Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Isolation of Paranoia

I remember that when I was a young buck in management consulting, we were peppered with suggestions around professional heroes and role models. Many of these people were (if you believe multiple sources) egocentric jerks, such as Larry Ellison, or people who otherwise tried to spin bad or questionable personality traits (desire to destroy others, single-mindedness, inflexibility, obsessive compulsive, workaholism) into something praiseworthy. For example, the title of (then) Intel chairman and CEO Andy Grove's book was "Only the Paranoid Survive", the implication that being paranoid was a good business practice. The fact that the book was really more touting against complacent thinking (which I agree), the title was probably spiced up to sell more books. That's fine.

But the reality is that paranoia, or at least relational paranoia is a big problem, and I think it plagues relationships far more than we might think. When I was at Emmanuel, one member shared his testimony and I vividly remember him sharing that when he was younger he "always felt that people were out to 'get'" him and that had a profound negative effect upon his relationships - one which was only truly healed and address when he gave his life to Jesus Christ. It's not difficult to see how relational paranoia becomes problematic - it creates massive barriers of distrust and the failure of that vulnerability becomes not just a wedge, but a destructive force that perpetuates itself. The mind begins to doubt any good action and the perception of bad motives creates greater anger and feeds that paranoia.

Recently, a friend "retweet" something from Bob Kauflin, who is Director of Worship Development Sovereign Grace Ministries. Bob tweeted: If I want to please God in relational conflicts, I'm wisest to assume the best of other's motives and the worst of my own.

That's so true. Assuming the best intent in the actions of others is remarkably difficult. Perhaps it's fair that we've been burned too many times and we know the capacity for wickedness of people exhibited in our own lives. I don't think what Kauflin is saying is to be naive - I take it as practical advice. We simply don't have the capability to judge others motives with complete accuracy, so to assume best intent is not only the God-honoring things to do, it's the most practical thing to do if we seek a positive outcome. What good, even of self-benefit, can come of your distrust and alienation of the person sitting across the table from you?

Further, the advice is akin to Jesus' words in Matthew 7:3-5 advising us to take the plank out of own eye before removing the speck out of our brother's. While we don't have the capability to assess others' motives, we have a better vantage point to judge out own. And if we're really honest with ourselves, our motives tend to be far less honorable then we'd like to admit. Or to sum up this way: other people's motives are often better than we think they are, and our motives are often much worse than we realize.

This is one foundational pillar of of walking in humility in our relationships with others, and as hard as this might be for a natural cynic as me, I can only hope that my discipline in this gets better over time.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Danger of Instant News and Extemporaneous Public Thought

I read with some interest an article by Mark Kriedler which decried the elimination of any sort of filter, boundaries and order around sports teams in our new era of Twitter and Facebook. He cited some examples where team conflicts spiraled quickly out of control because instead of there being a blowup and a cooling down period followed by some introspection and well thought-out action, sports players and coaches often spoke first and thought later, leaving terrible messes in their wake. In a recent example, the implosion of the French World Cup soccer team was largely tied to a locker room confrontation between star player Nicolas Anelka and coach Raymond Domenech. Instead of cooler heads prevailing, the exchange was made public almost immediately, leaving a reconciliation where all sides could save face impossible.

My bigger concern is how prevalent this is in broader society amongst networks of friends, neighbors, coworkers, and colleagues. I use Twitter and Facebook, but I try to be really careful about what I say realizing that not only can things be taken out of context, but it's never a safe to assume that things that you write (privacy settings be damned) won't get shared publicly with those outside of your friendly sphere - either through "Retweet", "Forward" or by simple word of mouth.

I had written in an earlier post about how humans by nature are easily inclined towards ripping other people as opposed to building people up. It feels better for our insecure egos, and the bully mentality embraces tearing people to shreds for a few laughs. The third chapter of James nails it:
5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Take our inclination to demean, belittle, complain and heckle (and I'm big-time guilty of this) and combine it with technology which gives us the means to share those snarky thoughts within seconds after they materialize in the mind.

That's dangerous stuff.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fast Food and Crappy Toys

A nutritional watchdog group recently threatened to sue McDonald's for their practice of providing toys for their Happy Meals. The complaint alleges that McDonald's is luring innocent children with colorful toys to consume their unhealthy food, which thus leads to greater childhood obesity and later, health problems including adult-onset diabetes and heart disease.

I think this is probably well intentioned, but I'm not sure that the root of the problem is cheap plastic toys which accompany a kid's McNuggets and fries. The case basically rests on the premise that kids are somehow compelled into buying unhealthy food. It's not breaking new ground by saying that excessive consumption of fast food is unhealthy (nobody, including McDonald's would disagree) - the group is essentially trying to eliminate any sort of marketing strategy which may encourage kids to eat McDonald's, which is ridiculous. Insomuch that including toys drives more sales, isn't that the point? It's part of the incentive tie-in and cross-promotion we learn in Marketing 101. Are we going to stop letting companies including freebies in toys, cereals, candy bars and collectors cards? Are we going to make it illegal for GM from offering free OnStar because it fools me into buying a crappy car?

