Thursday, May 27, 2010

Virtually Ignoring People

There's a well written article in the New York Times about the growing incivility in the use of of handheld devices (e.g. Blackberries, iPhones) during meetings, and the general premise is that for all intents and purposes, the use of these devices during meetings is tantamount to walking up from the table and ignoring the discussion because you're bored or you simply don't care that much about the topic at hand.

That assessment seems brutal, but it's probably true. The article also hits it spot on when it addresses the common rationalizations of why people do this (myself included). Those who pull out their Blackberries during meetings (or we'd defensively argue, "lulls and breaks between topics during meetings") will claim that it's multi-tasking at its best. Since our jobs have become so overwhelming and the demands are so daunting, there's a good chance that there's some sort of request or query that we've received in the past thirty minutes, so why not do the sender a favor and respond when we can?

But the reality of the matter is that 99% of those e-mail requests can wait, and the topic at hand in the meeting just isn't grabbing us. Sure, the fact that many employees feel overwhelmed with things to do certainly adds to the phenomena, and this also serves to cloud our judgment in terms of what ought to be important enough to warrant our full attention. You can blame the proliferation of meetings that have absolutely no purpose and corporate cultures that are collaborative to the point of inaction (my company is notorious for this), but at the end of the day, there's nothing like sitting at a meeting and seeing your peers all fixated at their respective 2-inch screens tapping away.

Our handheld wireless devices are great sources of convenience, but it's also made being rude a heckuva lot easier. Just think, ten years ago I would actually have to step away from the meeting and take fake bathroom breaks to show just how disengaged I was.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Kids Menu at Le Bernardin

A recent article raised the raging debate of whether some fancy restaurants have crossed the line in not just permitting, but actually encouraging diners to bring their young children to sample the foie gras and tuna tartare, risking patron-disturbing tantrums, food playtime and screams of "No, I will not eat my braised asparagus with white wine! I want McNuggets!"

As a parent of a son who has apparently inherited my picky tongue and my preference for the fast food value menu over fine refined dining, I concur with the desire of restauranteurs who are on a crusade to help refine the young palate so they don't grow up thinking that the pinnacle is processed meat and high fructose corn syrup. Despite my own culinary leanings (KFC, Long John Silver's), I'd like my son to be able to eat a braised short rib, mint encrusted lamb chops or pan-seared cod with burnt butter sauce without having a gag reflex (thankfully, my older daughter has the culinary openness of my wife, so she'll eat almost anything).

What I found interesting is how strong the reactions are from those who absolutely want kids to be nowhere within a mile radius of fine restaurants. Posts such as:
"People who force their toddlers on others in enclosed public spaces like fine restaurants (and airplanes) are even more selfish than those who insist on talking on cell phones in such places."

"I'm with the majority -- thanks for this list, because now we know which high-end restaurants we will never set foot in."
I understand the frustration. I'm also the guy that wrote about the idiocy of allowing people to use cell phones on airplanes. To enjoy a romantic, peaceful and thoughtfully-savored meal without undue distraction is the right of people who plunk down $125 or more per person. I think the reasonable compromise is to ensure that there are strict and well-defined codes of behavior which are enforced upon those who bring children. If those are continuously violated to the detriment of the other guests, then the restaurant will reserve the right to pack the meal "to go" and send the patrons along their away.

At the end of the day, the market will rule how this evolves, and people will vote with their feet. If the "I want to bring my kids to fine dining" crowd proves to be more of a financial boon than the loss of "anti-kids at fancy restaurant" crowd, then fine restaurants will either (1) they need to jump on the bandwagon or be left behind or (2) they need to find a niche for kid-hating food lovers (see the second comment above).

So in doing my part to make my voice heard, I'd better find my Zagat's copy and get the kids ready for dinner.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Next Stop for the King

I can empathize with Spike Lee's conflict in rooting for the Boston Celtics last week, but yes, when it comes to the dreams of Knicks fans who desperately want to see LeBron James in a Knicks uniform next season, all anti-Boston sports sentiment (which was later satisfied when the Bruins choked away a 3-0 series and Game 7 three-goal lead to lose their playoff series to the Flyers) had to go out the window, and I was admittedly thrilled when the Celtics bounced the Cavaliers out of the playoffs, leading many to wonder where LeBron James, who will be entering free agency on July 1st, will end up.

