Friday, November 28, 2008

The Allure and Tragedy of Black Friday

I find it ironic that on the day after we give thanks for all that we have (in the spirit that we are so blessed and ought to be somewhat content in light of so many in this world having less than we do), Americans have created an event which appeals to every materialistic fiber in our body. It is a day which has almost overshadowed the day that precedes it, a day for which people develop strategies in order to get the right parking space in front of the right stores so they can make a beeline to the right aisle. This day is Black Friday.

I didn't realize what a big deal Black Friday was until a few years back. Sarah and I had caught a late night showing of the latest Harry Potter movie while my parents watched Daniel after our family Thanksgiving dinner. As we walked out of the Palisades Center theaters at around 1pm, we walked past a whole line of people in lawn chairs waiting in front of Best Buy. It was surreal. It was only around that time that I realized that there were "doorbuster" discounts that stores were offering between the hours of 6am to 11am, with laptops selling for $300 and cashmere sweaters selling for $20. Naturally, there was a limited supply, so customers were told to get there early, and get there early they did.

The whole concept is both sad and brilliant. It preys on three of people's worst attributes - their competitive spirit, their pride and their greed. In other words, "I'm going to give my brother-in-law a $20 gift that he'll think I spent $100 for, keep or spend the $80 I saved on myself, and nobody's gonna get in my way!" The game show scenario is intoxicating, I'm sure. The door opens and hundreds of contestants fan out to find the treasure.

Lest I stick my chest out as I sit on my high horse, I have to admit that I played the game a little today. No, I didn't camp out in front of the mall or set my alarm for 4am. I did, however, go online last night and find out what was available at Staples, which is only a mile away from our house. A key item on our list - an LCD flat screen monitor - was selling at amazingly low $99, but I refused to go out of my way to seize the deal. So after Daniel work me up at 7am, I gave him breakfast, then drove over to Staples. I walked in and browsed a little, and walked out with the monitor as well as a couple of other items on deep discount.

I just hope that in our zeal for great bargains, we won't start referring to Thanksgiving as the day before Black Friday. Someday, Black Friday Eve (formerly Thanksgiving) may be a banquet where we eat a lot of food to gain energy before the great shopping marathon. What a tragedy it would be if we lost part of our national consciousness in the roar of early Christmas shopping.

And there was a real tragedy today. In Long Island, a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death by a horde of shoppers waiting to seize on Black Friday discounts. This would be funny if it wasn't so horribly tragic. It's a sad world when getting a Kung-Fu Panda DVD for $5 is worth someone losing his life.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Terrorism, Fear and Thanksgiving

The the past 24 hours, we have seen reports from Mumbai around a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on venues largely populated by Westerners. The news at this time is not good: over 100 killed, hostages still being held in a couple of locations and gunfire and explosions still rocking parts of the city.

Closer to home, federal authorities have received a "plausible but unsubstantiated" report that al Qaeda may have discussed targeting transit systems in or around New York. As a regular NJ Transit commuter, I find this troubling but not surprising. I've been in Penn Station at times where the congestion in the terminal is so terrible due to delays and track problems, that you're literally shoulder to shoulder with hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people. In addition to being extremely annoyed, I can't help but think how such scenarios are like shooting fish in a barrel for suicide bombers. As for safety, you have a handful of cops and dogs looking at people carrying bags and randomly searching some. Given you have a two commuter large train lines (NJ Transit and Long Island Railroad) carrying tons of people with computer bags and backpacks, this seems like a tall order. Maybe I should write a note to the MTA.

During a Thanksgiving Eve dinner we had with some friends in our church, we discussed the feasibility of attacks. Friends of mine suggested the best terrorist targets would be iconic and grand in scale, such as World Series game or taking down the George Washington Bridge. Putting my "terrorist hat" on, I countered that the likelihood of success of such attacks are so low due to heavy security and monitoring. If I were a terrorist, I reasoned, I'd more effectively spread terror by having people fear doing everyday things - taking the train, taking the bus and going to the store. I reminded my friends of how the "D.C. sniper" caused an entire region to fear going out to mow their lawns, pump gas or walk to their car in their parking lot. Why? Those were the activities of some of victims before they were killed by the sniper. That's terrifying.

