Thursday, April 22, 2010

How Entitlement Kills the Soul

I read with great interest an article in the New York Post written by a “rich Upper East Side mom” who confesses her complicity in the spoiled and self-absorbed nature of her teenage daughter. Tracey Jackson, who ironically (or not) is the the screenwriter of "Confessions of a Shopaholic," refreshingly doesn’t lay most of the blame on society or her friends – she rightly recognizes that nobody forced her to follow like a lemming the destructive indulgent habits of clueless rich parents around her.

There are some over-the-top references that raise the eyebrow, such as the $12,000 worth of clothes strewn on the floor of the ungrateful daughter, the birthday party where the kids' lack of appreciation of a private screening of "13 Going on 30" and Matrix caps led to kids throwing shoes at the screen and $200 worth of damage to the theater, and the massive bills from Dolce & Gabbana and iTunes. Jackson laments the intense peer pressure both kids and parents face when living and rubbing elbows with people where seemingly "everyone's doing it" - from the private schools to the expensive lifestyle - the implicit question seems to be, "How do you develop different standards for your kid when doing so may lead to complete social isolation?"

The reality is that even, albeit not at the same level, most of us will go through some form of this as parents, where the social, school, maybe even church-circles in which we run may have spending and lifestyle norms very different than your own family's. Instead of saying 'no' to vacations to Lake Como, maybe it's not going on vacation at all. Instead of Dolce & Gabanna, maybe it's not going out to eat, period. Instead of Fendi, maybe it's not buying the latest Leap Frog toys. It takes a great deal of courage to stand firm to withhold something from a child which seems so freely given away in other households, but I'm certain that such actions will pay dividends. Not only will parents avoid setting foot on an increasingly slippery slope of indulgence, it'll also be a good lesson in terms of understanding the danger of "entitlement".

I hope that Sarah and I can make wise decisions with our children in this regard and teach our children well. We live in a town where many, if not most, are far wealthier than we are. I hope we can teach our children, without the least bit of apology or shame "no" - they are not entitled to live the same lives, own the same "toys", or enjoy the same "perks" as their friends. In fact, nobody in our family, including Sarah and I, are entitled to the house, car, food, clothes or health that we currently possess.

Of course, what will ultimately make the difference in our children's lives is how we model that same character. Entitlement is not just a phenomena that plagues the rich or the young. I remember a Tim Keller sermon over ten years ago which still sticks with me which captured the point well. He said (more or less): "You can be living an obedient life and still be galactically unfaithful. How will you know if this is the case? How do you feel when things are going badly in your life? When you don't have a job, or don't have the perfect romantic relationship, or find yourself in distress, do you find yourself angry or bitter in light of the life of obedience that you've lived? You're not being faithful - you've lived a life where you've put yourself on the throne to manipulate God to give you the things you want. What you're really saying is 'God owes me'. Nothing could be more unfaithful."

Such is the essence of entitlement. I hope and pray that Sarah and I can model a very non-entitled life to our children, and for all of us to remember that God is ultimately the giver of all the good things we have, and that these things are given to us by grace. It's much easier to swallow the withholding of things that you never felt you deserved in the first place.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Can You Hear Me Now?" at 20,000 Feet

I stumbled upon the news that we may start seeing more people on their cell phones during airline flights with the improving technology, increasing cost-effectiveness and thus increasing demand for the ability to take and make phone calls during flight. I think this'll be awful.

When cooped up on a barely-physically tolerable seat on an airliner filled with stale recycled air, the last thing that I'd want is some guy in yapping away on a cell phone constantly asking "can you hear me now?" and making great efforts to sound and appear self-important because he's using a cell on an airliner. Despite reports to the contrary, I can't see how this won't cause considerably more friction between passengers than we presently see on trains and buses.

First of all, it's much more common for people to sleep on planes as opposed to other forms of public transportation. It's unlikely that one will sleep through one's stop on a plane, so people predictably allow the rumble of the turbofan engines to lull one to sleep (works like a charm on me). The trips are generally longer so you're hoping that sleeping will somehow help the time pass by more quickly, and there's only so many times you can read that "Great Sights in Houston" article on the in-flight magazine before the intense boredom you quickly doze off. People aren't going to take kindly to being constantly interrupted by cell phone shouters.