I'll fully concede that I'm biased as a Knicks fan, but I think the Knicks provide as good as a situation as any of the teams considered serious contenders to get LeBron - it's certainly much better than Chris Broussard thinks (who's missing a major point which I'll get to in a second). ESPN columnist Bill Simmons probably has the most accurate breakdown of the three-team race (Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks), with the New Jersey Nets as a dark horse, and my thoughts are similar.

I'll sum up the other contenders quickly. Cleveland can pay him the most from an NBA salary perspective, but that goes out the window because that money will be but a fraction of his total sponsorship compensation. The bigger push for Cleveland will be his love for his nearby hometown Akron, and a sense of loyalty and desire to bring a championship to a team and city which has seen so much sports heartache (insert video clip of "The Fumble", "The Drive", or "The Shot" here). Miami has cap room, Dwyane Wade as a sidekick, beautiful weather and a hip lifestyle commemorated in a Will Smith song. Chicago has some great pieces in place with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, and as the third largest media market in the United States, LeBron will get some expanded exposure. The New Jersey Nets is now owned by a Russian billionaire who will probably make Mark Cuban look poor and frugal in comparison, and has a minority owner in Jay-Z who is a personal friend of LeBron. They'll be moving to a new arena in Brooklyn and will have some nice young players to build around, including Brook Lopez, Devin Harris and (possibly) John Wall.

The Knicks can offer a max-salaried sidekick (Chris Bosh? Amare Stoudemire?) and most importantly, New York. Broussard pooh-poohs this in his article, but he's wrong. The reality is that winning in New York magnifies the accomplishment of any sports icon, right or wrong. Assuming (and this is a key assumption) that LeBron can bring a championship to any of these teams, winning in New York provides the greatest glory. Mark Messier's Stanley Cup championship with the Rangers is far more remembered than his five with the Oilers, and to those who whine that Derek Jeter and his five championship rings is over-hyped and overrated because of he plays in the New York and has the benefit of playing with star mercenaries paid by the Steinbrenner's bottomless pockets, well, you can't have it both ways. The fact that these New York champions are hyped to demigod status is because they do it on the biggest stage with teams which have bucketloads of cash to throw at the best free agents. Give credit to the "hype-machine" and New York excess where it's due.

LeBron will never be able to achieve that level of glory in any other city. Heck, in Chicago, he'll never get out of Michael Jordan's shadow. If he goes to Chicago, he won't be even be able deified as the Bulls' greatest player ever - let alone the greatest player in NBA history. And to all of those Chicago fans talking about Jordan "passing the torch" to LeBron, I don't buy that one second. Jordan's legendary competitiveness would never allow concede any mantle to anyone. If he goes to Miami, he goes to "Dwyane Wade's team" and risks being perceived as winning a title as a sidekick. With the Nets, he'll have to play two years in Newark purgatory (but hey, I wouldn't mind having him a short commuter-train ride away at the Prudential Center for two years), which he's not going to go through. As for Cleveland, he faces the "been there, did that, didn't work" phenomena and the limited upside of not being in a major media market. He'll be big if he wins championships, but winning in Cleveland won't measure up to winning in New York.

In New York, he'll get a chance to resurrect a long-suffering franchise (thank you Ed Tapscott, Scott Layden and Isaiah Thomas) with a global base of fans. He can electrify a city and easily claim the mantle of greatest Knick ever (with all respect, a ring-less Patrick Ewing, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere aren't the same roadblock as Michael Jordan). Yes, he needs to win, but I think that can be done with another max-player, Eddy Curry's contract coming off the books next year, and some good complimentary pieces that Donne Walsh can find, and a weaker Eastern Conference.

It makes sense to me, but hey, I'm a Knicks fan.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Observing a Kid's Search For Identity

In the midst of the joy of welcoming our baby daughter, Sarah and I anticipated that our kids would go through some sort of adjustment period. Daniel has, for the most part, done just fine, but our Sophia, perhaps not surprisingly, has found the adjustment a bit more difficult.