So what can you do? At the end of the day you pretty much have the choice to (A) be paralyzed by fear and stop living your life, or (B) live your life constantly on edge with sweat pouring down your forehead knowing that you could die at any moment, or the third option: (C) live your life with the appreciation that you could die at any moment, but still live without fear. For a Christian who lives in the reality of the sovereignity and love of God, this option is actually possible. Or as Paul said in Romans "...and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." - a verse I asked a Christian sister to read when holding a prayer service in Dallas marooned during 9/11.

And this is, above all, what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving. I am so very grateful for my wife, my children, my family, my friends, my health, my possessions, and my job. But if, in this age of global terrorism, I walk in the valley of the shadow of death unbeknownst to me, that peace is priceless.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Dad Aches for the Son to Have the Heart of the Father

My son Daniel has his trying moments, but I see examples of kindness and goodness in him that really warm my heart. By the grace of God, I think Daniel experiences and appreciates, at least to some degree, the joy and desire to love, care for and comfort others. When I see that, my heart is both thankful and yearns that the fruits of the spirit would be embedded deep within his heart. I so want him to have the heart of Jesus.

As we left church this past Sunday, I warmed up a muffin and prepared to give it to a homeless man who I had talked to on the way in. Seeing a good opportunity for a heart lesson for Daniel, I asked him if he wanted to give the man the muffin. I was pleased when Daniel enthusiastically accepted the task. Daniel took the muffin from my hand, and I watched him approach and give the muffin to the man and say, "Here you go" much to the delight of the homeless man, who returned a wonderful smile and thank you to Daniel.

My parents watch Daniel a couple of times a week, and when they go to a mall and Daniel expresses his desire to buy some toy, their usual response to him is "I'm sorry. Grandma (or Ah-gong, Taiwanese for Grandpa) has no money." I think they've inadvertently given Daniel the impression that they're destitute, despite the fact that they drive a nice car and live in a nice house (Daniel's deductive reasoning needs a little work). After we gave food to the homeless man, I told Daniel that Jesus wants us to love and care for the poor just the way Jesus loves and provides for us. Daniel's response was "I have money in my piggy bank that I can give to Grandma and Ah-gong. They have no money."

Daniel is extremely generous when it comes to his piggy bank, or at least he seems to have an innocent inflated value of how much he has in it. A few weeks ago as I was putting Daniel to bed, I told Daniel that I was going to be away for a few days for business, and he lamented that he didn't want me to go to work. When I told him that I needed to work to help provide for the family, Daniel said, "You don't need to work, Daddy. I have money in my piggy bank."
He's also pretty good at comforting people, and does this "it's okay, it's okay" thing while patting Sophia or a crying friend on the back. Oh, how I want my son to love the Lord and to have a heart of compassion for those around him.

Monday, November 24, 2008

And A Trade for Frédéric Weis Might Be Imminent

The Jets and Giants both won key games this past Sunday, sparking hopes for an unprecedented New York versus New York Super Bowl, but I'd actually like to highlight the new coach of the Washington Wizards, Ed Tapscott, who took over after Eddie Jordan was fired today.

Although he's anonymous to everyone except the most fervent sports fans, Knicks fans remember Ed Tapscott as the genius who, after raving about his Weis' workouts in Europe, drafted him 15th in the NBA draft over such talents as Ron Artest and James Posey.  Weis' biggest sports moment was being on the receiving end of a highlight reel dunk by Vince Carter in the Olympics, which allegedly scarred him to the point of absolutely ruling out coming to the NBA to play ball.  I remember Ed Tapscott in an inteview after the draft, smugly talking about how the Knicks now had a talent who could take over the reins from Patrick Ewing in the middle. Contrary to some reports, Tapscott did not do a secondment this past year at Lehman Brothers.