It'll also start getting freaky when it comes to doing the forensics around airplane disasters. Not to be morbid, but pilot cockpit voice recordings (CVR) before and during airplane crashes are pretty scary as it is. I'm not looking forward to hearing on the news and archived on the internet sound clips like, "Yes Sally, that merlot was definitely divine... I did try that new lasagna recipe putting shredded prosciutto on top of the, what the... AHHH AHHHH AHHHHH!!!"

And to that lady who complained to me about how loud I was tapping on my laptop keyboard on my train from Summit to New York (and who was pretty nasty, to be frank), I'm sure you're really going to wish I was your seatmate when you get stuck on that middle seat between two overweight guys with bad breath who spit as they shout into their cell phones. Not that I'd wish that upon you, of course.

Maybe we'll see the Acela "quiet car" concept replicated on these airlines. In any case, I'm sure it'll be only slightly less tolerable than my bawling baby. After all, my kids don't share more information about their personal lives or business dealings than people care to know.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Madness of King Jamie

I recently had a chance to watch an episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and have to say that I found the show quite entertaining. As someone who admittedly likes to eat fast food and snack on chips, the thought of a Food Network star trying to convince kids at school to eschew their chicken nuggets, pizza and tater tots for "healthy" food seemed like a good concept, and the execution was pretty good, too. The episode I caught (which I assume is pretty much standard after a while), showed Jamie at a Huntington, West Virginia elementary school locking horns with skeptical cafeteria workers and palate-challenged kids in a (I felt) unsuccessful attempt to eat organic burritos and pasta.

A recent article in the New York Post seemed to show that not everyone is exactly rooting for Jamie's little revolution to succeed. I agree with some of the criticism. Even on the show, Jamie can come off as a little patronizing and condescending. I suppose it's difficult for him not to - after all, for him it's clear that the food that the parents in Huntington are killing their kids, and he's bewildered why the parents are either too stupid or too apathetic to do anything about it. And when it's obvious that you feel that people are stupid or apathetic due to a lack of knowledge (a.k.a. ignorance), it comes off as, well, patronizing and condescending. Or as someone quipped on the show, "Who made him King?"

As far as some of his ideas, I'm not sure Jamie completely understands the uh... home economics of cafeteria operations (not to claim that I do). The use of processed foods is prevalent because it's cheap and can be prepared quickly and easily. If you want to go organic and healthy, you won't just experience a surge in the cost of the ingredients, but will also experience a surge in the cost of cafeteria labor due to longer preparation times (both which will get passed on to the financially struggling families). Do families want to start paying twice as much for their kids lunches so they can have arugula and free-range chicken? Probably not.

Another point that cynics make is that it's questionable whether Jamie Oliver genuinely gives a hoot about these kids or is this crusade a nice little means of getting a kickin' show with good ratings. Who knows? There have been a lot of celebrities who have done things to get television exposure. It can't be any worse than Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in A Simple Life.

Good luck to you, Jamie Oliver. Going up against American cuisine culture (you call it obesity) might be as successful as the time the British tried to get Americans to pay a stamp tax. For the sake of our kids' health, I hope you fare better.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Playing Into A Positive Stereotype

I read with mixed feelings an op-ed written last month by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times extolling the brilliance of Asian-American whiz kids, which comprised the majority of the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search. Of course it's nice to hear that kids from immigrant families from China and India, similar to the one in which I grew up, have distinguished themselves in the adolescent academic world. It's sure better than being unfairly stereotyped as a minority who suck up welfare rolls and join gangs while stealing American jobs. No, scratch that - Asians are still blamed for the latter - they just tend to be much higher paying jobs that our immigrant brethren are accused of stealing.

