is also part of the program's musical therapy.

"I actually play the harp and sing, and a lot of the songs are very poignant," Mawson says. "And I could say that we cry a lot at Sunbeams. But we also laugh a lot. And I think people need to. But I think there's a time and a place for the right music, and that's one of the songs we love."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Totally & Completely Stuffed

So I'm reading this Telegraph article that lists some little known facts about Barack Obama (thank you, Bradford) when I come across tidbit #34:

"He repaid his student loan only four years ago after signing his book deal"

That's right - the President elect just recently managed to pay off his student loans. After signing a multi-million dollar book deal.

Which means that my mid-level salaried self, which comes out of deferment in December, is tooooooooootally screwed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Hells yeah we did!

I actually intended to post photos from our Halloween party...but my sister sent this to me instead. And really, it's just too good not to share...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It's a beautiful morning!!!

I lack words to describe what I'm feeling right now. Partly because it's almost 1am and I am flipping exhausted, but also because I can't find the words that fully depict what all I'm feeling. It's cheesy, but it's like a fog has been lifted and for once I am looking at the morning and the next day not only with hope and optimism, but with unbridled excitement. As President Elect (!) Obama gave his acceptance speech tonight I felt my eyes grow a little glossy and my cheeks strain to hold my now semi-permanent smile for yet another hour.

I've lived to see several moments in history - some good (fall of the Berlin Wall) and some not so good (9/11). But for once, I have an experience I'm aching to share. I cannot wait to tell my children about the day our country lived up to its potential and what a truly beautiful moment it was.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

True dat

The Final Countdown

That ridiculous ear bug courtesy of the band Europe is running nonstop in my head as I try to avoid election coverage for the day. Tony and I arrived at our polling station a half hour after it opened (7:30 am) and - awesomely - there was another half hour wait just to cast our ballots. How phenomenal is that??

I have no idea how the election will pan out today. McCain has already filed suit in Virginia to extend the deadline for overseas ballots from servicemen/women to the 14th. Rumors in Pennsylvania have people convinced that poll stations are closed when they're actually up and running. And lord knows what the bat-shizz crazy fundamentalists on either side are up to.

If anything, I will be interested in seeing what the voter turnout will be. In New Zealand, it was always a point of shame to explain how few people actually vote in the this country. But it seems the opportunity to live up to our national potential is an actual possibility today. How awesome is that??

So, God willing, people get their collective backsides in gear and make it to the polls today. I'm not sure who will win, but the Redskins did lose yesterday (yeah, Steelers!), and according to tradition that means the incumbent party will lose the popular vote. Just saying...

Sunday, November 2, 2008