There's no doubt that toys are part of the fast-food marketing strategy towards children, otherwise the industry wouldn't have spent $520 million on it. In my personal experience, the toys don't drive the decision to eat fast food, it just serves as a bonus for a family who has already made a decision to poison, I mean, eat there. If my kids insist upon the Happy Meal, I tell them 'no' - because I'm not spending a $2 premium on a meal that for a colorful box that we're going to throw away in 20 minutes and a 25-cent Disney-movie-based plastic toy made in Taiwan which will get tossed in a day. At least I can be assured that amongst my kids, toys don't compel us to eat fast food, because they ain't gettin' any of that. Well, I take that back if they're they're giving away Legos... or Transformers. And if McDonald's ever starts doing a promotion where buying 100 meals gets you an iPad, I'd probably be tempted. Wow, this gimmick is effective.

I suppose the nutritional watchdog group's dream of McDonald's putting their happy meals in brown boxes which state in bolded red letters: THIS MEAL WILL MAKE YOU FAT AND CAUSE YOU TO DIE EARLY will have to wait another day.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Or Can You Trade One in for a Nice Family Vacation?

According to a recent government estimate, the cost of raising a child from birth to age 17 is $222.360. There's a bunch of qualifiers in this estimate, of course, with variations in that estimate by geography, income level and age of the child. The study is raising some eyebrows as sociologists and other experts consider the impact that the economy is having on couples' decisions to have children or to wait. Many are understandably deciding to wait for more stability in their personal finances before commencing on what is a truly wonderful and life-changing (albeit expensive) chapter of their lives.

The study itself has some interesting tidbits. For example, the study cites that:
  • Housing is the most expensive part of raising a child (agreed - though Daniel seems to have a heckuva lot of trains)
  • The annual cost of a child raises as the child grows older (maybe this is partially attributed to the increasing difficulty of saying "no" to a child's desire for toys. Or put another way, sticking a sobbing Sophia in the shopping cart and rushing her out of Target isn't going to work so well when she's 16 But I'm still reserving the right to spank her.)
  • The cost per child is less for two-families than single-child families (this is basic "economies of scale" at work, which is all well and good since Carissa will have two and only two choices in terms of hobbies; if her siblings didn't choose it already, tough luck kid)
At $12,000 to $13,000 per year, that's still a good chunk of change. Sarah probably wouldn't appreciate it if I told Daniel and Sophia, "Hey, guess what? We're going to a Disney cruise followed with a week at DisneyWorld! Oh wait, sorry, your mom and I decided to have Carissa instead. Why don't you watch her as she sits and drools on the bouncy seat? It'll almost be as fun as DisneyWorld."

Of course I jest. For $12,000, we would've definitely done something much cooler than the Disney Cruise.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Kinder and Gentler OB-GYN

An article in the New York Times raised a New York State assemblywoman's fight to grant independence to midwives, who currently are required by law to associate themselves to a physician or doctor with a written hospital agreement. Not surprisingly, obstetricians and gynecologists are not in favor of this, and their reasoning might evoke cynicism or agreement depending on how you feel about your past experiences in childbirth (or my in case, being the supporting husband for a wife giving birth).

I insisted that we use a obstetrician for the birth of our first child. Being in a family with an affinity towards the medical profession (my mother was a nurse and my brother's a physician) and high regard for the discipline of scientific technical knowledge (my father was a microbiologist), I didn't want to leave anything to chance - I wanted what I thought was the highest level of technical ability and medical expertise. Sarah didn't object, so we moved forward with our obstetrician.

When Sarah went into labor with Daniel, our obstetrician was out at a conference, and one of her partners was assigned to us. The doctor would come in, do a quick check on how far Sarah was dilated, and then disappear for a few hours with hardly a word. Then he'd repeat the same thing a few hours later, leaving against almost as soon as he arrived, leaving most of Sarah's question to be answered by the resident and nurses. The obstetrician was summoned in when Sarah was ready to do her final push, told Sarah to push hard, out came Daniel into his hands. He clamped the umbilical cord, invited me to cut the cord, and then disappeared out of our lives. It had a little less personal touch than our FedEd delivery guy.

So when Sarah strongly suggested that we use a midwife, I didn't object - provided that the birth still happened at a hospital, given my "always prepare for the worst case scenario" mentality. I have to admit that the experience was night and day. Sarah's midwives were encouraging, they walked her through her labor and patient answered every question and coached her through every turn. They were able to exude competence and confidence without being aloof. After our experience using a midwife for the birth of our second child, I didn't hesitate repeating the practice for our third.