Good pick, Ed.  If you needed to pick a European, Andrei Kirilenko was available about ten picks later.  That would've been nice. Even Wang Zhi-Zhi would've been a more serviceable stiff.

And To Think I Blamed Lack of Affection and Verbal Abuse

According to a recent article in CNN, there's a study which attributes long-term development problems to baby strollers (buggies) which face outwards.  I tend to think is pretty far down the list of things that are the biggest culprit of emotional problems later in life.

For our kids, we've used a convertible seat which has faced towards the parent through nine months, and then switch to our Peg Perego stroller which faces forward.  I'm not a big fan of the Peg Perego stroller not because it faces outwards, but because any uneven surface of more than 1/2 inch stops the stroller dead in the tracks.  So when I'm pushing Sophia along and we hit a slightly raised sidewalk panel, the stroller goes from 30 to 0 in a half-second and my poor daughter gets lurched forward, like one of those crash test dummies in a Volvo commercial.

Anyway, the study makes some good points about talking or engaging the baby while he or she is being strolled, which I think is the bigger deal.  My kids could be facing me the whole time while I'm strolling with them, but we're not going to exactly connect if I'm pushing them while tapping out e-mails on my Blackberry or constantly refreshing the browser to I can get updated scores of the football game.  Not that I would ever do that.  Of course not.

I think forward facing strollers are actually a good thing, because it promotes the spirit of "the world is out there, I'm here for you and will help support you and direct your steps, but look around and absorb," as opposed to the "feel free to glimpse at a little bit of sky over my shoulder, but for the most part stare at me because I plan on living vicariously through you and controlling your life."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

So The Co-Pilot Went Crazy, Eh?

A recent report about an Air Canada co-pilot suffering a nervous breakdown during a flight from Toronto to London made me a little concerned. My understanding is that many airlines have routine psychological exams to ensure that pilots who are inclined towards taking their lives and the lives of their passengers with them never make it to the cockpit, but incidents like these and the case of EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1999 seem to indicate that there are still holes in the net.

What can you do? Very little, I suppose. As you board a plane, you're generally greeted by the flight attendants while the pilots are tucked away in the cockpit running their tests. It's not until the plane lands and you deboard that you are bid a kind farewell by the pilots. I always tend to give a genuine "thank you" to the pilots as I exit, which if I had more time, might be more fully described as "thanks for flying the plane competently and not giving in to to any urge to try any acrobatic maneuvers."

What's interesting in the Air Canada incident is that they had a real Airplane! (the classic movie) moment when the flight attendants went around asking passengers whether anyone was qualified to fly a plane. I wonder if I would have resisted the urge to answer, "I flew single engine fighters in the Air Force, but this plane has four engines. It's an entirely different kind of flying - altogether."

The Arrogance of the Big Three

This week, the leaders of the "Big Three" American automobile manufacturers went hat in hand to Capitol Hill to make their case for taxpayer relief, at the tune of $25 billion. In a previous post, I mention in passing about how poorly conceived and ultimately fruitless the Chrysler bailout was, and I don't anticipate that handing over a large check to GM, Chrysler, and Ford at this point is going to see any different results. Each of the companies have terrible labor contracts with the UAW which are strangling the company and the company still builds cars which are not resonating with American customers.

