Michael Obel-Omia: Ice Bucket Challenge heats up social media, urge to do good deed

Published: August 24, 2014 01:00 AM

The Providence Journal

Michael C. Obel-Omia

I’m sopping wet. Like thousands of people, I have taken the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and, I must admit, I feel great (cold, but great). I took the challenge because I wanted to raise awareness of and contribute money to combating this awful disease.

For the uninitiated, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a social media phenomenon, primarily on Facebook and Instagram, in which someone posts a video of him/herself dumping a bucket of ice water over his/her head, then tagging at least three more people to take the challenge or donate to the ALS Association, which fights Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Then the ice rains down, eliciting laughter and squeals of shock and joy.

The shock is obvious: even on a hot summer day — I think that it was 83 degrees when I did it — ice water stuns the senses. The joy, however, is more complicated and worthy of note.

Being raised Roman Catholic, in the shadow of my church, I have always understood and embraced the edict from Luke: “For to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

I remember scrubbing the floors of my church with Murphy’s oil and polishing the pews with Old English or Pledge. The smells of those products are still with me, and on the rare occasion I perform those chores at home, I am transported back to the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Albany. I also remember working in the church’s soup kitchen, and continuing that work all through high school.

In college and soon after, I was self-indulgent and had forgotten my charitable roots, until I started working at a school in Boston that firmly believed and promoted those words from Luke: they were inscribed in a frieze above the refectory. Daily, as we ate, we were reminded that to those of us who were so pleased to be at that school, much was expected.

That constant reminder led me to serve on numerous boards of trustees, complete several century rides for the Rodman Ride for Kids, run the Boston Marathon, cycle across the country to raise awareness of and funds for Nets for Life, ride in the Pan-Mass Challenge, and do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Each one of these events, almost always physically grueling, demanded that I look within and beyond myself to improve my world.

Some naysayers have disparaged the challenge, complaining that pouring a bucket over one’s head does little to raise awareness; instead, it is just a social media stunt that has quickly lost its true meaning, morphing into a macho exercise.

I think that there will always be an opportunity for well-meaning challenges, events or stunts to lose their original meaning, but so far, people’s willingness to cover themselves in ice has increased awareness of this disease incredibly, and boosted donations.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia returns home after saving the life of her husband’s dear friend. As she sees a light shining in her window, she remarks, “How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Each one of us, regardless of our chosen communities or means, has an opportunity to shine a beam of light, often one ice cube at a time.

Michael C. Obel-Omia is a father and husband, educator and student, cycling enthusiast and baseball fan. He lives in Barrington.

Michael Obel-Omia: I know I’ll be judged by what I wear and how I speak

By Michael Obel-Omia

Special to The Journal

“The apparel oft proclaims the man.” That quote, from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” is advice that’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Recently, I was out with a few friends, one of whom was a new acquaintance. The woman, who hadn’t spent much time with me, remarked that the top button on my polo shirt was buttoned. She noted it curiously at first, but then felt a need to unbutton it — yes, I am that irresistibly sexy in person — for it drove her crazy that I was so “buttoned up” on a warm summer evening. Smiling while dodging her furious hands, I told her, “I paid for the button, so I shall use it.”

Buttoning up, for me, is not only a matter of pride — I need to look good when I go out — but also a wonderful metaphor for how I view my world. As an African-American man who is predominantly surrounded by white people, I feel a need to be reserved, cautious, aware, well-spoken and even better dressed. I know that I am being judged by my words, by my actions, by my appearance.

Yes, I said “shall” to that woman, because I speak in a way that arrests attention. How I look and how I talk matter.

During last summer’s rush to buy school supplies, my wife, a white woman, allowed our biracial son to pick out a shirt. He came home and proudly showed me the T-shirt: “Wake Me Up For Lunch.”

I lost my mind. I told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t wearing that shirt to school.

I think my strong reaction has everything to do with my perception of how my son may be viewed: as a biracial boy in a whitewashed suburb of Providence, will his shirt be taken as a harmless joke, or will it trigger in the teacher some latent sense that this child, this half-black child, cannot and will not do the work?

My perception is probably as outdated as my conservative, ’60s country-club dressing style, but I still feel it — and, more important, fear it. As a black man, I, and by extension my children, need to be on point, both in speech and in dress, because I feel as if I am — we are — being judged.

I still remember my mother dressing me in the hand-me-downs of my older cousin. The shirts and pants could not have been more corny, and I was mercilessly mocked by my classmate Moses: “Michael, the 1950s are calling; they want their argyle sweater back.”

I fought with my mother about those outlandishly outdated clothes, but later, after elementary school, I started to choose to wear them. The reason is that I began to recognize that clothing says a lot about who we are. I had just entered a private school, and in order for me to fit in, I had to dress in ’80s preppy style (which seemed straight out of “The Official Preppy Handbook”).