I'm a fan of midwives. Whether the proposed legislation is truly a fight for patient safety as opposed to an anti-competitive measure in the same spirit of physicians fighting against prescribing and practice right of LPN's and physicians assistants, I can't say. I would muse that if obstetricians provided the same sensitive touch and "patient care experience" as midwives did, there wouldn't be much of a market for midwives, would there?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Farewell to the Boss

Sad news about the passing of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who was a polarizing force for much of his tenure at the helm of what is arguably the most storied franchise in the history of sports. There will always be some lingering controversy around how he conducted himself, with the getting-banned-from-baseball-for-hiring-Howard Spira-to-extort-Dave Winfield mess, the seemingly sociopathical behavior when it came to employees and such, but for Yankee fans, it’s impossible to overstate his role and passion in pursuing greatness (albeit misguided at times), no matter what the cost.

I remember as a six-year old walking into the kitchen and my parents telling me that that the Yankees had lost the World Series to the Dodgers the night before. I started to cry inconsolably, and to this day, it’s always puzzled me why I cared so much. I liked baseball as a young child and I remember being a big fan of Graig Nettles, but it’s not as if I watched a single World Series game that year or snuck a radio under my pillow to listen to the games. I just felt bad that “my team” lost, and had to watch in anger as Steve Yeager and a couple of his Dodgers teammates lip-synched “We Are the Champions” on the next episode of “Solid Gold”. That pissed me off, and I obviously remember that vividly. I also recall that time as being introduced to the concept of “fandom” – caring so much about something that, in reality, impacted your life so little. While I lamented the Yankees loss, fandom was great.

What I didn’t realize at the time was just how long it would take for the Yankees to get back to prominence. I suffered through the Butch Wynegar, Steve Kemp and Omar Moreno years, lived through Ed Whitson’s meltdown and got to see Don Mattingly come oh so close with good teams that could never get over the hump. And many of us fans hated him, and fairly held him responsible for pushing some awful trades (Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps? Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden?) In 1996, the next era of Yankee greatness began, and on the whole, it’s been great to be a Yankees fan since. Much of this success is attributable to both his willingness to spend large amounts of money on the team, but surround himself and delegate responsibility to people who are capable – an attribute which he no-so-coincidentally mastered in the late 90’s.

A final note of appreciation is for his ability to laugh at himself, which doesn’t seem at all compatible with his alleged megalomaniac tendencies. I’ll never forget Steinbrenner hosting (and willingly presenting himself as foil at) Saturday Night Live. He lampooned his quick-hook in terms of firing people, wore fake breast implants and even lampooned the fact that he was being lampooned, interrupting a skit with tyrants Ghengis Khan and Idi Amin asking Lorne Michaels if this whole SNL episode “was just a set up to make fun of him.” Lorne Michaels’ response: “Why would we do that George? We’re all Yankee fans.”

You’ll be missed, George. Here’s to winning that 28th World Championship for you.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Commuter's "My Dog Ate My Homework"

Great news for all of the suburban and outer borough rat racers who commute to work using MTA trains - you now have a mechanism which will provide you documentation attesting to a delayed train causing you to be late for work. The MTA is providing a service on its website which allows commuters to request official verification via e-mail of a train delay, with all you need to do is enter station information and times.

The two unfortunate things about this is that it exposes the unreliability of a transit system to get us from Point A to Point B on time, which is irritating given the costs of train and subway fares which are soaring beyond the pace of inflation - the classic case of paying more for less. Also, it's a bummer for people whose work situation causes them feel an obligation provide documented proof for their lateness in the same way an eight-year old would get a note from a parent or doctor. Do they need to raise their hand and get a hall pass to go to the bathroom, too?

For better or for worse, if you're a commuter from Jersey like I am, you're stuck with the effects of no such nifty website functionality along with a 25% fare hike with reduced service - leading to overpacked train which make cattle cars seem comfortable in comparison. At least it provides me the ability to fib my way about missing an early morning meeting due to a late train without any ability to verify the truth of my excuse... not that I'd ever do that, of course.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Blurring Lines of Race in America

A recent article on revealed that interracial marriage is at an all-time high. This isn’t at all surprising given that one of the things that make me proud to be an American is that there really isn’t an “ethnicity” to America, or put another way, America, by design, is a nation of many ethnicities – not just one. We are a mosaic of races of which the colors will mix and match, this leaving more and more permutations of racial backgrounds. “White” people in America are mostly a combination of European ethnicities, and in time, most “Americans” will be a combination of European, Hispanic, Asian, and African ethnicities.