Despite their insistence that American cars are equal or better in quality to their Japanese counterparts, I'm not sure if they've already lost a large portion of a generation of people - my generation - who don't believe them. I grew up in a period of time in the 1980's and this is my personal experience as it relates to American cars:
  • Our family owned two American cars, which constantly had trouble (I remember my mom needing to insert stick in the engine area every time we wanted to start our Dodge), and later bought a Honda which lasted 14 years without any major problems.
  • I grew up hearing Lee Iacocca claim that the reason why American car companies were losing ground to the Japanese was due to unfair trade practices, with an underemphasis on the need for his own company to improve their product.
  • I watched, as an Asian-American, television commercials for American cars with xenophobic undertones. I distinctly remember a Pontiac commercial with Japanese background music with a voiceover mocking "maybe you've been watching too many foreign car commercials."
  • I remember print ads which trumpeted the Plymouth Acclaim - "the car that beat the Honda Accord" and showed data that a majority of people who test drove the two cars preferred the Acclaim. What wasn't mentioned that the test drivers consisted of present Plymouth owners who didn't own a foreign car. Hmm... the Plymouth Acclaim vs. Honda Accord. I wonder who came out on top of that battle?
So for me, and for a lot of other in my generation - there's a complete loss of credibility. I've seen the same American carmaker rhetoric in the 1980's around "we have the best quality cars" when history has shown otherwise, so how can I believe the rhetoric now? Even with the improving J.D. Power scores for American cars, it's going to take a lot to get me to switch from buying a Toyota or Honda vehicle because of the undue risk I'd take by switching from a product which has been so reliable.

Fast forward to this week's bailout proceedings, and what's gotten a lot of attention is a report that the Big Three auto CEOs flew private jets to D.C. to ask for taxpayer money, acts which a congressman compared to "seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo." I have to agree - this is simply exercising terrible judgment.

I worked for a private consulting firm, and we pretty much burned piles of money for fun (not literally) - which was fine considering we weren't publicly held, raking in a lot more money than we were burning, and the decision-makers behind lavish black-tie dinners and expensive gifts were also the owners of the company. I presently work for a publicly held company, where there is understandably a greater sensitivity in terms of internal spending, even to the point of recently banning company-paid meals for breakfast or lunch meetings unless the meeting lasts the entire day. Because of our responsibility to shareholders, everything needs to be above board and subject to the "sunshine" rule.

Believe me, our highest executives aren't exactly forced to brown-bag leftovers to take public transportation to corporate events, but we aren't begging for taxpayer money. It's hard to scream poverty when your mouth is full of caviar.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Collateral Damage in Our Votes

A common refrain in this last election was the the Republican party no longer holds a political monopoly on the evangelical Christian community.  Left-leaning faith leaders such as Jim Wallis have emerged and have raised the banner of "people of faith" for Barack Obama and the Democratic party.  Before the election, a friend of mine even forwarded to me a "Conservatives for Obama" website in which one person, who was steadfastly against abortion as a matter of religious conviction said that he would simply have to "agree to disagree".  Some people, and many evangelicals with whom I go to church with in New York City sprout the usual speech about the importance of looking at a myriad of issues, and that there is no single issue that can be held as paramount. Other evangelicals insist that the Republican party has "used" the evangelical base, a charge which I think has some merit.

If you are an evangelical voter who is pro-life and believe that abortion takes human life, then you can't feel too good about a recent CNN article outlining what might be coming up in President-elect Obama's agenda, including expanding support for abortion here and abroad with federal dollars.  I hope for all of our sakes that four years down the road, it won't become evident that the Democrats "used" the evangelicals who voted for them to further some parts of an agenda at odds with the convictions of people of faith.

Of course, if you're an evangelical voter who happens not to be pro-life, you won't care.  You might be completely happy with (if all goes well) a healthier 501(k) plan, better public education, expanded healthcare coverage and diplomatic stability with allies and enemies - and believe me, those things are all very good things.  Others will have to deal with the realization that, like their Republican-voting counterparts, many who winced and chafed at foreign policy decisions made by the Bush administration, that their vote came with some collateral damage - the proliferation of death of unborn children here and abroad.

Won't Watching the Nets Further Depress You?