It makes sense. Sophia used to be the baby of the family as well as the only girl. The arrival of our baby girl has changed both of these parts of her identity. She's also a charmer and a bit of a ham, so the loss of attention has probably been a bit of an adjustment, too. Fortunately, I guess, her "acting up" has been mostly targeted towards her mother and me as opposed to her new baby sister, with whom Sophia has been nothing but doting and affectionate. Some of this behavior manifests itself in a marked increase in tantrums, defiance, regression and even the occasional potty accident.

Sarah and I will continue to muddle through this - my being at home provided a little bit of a transition period - but we'll do our best to help Sophia realize that she is very much treasured and loved, and to also help her embrace all of what's good about being an older sister and middle child, though I don't think Jan Brady ever solved this dilemma on the Brady Bunch. Lisa Simpson seems to have done just fine. Anyway...

Seeing Sophia's sub-conscious struggle served as a reminder of how the losing of one's self-identity is a very scary thing. At our church fellowship group, we've been studying Tim Keller's The Reason For God, and a recent chapter touched on this very notion of identity while discussing the essence of sin. Keller quotes philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: "Sin is: in despair not wanting to be one self before God... Faith is: that the self in being itself and wanting to be itself is grounded transparently in God."

The point is that our sense of self defines our sense of worth, and if we ultimately don't tie it to our relationship with God, we tread on dangerous ground. Insomuch Sophia's identity was tied into being the "baby girl" of the family, this came crumbling down when her baby sister showed up. But the truth of the matter is that I struggle with this as much if not more than my daughter does. I wonder how much of my identity and self-worth is really tied into my ability to provide for my family, my success at work, my kids' "success" or even my service to the church and others? What happens when those things "fail" or I find myself incapable of doing those things? Does my sense of value disappear along with it? That's the kicker: many if not most of the things that we struggle with in terms of "alternate" self-worth and identity aren't bad things at all - many are really good and praiseworthy. We're just misguided when we choose to exclusively define ourselves by those things.

As for Sophia, your mom and dad both love you very much. It didn't take you being the baby girl of the family for us to do so.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Stay At Home Productivity Dilemma

As mentioned in my previous post, I've been swamped with my tenure as a "stay at home" dad. My mornings usually start with my daughter Sophia waking up way too early and crawling into bed with me and my wife (after a lousy night sleep constantly interrupted by our baby daughter). Failing to get her to lie peacefully between me and my wife as she kicks me awake, I take her and my son Daniel down to breakfast at which point the day becomes an unpredictable spin cycle of making meals, enforcing the eating of meals, cleaning, tasks, chauffeuring, disciplining, mediating, entertaining, teaching, aiding going to the bathroom (for Sophia), household chores, bathing and whatever else comes my way.

It's exhausting, which is why I find it perplexing yet completely understandable when stay-at-home moms struggle with feeling "unproductive". Let me give some context: our family has moved into a new place which is not surprisingly becoming a money pit. In addition to annoying things that have needed to be fixed (some painfully more expensive than others), there also is the random IKEA, Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond-type items which are purchased to organize or fill out the house. One of things that Sarah and I have challenged each other is being wise around not purchasing non-essentials.

A week ago, I raised the idea of buying a shelf to be adjacent to the television above our fireplace, to place various video peripherals, to which Sarah glared at me and said, "Wow, you really have 'housewife' syndrome." When I asked what she meant, she told me it was her theory, I suppose a somewhat self-confessed theory, that stay-at-home moms can be susceptible to buying things unnecessarily in order to feel productive. Another variation of this theory is the "rearranging of the furniture for no reason" in order to feel productive. Maybe she's right, but it strikes me as odd that a stay-at-home parent would ever struggle with "not feeling productive" given all the things that are done within the course of a day.