The reinforcement of the Asian-American whiz kid stereotype also irritates me because it leads Asians and non-Asians alike to idolize academic success as the be-all and end-all of existence. When you hear that "Local San Jose realtors are running ads in newspapers in China and India telling potential immigrants to 'buy a home' in her Lynbrook school district because it produced 'two Intel science winners,'" this is an example of the exploitation of this worship. As I wrote in an earlier post, not enough attention is given to the "collateral damage" of well-meaning parents who sincerely want their kids to succeed, leading to burned-out and embittered kids, some of whom which still end up as academic conquerors, and some who don't.

Another bone to pick in Friedman's article is that he uses the success of these Asian kids to launch into a love-fest for the globalized economy, which is sort of leap. While he talks about how wonderfully convenient it is for me to take an idea, have a "designer in Taiwan to design it. I can get a factory in China to produce a prototype. I can get a factory in Vietnam to mass manufacture it." This is all well and good unless you happen to be an American designer, prototype developer, or manufacturer with no intention of moving to Taiwan, China or Vietnam who isn't particularly gifted at coming up with "ideas". Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the efficient use of resources and the globalized economy, it's just that Friedman seems to conveniently leave out the messy pain and casualties of jobs and families left in offshoring's wake.

So yes, there are good things about immigration, academic achievement and the global economy - but it doesn't take an Asian kid to realize that there's a dark side, as well.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Useless Education?

A recent article in the New York Times detailed the financial boom experienced by for-profit trade schools who have experienced as windfall at the intersection of a terrible job market, an economy in recession, and a broken federal educational aid system which is putting taxpayer-funded Pell Grant money in questionable places.

The article puts the spotlight largely on trade schools such as ITT Technical Institute, Apex Tech, WyoTech, but also wagged the finger at culinary schools such as Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland, Oregon. These schools cost upwards of $20,000 per year, and many pundits have maintained that it's almost impossible for the return on investment to net positive for students that enter these schools, largely because (1) the abundant supply of people who already have these skills have made demand, and subsequently the salaries offered, for this work so low, and/or (2) those who are hiring place little value in these trade-degrees, with one executive chef at a local Portland upscale restaurant saying (to those who have the degree), "I'm going to treat you like you don't know anything. (The education) doesn't really give you an edge." Take this comment and juxtapose with the claims of the president and the vice president of culinary arts in the article, and you have to wonder if these trade schools, which market are outright predatory - stealing money from desperate people knowing darn well they'll never make it back.

I've had some lively discussions with my wife and some of my friends in terms of the value of a liberal arts eduction, some of which is reflected in an earlier post. Some of my friends find it utterly useless and impractical insomuch it doesn't provide a clear path to gainful employment. Others, such as my wife, insist that a liberal arts education is critical, because it serves as foundation of why and how you do anything, which needs to precede learning about the what (the trade skills).

Unfortunately through these for-profit trade schools which are providing useless skills (or at least non-value added in comparison to "on the job" experience) in a saturated market, they've managed to find a way to be even worse than a liberal arts education. Not only will your egg poaching and diesel-engine repair skills show little incremental superiority over others, but you won't be able to channel Descartes or Plato to figure out why you've dumped $40,000 on a meaningless degree.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why We Love Rose Nylund

Betty White has gotten a lot of press in the last few months after her hilarious appearance in the Super Bowl "Snickers" commercial, which subsequently led to a grass-roots push to have her host an upcoming episode of Saturday Night Live.

I have to admit that although it was remarkably uncool to do so, I enjoyed watching the Golden Girls. There was something both wholesome and hilarious about watching four geriatric women navigating through life's little foibles. For those of you who are either too young to appreciate the series or were too cool to do so, the Golden Girls was basically a sitcom where three older single women, Rose (Betty White), Blanche (Rue McLanahan), Dorothy (Bea Arthur) and her really-old mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) live together in Miami and get into all sorts of adventures, dealing with romance, sickness, problem children, gambling problems as well as the gratuitous "very special episodes".
I suspect that one reason why we love Betty White, Rose Nyund, and the Golden Girls because it gives us a picture of hope that we, too, will age gracefully and happily - that growing older needs not be a harbinger for misery, depression and loneliness. We look at these characters and see humor and joy, and whether the Hollywood depiction is completely accruate or not, it provides a pleasant contrast to the sad trauma or seeing a grandparent or elderly friend or relative withering away in a nursing home largely abandoned by others.
For many of us who are "middle-aged", it's still a challenge to come to grips that we too (God-willing, actually) will grow old and before soon, we'll find ourselves in a different season where some physical activities and even mental activities might be more challenging. It's scary for sure, but we have some decent role models with our friends on syndication.