In what might be one the more creative crossover promotions I've seen, the New Jersey Nets are providing free tickets to unemployed people who submit their resumes for a career fair to be held in the Izod Center, where the Nets play their home games.

The cynic may remind people that due to the team's planned move to Brooklyn and the departure of two of their biggest stars (Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson), attendance at Nets games is right up there with attendance to to professional lacrosse.  But it can't be a bad thing to essentially give away tickets that wouldn't have been sold anyway to folks who are out of a job and their families. Four free tickets doesn't account for the $50 in ridiculously priced concessions and the $10 in parking that a family would have to pay (there's no reasonable public transportation to the Izod Center), so it won't be a complete loss for the Nets.  

The question that I have is, if I lost my job, would I want to watch Vince Carter bricking 25 jump shots a game while his overmatched teammates watched in a vain attempt to tank games until LeBron James becomes a free agent in 2011?  I'm not so sure.  Besides, I've had the hot dogs in the Izod Center - they're awful.

I Always Knew That Santa Was in Cahoots with the Humanists

There's a new ad campaign courtesy of the American Humanist Association which is aiming at taking the Christ out of Christmas, or at least even more than it already has been.   "Why believe in a god?  Just be good for goodness' sake" is the tagline, and is meant to, according to a spokesman for the AHA, to build community for atheists and agnostics who feel isolated and lonely during the holidays because of the association with religion.  I have this picture in my mind of humanists in red sweaters with cups of ciders and fruitcake singing humanists carols, while reading passages from Dawkins' and Hutchens' books.

This doesn't really upset me as much as sadden me. At the risk of sounding condescending, I have a great deal of compassion for people who feel isolated and lonely because they do not or will not appreciate the miracle of the incarnation, and it saddens me that they don't connect the dots in terms of their angst at all being symptomatic of the absence of God.  It's much like the deaf person who may never appreciate the layered beauty of a Bach concerto, or a blind person who cannot fully grasp the wonder of a canyon expanse.  For those who do believe, it's incumbent upon us to always remember that the ability to appreciate and believe in what God has done through Christ is a gift of grace.

In the meantime, the rest of us theists will continue to get high on the opiate of the masses, as Karl Marx would say.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

'Change We Can Believe In' is Here; Now Let's See Some Results

Congratulations to Barack Obama and his supporters for his historical victory in the presidential election.  Regardless of where you sit on the political fence (I happened to place my vote for the Maverick and the Moose Hunter), there's no denying that this is a monumental moment in the history of our country and the world.  As an ethnic minority, it's pretty heady stuff to see someone who is African-American seated at the highest seat in the nation, and arguably the free world.

There's a lot I like about President-elect Obama.  He's articulate, charismatic, obviously intelligent, and has shown glimpses of wanting to reach across the aisle to work towards common goals which unite our country.  I think he can greatly improve our foreign relations.  A colleague of mine mentioned that he's globally well-liked and perceived as a nice guy.  That being said, my response was to remind him that Jimmy Carter was also perceived as a 'nice guy' and was arguably one of the worst presidents in the century who oversaw an oil crisis and a hostage rescue debacle in Iran.  Reagan wasn't universally loved by either Europe, the Middle-East or any of his Soviet counterparts (Andropov, Chernenko or Gorbachev), and he is arguably one of the greatest presidents of his century.

I disagree strongly with some of Obama's policies around social and moral issues, most notably his 100% pro-abortion record (as lauded by NARAL), and I'm wary of components of his tax plan which may lead to a slippery slope towards a ill-conceived Marxist redistribution of wealth which will further burden present and future generations with money-eating government programs while doing little to generate large-scale economic stimulus.

But my faith reminds me that at the end of the day, our hope is not in whoever sits in the White House, regardless of their political affiliation.  To paraphrase Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire, "God made countries, God makes kings, God makes presidents."  We would we wise to lift prayers for President-elect Obama - for wisdom, strength, and moral courage.  I don't think he would deny that he could use them.