Apparel doth oft proclaim the man, and we see that with “thugs” walking our urban streets with their pants halfway down their legs. Even when I, a black man, see these children, I don’t see innocence; rather, I see potential danger.

I button up not only to lower anxiety when people meet me, but also because it reminds me how to proceed — with caution. I don’t think I have the luxury of speaking and dressing as I like, because I fear that I am being judged by what I say and how I dress.

As post-racial and as accepting and as inclusive as we like to imagine ourselves, we are still a nation of people who quickly judge. By dressing as inoffensively as possible, I try both to blend in and to let my words allow me to stand out.

Michael Obel-Omia is a father and husband, educator and student, cycling enthusiast and baseball fan. He lives in Barrington.

Thank You

“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you don’t stop.”

A beautiful little girl held up that sign during the lunch stop of the Pan-Mass Challenge, and I saw many other ones that encouraged and inspired. Another one, “Thank you for riding and saving my life,” may have most simply and most eloquently expressed the reason for riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge: I did it to help raise funds for cancer research and to help save lives. It was a truly humbling and rewarding experience.

It rained. It rained, it rained, it rained yesterday, and by the time I reached the first water stop at 8:15 am, I was completely drenched! My cycling shoes, for whatever reasons, have a slight hole in sole of them—probably for aerodynamic reasons—and those holes let the rain rush right in! The opening ceremony at Babson College celebrated and thanked the more than 5,700 riders leaving from Sturbridge and from Wellesley. We left a smidgen early, hoping to avoid the rain, but to no avail: it started in Dover, let up at lunch in Rehoboth, but then continued for the remainder of the Ride. In spite of the rain (or, perhaps, because of it), the Ride was pleasant. We rode steadily and happily through the southeastern towns of Massachusetts, ignoring the rain and enjoying the camaraderie. We finished the day at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne around 1 in the afternoon.

As a member of Team 9, the Red Sox Charitable Organization, I enjoyed a comfortable experience: we were feted at the beginning of the Ride, and when we arrived in Bourne, we had hot showers and eager masseurs and masseuses ready to attend to us! My friend, Stacey Lucchino, is the generous woman who has given me the opportunity to participate on Team 9 and to contribute to this exceedingly worthy cause. I am so grateful that our lives intersected more than a decade ago when I was at Roxbury Latin. Of course, being a member of Team 9 yesterday, with my bright yellow Sox jersey—check out pictures on Facebook—I was the subject of much trade speculation: “Hey, have the Sox traded you yet,” is what I heard at every water stop.

Overall, the experience was wonderful. Riding with people who had compelling reasons and listening to their stories motivated and humbled me. The Ride was populated with men, women, and children who profusely cheered, celebrated, and thanked us for our efforts, even in the rain. Many of the riders wore ribbons or pictures in honor of loved ones struggling with or lost to cancer. Every person I met rode with purpose, and I was grateful to be a part of such a well-organized, well executed, and important ride. We will raise over 40 million for Cancer research, and I am so pleased, because of your largesse, to have had a hand in such a brilliant event. I have to thank Stacey for nudging me to ride. She is an exceptional woman who has done so much for Boston in her 13 years in the city. I also want to thank Kathryn Quirk and Jack Verducci of the Red Sox, Dan Rea, a former student and present employee of the Red Sox, Gretchen Rice, a former student and volunteer extraordinaire for Pan-Mass, and Alison Rush of Pan-Mass. All helped me along the way. Last, I want to thank Billy Starr, the founder and executive director, for making this possible. This Challenge is one of the most life-affirming activities that I have ever done, and he should be proud of what he has created: a community of cyclists and volunteers who will move heaven and earth to help people stricken with cancer. What a powerful community.

These words from Isaiah are with me as I think about the Challenge, your generosity, and all the people that we helped: “…but they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (Isaiah 40:31). I feel renewed and ready for my next challenge. Thank you, friends, for your support and your belief in me.

Pan-Mass: A Chance to Raise Money to Combat Cancer

56179-8 PMC ID Number

July 2014

On Saturday, 2 August, I will cycle more than 84 miles in the 34th Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC). It will be my second time participating in the nation’s original fundraising bike-a-thon that raises more money than any other athletic fundraising event in the world. The purpose of the Challenge is to raise money for life-saving cancer research and treatment at Dana Faber Cancer Institute and to provide Dana-Faber’s doctors and researches with the necessary resources to discover cures for all cancers. With this mission in mind, I have pledged to raise over $7,000, and a donation from you, of any amount, will help me reach my ambitious goal.