I think this phenomena exists because there's a dichotomy between "being busy" and "bring productive". The corporate equivalent of this is "being stuck in meetings all day" does not equal "getting work done". In the aforementioned laundry list of things I mentioned I've been doing with the kids, it can be difficult to measure progress, and there's certainly no validation or external recognition of progress being made. It's not like our kids sit stay-at-home moms down for a year-end evaluation and say, "As you know, we were able to increase my character by 22% and my eating habits are 16% better. In recognition for this, the partners and I will be given you a promotion to 'Level 2 Mom' and award you 500 restricted stock options. Thanks for your continued contributions." There's no check in the mail or defined metrics which can comprehensively capture how well a parent is parenting, and "progress" or "productivity" is hard to quantify or see.

Also, I feel like I've been treading water. Progress? I'm having enough challenges making sure that my kids don't kill each other or that I'm picking Daniel up from preschool in time while synchronizing with Sophia's nap. I'll be happy if I've been able to keep them reasonably healthy and unscarred by the time I go back to work.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why Some People Work

Last week, former first overall NFL draft pick and LSU star quarterback JaMarcus Russell was released (or essentially fired for those of you who aren't sports fans) by the Oakland Raiders. Russell marked his three years in the NFL battling accusations of lax workout and game preparation habits, with many critics blasting his desire or will to win.

Columnist Peter King noted that Russell "loved money and what it bought far, far more than he cared for football." Another columnist, Don Banks, quoted a league source who said "(Russell) just refused to work at it. That sums up the whole thing. He was in love with the idea of being a wealthy young guy, but he has no drive to be a great quarterback. He's a young guy who came into a lot of money and notoriety by virtue of being the No. 1 pick. But in that situation, unless you have that special motivation, what's the point of working hard? If you already have the money, the only thing that keeps you improving is the work ethic. I just think he doesn't really want to be an NFL player. He was a great college football player, but he didn't want it in the NFL. If he keeps playing now, he plays only out of boredom."

So in addition to replacing Ryan Leaf as the biggest NFL draft bust, JaMarcus Russell becomes an intriguing extreme example of someone who works to live as opposed to lives to work. He's someone that apparently doesn't care for his job so much, except for that fact that it affords him a lot of money and things that a lot of money will buy.

So let me ask a question - does our society really think that's wrong? Let me play devil's advocate on this one, because I think we can be pretty inconsistent here.

If Joe Financial Analyst chooses to do a passable job at work and remain a mid-level manager to make his $120,000 annual salary because it affords him a "good enough" life for him and his family, should we crucify him for not staying until midnight reviewing charts and analyst reports which would make him an even higher performer? Does Joe really have a moral obligation to "max out his potential" (whatever that means) so that he's the best financial analyst that he can be, regardless of what the consequences are? If his desire is to work only to the level which affords him the ability to provide a given lifestyle for his family, who are we to judge?

As King said, Russell loved money and what it could buy more than football itself. In other words, if football paid minimum wage, he wouldn't play, in contrast with so called warriors of the sport (let's say, Tom Brady or even Derek Jeter in baseball) who the media implies simply dedicate themselves and play for the love of the game even if they weren't getting paid (puh-leeze). So what? Are you really going to tell me that if investment bankers, neurosurgeons or anesthesiologists weren't making high salaries, that people in those professions would still choose to work in those fields if they got paid minimum wage?

Or are we condemning Russell for "throwing his future earnings away" because he could have made even more money in his next contract. Really? What if he simply was content with $38 million, realizing that he can easily live on that for the rest of his life? Would we similarly condemn a person who created a start up tech company, cashed out and sold it to Microsoft for $38 million? Sure, the entrepreneur could have made more money if he wanted to put the effort into further developing the business, but somehow we're not inclined to batter his character as we are with JaMarcus Russell. That's what Russell did - he built up his "venture" at LSU and sold out, retiring to the Caribbean beach villa next door to the tech entrepreneur.

Blame the NFL salary structure, which pays ridiculous guaranteed rookie salaries with no consideration of performance, but don't blame Russell for taking advantage of a system which absolutely provides no meaningful incentive for future performance.