Friday, April 2, 2010


And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch."And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."
A couple of times this week, I read these words from the 14th chapter of Mark, and it still strikes me how mind-blowing this is. Here we see Jesus who for his entire ministry on earth has seemed steady and in control of the situation. While he weeps upon Lazarus' death, the picture we see is one of authority and strength - after all, he proceeds to raise Lazarus from the dead. But consider the words we see in this text: distressed... troubled... overwhelmed... The thought of Jesus stumbling forward and falling to the ground prostrate in his overwhelming distress may look frighteningly out of character. But it all makes sense.

If you count yourself to be a Christian - one who will be at a church on Sunday proclaiming Jesus' resurrection from the dead - the power of that resurrection will be largely lost without understanding the profundity of that death. And Jesus' state of emotion at Gethsemane gives us a raw foreshadow of the depths of that death. The death that Jesus died wasn't the garden-variety human death that we'll all die. What made Jesus' death tragic wasn't first and foremost that he was wrongfully accused, sentenced, and killed. The death that Jesus' died paid the ransom for the sins of many, and the price of that ransom was the wrath of God in judgment for the sins of the world - the most terrifying and horrifying thing in the world. Gethsemane teaches us this.

From Gethsemane we also learn something prayer. We learn that that that this sweet communion with God is ultimately where we must to in times of our greatest need. And we learn that God answers prayers with sweet and bitter providence (plug for a fantastic book I recently read by John Piper) - not with verbatim order-taking as you'd get from a McDonald's drive-thru.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Lone Ranger Moment

At my parents' house a couple of weekends ago, I observed from inside the house, with some sadness, my son standing outside watching a group of kids playing happily and noisily outside next door at a birthday party. He had been playing by himself looking for insects using his toy yellow rake, and just stood there watching. He made no attempt to join them - he just stood silently and watched them play. After a few minutes of this, I invited him inside for a snack.

I've written before of the profound sense of love and empathy that parents feel for their children, and that most parents would gladly take pain and suffering on behalf of their children. So to build off that previous concept, I'd say that a parent would take pain on suffering on behalf of their child - and there's something about loneliness and separation which epitomizes the very worst sort of pain and suffering. The combination of those two premises makes for an interesting observation going into Good Friday - where we reflect upon One who died in the place of others, and hung on the cross alone as all his disciples abandoned him. Hmm...

When I mentioned the episode to Sarah and how I felt bad for Daniel, she observed that I might very well be wrongly assuming Daniel's emotions or sentiment. Or more to the point, I had assumed that he had a sense of longing to join in and play with the kids and felt sad that he couldn't, where the reality could've been that he was simply curious but really had no interest in playing with this kids.

That hypothesis has some legs, as Daniel can be very solitary when it comes to playtime. I suppose there's some balance there, but what I've observed is that he'll be happy to play with others so long as he's interested in the game or activity at hand. If he's not interested - and he tends to be very particular about what he wants to do at a given time - he'll simply opt to play by himself. For example, at a recent Bible Study, some of the other kids were playing tag and he was given an explicit invitation by one of them to join and play, but Daniel declined and proceeded to the playroom to set up some trains by himself. Now if some kids decided to join him to play with the trains, he'd happily have the company, but he'd be just as fine without it.

I'd like for Daniel to be able to appreciate the joy of being with other people, and that these relationships are ultimately richer than the activities themselves. It's sort of like the saying, "I'm here for the company" which is my quip when I'm with with my wife or friends either eating a restaurant I detest or doing an activity I abhor. The point being that it doesn't really matter what the activity at hand is; the important thing is that I'm spending time with those whom I love - that's what make the experience rich. It's what makes life rich.