For years, I have raised funds via cycling for The Rodman Ride, PMC, Nets for Life (cycling across the country in 2009), Tour for the Cure, The Boston Marathon, and your generous support has benefited thousands the world over. I am riding the PMC this year, because I want to make a difference. The PMC, Dana-Faber’s single largest contributor, raised over $35 million last year, bringing its 33 year contribution to more than $350 million. I will join more than 5,500 cyclists in an effort to raise $40 million this year for Dana-Faber’s Cancer Institute.

My friend Stacey Lucchino, who has ridden beside me in other rides, has kindly paved the way for my participating in and contributing to this cause, and for that, I am grateful. Too many of my colleagues and friends have been stricken by cancer, and I am hopeful that my riding will assist the good doctors and researchers in finding a cure.

I know that many of you have donated to many charities, and I know how generous you are with your time as well, so I thank you for considering this one. If you would like to support the Challenge, Dana-Faber, and me, then please write a check, made payable to “PMC,” and send it to me at the address below. You can also go to http://www.pmc.org/donation.asp, click E Gifts, and donate to Michael Obel-Omia, PMC ID #56179-8. This convenient way to donate is safe, easy, and preferable. Please know that 100% of your tax-deductible donation goes directly to research cures for cancer. I would appreciate your sending the check to me or pledging online at http://www.pmc.org/donation.asp by Friday, 1 August 2014.

The words of Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give,” guide and inspire me as I ride daily in preparation for this event. I am anxious about riding, but am confident that I will succeed; if only because I will think of you and seek to honor you for sharing your treasure and supporting this cause. Thank you.
Warmest regards,

Michael C. Obel-Omia

56179-8 PMC ID Number

There is Treasure Everywhere

I love Bill Watterson, the comic strip writer from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. His Calvin and Hobbes, named after John Calvin, a 16th-century French Reformation theologian, and Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English political philosopher, delighted me for many years. Almost each one of his Calvin and Hobbes strips is pure gold, but the one that resonates the most with me is one in which a dirty Calvin is neck deep in a hole digging for treasure. Hobbes approaches him and inquires why he is digging a hole, and Calvin joyfully responds, “I’m looking for buried treasure!” When Hobbes asks what he has found, Calvin shares the list: “A few dirty rocks, a weird root, and some disgusting grubs.” To which Hobbes responds, “On your first try??” And with tremendous joy, Calvin rejoins, “There’s treasure everywhere!”

In our lives, wherever we are, there is treasure. It is our responsibility to find it, to unearth it, to believe that it exists. In my short time at Compass, I saw so much treasure. It wasn’t so much that treasure was in the buildings; rather, the treasure was in the children and their potential. Treasure exists everywhere, and if we have the pioneer spirit, the treasurer-hunter mindset, then we will see it and delight in it.

Something else that delights me are the words from the Athenian Oath. The youth of Athens, before they became young men, took the Ephebic Oath: “We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

It is all our responsibility, always, to transmit our community not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” I hope that I have done that, and, I am confident that I have, for I have had occasion to assist you, children, in being your best selves.



The Readiness is All

This time of year, commencement season, inspires me to share what little wisdom I have, as I know that this time might be the last time that I have to speak to you, students, who are moving forward with your lives. With that in mind, I want to share with you what I think has to be a priority for you at all times: take full advantage of this moment, live in the moment, prepare for your future. There are so many tempting times that you will want to dwell on the past or imagine your future—and it is appropriate to do both—but you will find your success and your happiness in living in the moment.

And, with the weather improving in New England, focusing on the moment grows infinitely easier to do, as we cherish each budding flower, each sea spray, each cool breeze that makes living in the Ocean State such a blessing, such a joy. If you can focus your energy on making the most of this moment, finding joy in this moment, and preparing for the future, you will attain a kind of peace un-afforded to those busily looking longingly backwards or too far forwards.

Now, know that healthy reflection can be instructive. Taking the time to think and reconsider what you have done is not only salubrious, but also helpful. Set aside time in your day—usually at night, before turning in—to consider what has been best about your day and how you might improve. Take those notes, and let them guide you. But don’t hold on to the past too much. If you do, like a cancer, regrets will eat away at you. Let the past go, stop carrying it around with you, as this delightful Zen story reminds us:

Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.” Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud. Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t do near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?” “I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Let go of the past. Giving it place and space in your mind only takes away room and opportunity to enjoy this moment. And, planning for your future is exceedingly sagacious. Having a one year, five year, ten year, and even 15 yearplan shows wisdom. Be flexible enough, however, to know that present circumstances can alter plans. Create the roadmap—where you will travel and how you plan to arrive there—for yourself, but know that there will be opportunities to take the road not taken—and that will make all the difference.