Interestingly, had a little web tool that estimates how long it took for JaMarcus Russell to make my annual salary, and how long I'd have to work to earn what he did in three years. If he doesn't care about the game, the "respect" of his fellow players, and the barbs thrown by the sports media, who's to say that he didn't do what was right for himself? He cares most about money and he got $38 million of it for doing very little - by his measure, I'd say he's pretty pleased with himself.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Everyone Else's Sin

A few nights ago, I was reading with Daniel a devotional out of My ABC Bible Verses: Hiding God's Word in Little Hearts, which provides a devotional based on a verse or a topic for each letter of the alphabet, starring Bill and Missy, the fictional protagonists. "A soft answer turns away wrath" (Proverbs 15:1) was the topic du jour, and we read about how Missy was reminded of this verse when Bill angrily lashed at her for the audacity to ask to borrow his toy truck. Missy gave a soft response (instead of succumbing to the temptation of calling him a 'poopyhead' or something along those lines) and a shamed and convicted Bill apologized and handed over his toy. Good times.

In any case, it was a timely devotional, because it was the same day that almost the exact situation occurred with Daniel and Sophia. During an argument over the unauthorized playing of his trains, Daniel screamed at Sophia that she was 'bad' and the 'meanest person in our family' and Sophia angrily debating that point. I was thrilled that this devotional would be a spot-on teaching opportunity.

So I asked, "Daniel, can you think of a time today when you could have used a soft answer to turn away anger?"

Daniel paused for a second and said, "Yes. Daddy, you should not yell at mommy." To which I replied, "Daniel, we're talking about you, not me. But yes, I shouldn't yell at mommy." And then I proceeded to spank him for his insubordination. Kidding.

The exchange illustrates the common phenomena of how our "sin" radar is so finely tuned outwards and I was clearly as guilty as my son. He somehow missed that the devotional applied to him and my first instinct was that the devotional was most prophetic in his life, not mine. We read Scripture or hear a sermon and we sometimes think, "If only Person X were hearing this. Yeah, this totally justifies my self-righteous anger and indignation," when we somehow miss the applicability of the admonishment in our own lives.

So yes Daniel, I need to hide Proverbs 15:1 in my heart far better than I do.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Changes at the Speed of Life

I've bit on a bit of a sabbatical from blogging due to a number of life changes. For those of you who aren't tied into the details of our family life, we recently moved into our new home after a three month layover at my parents' place (major life change #1) and then we followed that off by welcoming our third child, a little girl (major life change #2). Both of these events were positive, even joyous, to be sure. But they've physically and emotionally have put us through the ringer.

My employer (by policy) and boss (through his support) have enabled me to take a couple of weeks of paternity leave, which predictably have been exhausting while punctuated with occasional moments of "that's a precious father-child moment"... which usually was quickly washed away by a fight between or meltdown by one of my kids. My role has primarily been to stay-at-home parent our two older children while my wife gives full attention to the baby. I've taken the role seriously, whipping up a schedule on Excel which specifically defines what me, my son and my daughter will be doing each 30 minute increment - and not surprisingly, my planning has been shot to pieces, though I've managed some organization and routine of wake up, meal, change, "work", "fun", etc.

I could tell you that I have a newfound appreciation for stay-at-home parents - but I never assumed that my weeks on leave would be a vacation or sabbatical. I knew from the get go that my time at home would be more exhausting than my time at work - and bingo, I'm truly exhausted. It has, however, also made me recognize that a stay-at-home parent has a front-row seat to the lives of their kids, which is both exhilarating and a burden. Are there precious moments which only a stay-at-home parent is privy to? Yes. But my wife doesn't have the "luxury" of blissful ignorance that I do. She is aware of and must be sensitive to every action, spoken word, and incident that our kids encounter - and has to determine the right parental action or response, if any. Or put another way, while I fret upon upcoming deadlines and office politics in the 75% of my waking hours, my wife is spending equal time considering far more important topic of the trajectory of our kids' lives. I am deeply grateful for my wife.

In a few weeks, I'll end up returning to work and Sarah will resume her role, flying solo. Between our baby and our new home, we've been able to experience first hand the volatility of life. Our pastor recently talked about the importance of being grounded spiritually in Christ, so that circumstances don't have the effect of tossing you to and fro. We've had good practice going through some life changes which have been largely "good", so hopefully when trials and difficulties strike, we'll be duly prepared.