Some people may find this alarming, and not because they're bigoted, per se. They're concerned that the “mongrelization” (joking, I’m using the KKK term to be provacative) of races will lead to the eradication of ethnic cultural identity in the United States. My answer to this is that culture continuously evolves over time anyway, regardless of whether it remains uni-ethnic or not. Plus, it’s one thing to respect heritage, but another thing to feel an obligation to perpetuate it. For example, what exactly is Taiwanese-American culture? Is it defined as the culture that second-generation Taiwanese kids grow up in? By that definition, it has a limited shelf-life because the third-generation will surely have different cultural norms with American-born parents. Even amongst second-generation Taiwanese, the culture I was raised in is very different than my distant niece (who’s twelve), if for no other reason than the fact that her immigrant parents live in a far more integrated community than my parents did. New “cultures” will be built upon common experiences of being 2nd and 3rd generation Americans will emerge, and I think that’s okay. My children will have a shared culture with others who had a 2nd generation Taiwanese dad and a 2nd generation Korean mom. As I wrote in a previous post, they’ll have a lot of company, but even if they didn’t, I think they’d be okay.

I remember that that while I was at Penn, we had an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship large group session about dating and one anonymous question came out as “Is interracial marriages okay?” I was a little shocked at the question given how obvious I thought the answer was, unsure if someone had misinterpreted the passage about being “unequally yoked” (commonly used to as the biblical rationale on why having a common faith in Jesus Christ in a marriage is important) or whether they had grown up in a household where, for non-religious reasons, it was deemed wrong in improper to marry outside of one’s race.

The answer almost surprised me even more than the question. Instead of answering along the lines, “It’s completely fine, God’s kingdom will represent every tribe and every nation and your common ground in faith in Christ is ultimately defines you,” the lady who answered (a visiting IV staff worker, not the staff worker from Penn) answered by acknowledging that Bible stated no such prohibitions, but such relationships could be “challenging” due to cultural differences. The response surely wasn’t intended to be non-progressive or offensive (and in fairness, the observation is accurate – Sarah can’t stand how cheap I am as a Taiwanese male), but it did strike me as strangely less-than-completely enthusiastic. As the CNN article stated, I think as people continue to witness healthy and happy relationships that cross races, people will recognize that the dark and thick lines of culture aren’t quite as dark or thick anymore.

Perhaps the who question of identity is evolving, and more people, while still proud of their ethnic background, no longer hold it as the predominant defining factor of identity – and it is this predominant defining factor which holds the most sway in terms of who you choose to marry and spend the rest of your life with. For me, that’s my Christian faith; for others, as mentioned in the article, it might be education level, social class, or economic standing. People are falling in love and finding their soulmates recognizing that “someone being the same race” isn’t all that important.

I used to tease my Caucasian friends who had “yellow fever”, as they seemed almost exclusively interested in Asian women, but as I look back, their attraction isn’t misplaced at all. Asian women rock. I married one, too.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Humility to Welcome Being Served

I read with some amusement a news article about Young Min, a young man whose friends essentially deserted him after he enlisted them to help move from Flushing to Manhattan’s East Side via subway. A dozen household items, an air conditioner, a television, and 40-pound bag of rice later, Min found that his friends didn’t answer his calls or show up to school.

Anyway, one of the things that often frustrates friendships and particularly Christian community is the lack of love between people that manifests itself in serving each other. This comes about when people lack either the time and inclination to care for others in need, and are thus unwilling to make the sacrifices to care for another person, whether that be through meeting someone for a meal and asking how they’re doing, helping someone with some errands around the house, or picking them up from the airport.

What I’ve come to notice is that another common problem lies in people’s unwillingness to admit that actually need help and their aversion to being served. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, people don’t want to seem imperfect or needy, so they avoid seeking help. Asking for help communicates that you’re not self-sufficient, which is tough to swallow in this culture of fierce independence. The pride in this reasoning is evident – “I don’t need anyone else.”

I think another reason why people don’t accept help is because they actually don’t want to extend themselves to help others. Let me explain – people can get caught up in a egalitarian “zero-sum game” of credits and debits. Or put another way, if you get help from others, you may feel obligated to help others in return. If one has no interest in extending him or herself, they’d just a soon stay out of that equation altogether. Or put another way, “Don’t ask for my help, because I didn't ask for yours.” This is unfortunate, because it presumes that people can and should always reciprocate (in a similar vein, the most gracious kindness to extend is one which can never be repaid). Pride is also part of this rationale – “I’m too important to be inconvenienced to help others.”

It’s a shame, because those who don’t allow themselves to be cared for by others are really missing out. They miss out on the sweetness of friendship, seeing interdependent Christian community as it ought to be, and the deepness in trust that can only be developed and tested when an offer to help is accepted. “I’ll humbly ask for and accept your help” communicates vulnerability, trust and love in a profound way.

So there’s great value to seeking help – as long as it doesn’t involve your language-school buddies moving your apartment possessions and furniture by foot and subway.