The best advice, however, is to focus on this moment, live in the now. Give full attention to the person with you, give full self to the experience right now. We are neither promised nor deserve anything in this world, so what we have before us, right now, may be the greatest moment of our lives. Don’t miss it. Another great Zen story illustrates this fact:

When Master Shinran was nine years old, he had already decided to become a monk. He requested Ch’an Master Jichin to tonsure him. Master Jichin asked him, “You are so young. Why do you want to become a monk?” Shinran answered, “Although I am only nine years old, both my parents have already passed away. I do not understand why people must die. Why must I be separated from my parents? I want to become a monk so that I can find the answers to these questions.” Impressed, the Master said, “All right! Now that I know why you want to become a monk, I can take you as my disciple. It is getting late now. Wait until tomorrow morning, and I will tonsure you then.” Shinran disagreed, “Master! Although you have just promised to tonsure me tomorrow morning, I cannot guarantee that my determination to become a monk will last that long. Besides, you are so old now, you cannot guarantee that you will still be alive tomorrow.”

Master Shinran understands that no moment is promised, so take advantage of what is right here, right now. Finally, I leave you with this fairly western idea that what really counts is today:

Imagine there is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400.  It carries over no balance from day to day.  Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day.  What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course!  Each of us has such a bank.  Its name is Time. Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds.  Every night it writes off, as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose.  It carries over no balance.  It allows no overdraft.  Each day it opens a new account for you.  Each night it burns the remains of the day.  If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours.  There is no going back.  There is no drawing against the “tomorrow.”  You must live in the present on today’s deposits.  Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness, and success!  The clock is running.  Make the most of today.  To realize the value of ONE YEAR, ask a student who failed a grade.  To realize the value of ONE MONTH, ask a mother who gave birth to a premature baby.  To realize the value of ONE WEEK, ask the editor of a weekly newspaper.  To realize the value of ONE HOUR, ask the lovers who are waiting to meet.  To realize the value of ONE MINUTE, ask a person who missed the train.  To realize the value of ONE-SECOND, ask a person who just avoided an accident.  Treasure every moment that you have!  And treasure it more because you shared it with someone special, special enough to spend your time.

Each one of us has the opportunity to live in this moment, drink life to the lees, to enjoy what is with us at this moment, to be prepared for the next delicious moment. As Hamlet opined, “Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” The readiness is all, friends.

Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it

As I consider the Compass School and this Churchill quotation, I am struck by how perfectly these words both describe and embody the spirit of this community. As a School that demands that each child reach his or her highest register, this quotation imagines a child, through adversity (and cleverly taking advantage of its circumstances), achieving. In addition, the image of a kite tussling with the wind, going against it, reminds me of this School as well. The students learn and embrace the idea that questioning allows one to grow; simply put, running against the grain, questioning authority, inquiring incessantly define the Compass experience.

One of my former colleagues at school where I taught for 16 years coached wrestling with me. He was the head coach, and I was his assistant. We prepared our charges for their matches not only physically with rigorous exercises and drills, but also, and equally important, mentally. Steve Ward told the students succinctly, “You can only control two things in a match: your effort and your attitude. You can’t control your opponent—how big he will be, how swift he will be, how experienced or well-prepared he will be—and you can’t control the referees. But can control your effort and your attitude. Give your best effort each day here in practice and in the match, and take the best attitude possible into each match.” I would add to his great advice something similar: one must also have faith, must believe. This story illustrates the third idea:

A great Japanese warrior named Nobunaga decided to attack the enemy although he had only one-tenth the number of men the opposition commanded. He knew that he would win, but his soldiers were in doubt.

On the way he stopped at a Shinto shrine and told his men: “After I visit the shrine I will toss a coin. If heads comes, we will win; if tails, we will lose. Destiny holds us in her hand.”

Nobunaga entered the shrine and offered a silent prayer. He came forth and tossed a coin. Heads appeared. His soldiers were so eager to fight that they won their battle easily.

“No one can change the hand of destiny,” his attendant told him after the battle.

“Indeed not,” said Nobunaga, showing a coin which had been doubled, with heads facing either way.

Indeed, we do control our destiny. We do have say in our lives. We have to believe that we can achieve. Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot rise, that you cannot reach your highest register. Give a full commitment to each experience in your life, making the right choices, and learn to trust your instincts. You will fall and you will fail, but the true measure of who you are will be measured not by how high you climb, but by how high you rise after you have fallen. One of my favorite proverbs is “all down seven times, stand up eight.” Know you will fall, but trust that you will rise.

Finally, I want to finish these words to you with a quotation from Hamlet. When Polonius sends his son Laertes to France, he plies him with typical fatherly advice, finishing with these poignant words: “To thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not be false to any man.” Trust your instincts, believe in the strong education that you have received here, and look to rise highest against the wind, not with it. You are well prepared to soar.