Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not Enough Money for Free Time

A recent article in Time observed that people generally do a poor job in terms of trading off time and money, or more specifically, we tend to overvalue money and the expense of time, which is truly more valuable. As the head of study notes:
"Work is necessary to pay the bill and contributes to an individual's sense of productivity and self-esteem, but the number of hours Americans spend working frequently exceeds that required to provide these benefits."
This is basically another way of saying that we perceive a level of work needed to provide which is much higher than reality. I'm not sure that this is completely true, because it leaves out the very large variable of the "what" in terms of "what is needed to provide." Most people, right or wrong, have a desire to live somewhere above the poverty level, allowing for a degree of amenity, comfort, leisure and luxury. What that level of amenity, comfort, leisure and luxury level is entirely up the individual or household. This manifests itself in the size of the house, the type of car you drive, the type of school your kids go to, the proximity to and frequency of going of cultural and entertainment events, the frequency and type of vacations a family goes to, etc.

I acknowledge that it tends to be a viscous cycle, particularly for breadwinners in the family. Many people who live large and want the best of everything often have and need to keep jobs which are extremely demanding from a work-life balance perspective. It begs the question, when do you actually have time to enjoy all these perks that you're high salary has purchased?

Maybe the question people need to ask themselves is more: do I really need these things to make me and my family truly happy and content? At the end of the day, would I rather have had more time spent "hanging out" with the family at home as opposed to rare slices of diversion-filled intense family time in the far reaches of the world?

Maybe the point is that people always seem to give the right answer: I value quality time more. But actions seem to betray those answers. I think this is largely where the "we need" and the "we want" becomes largely blurry, and self-introspection is very much lacking.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Squirrel Under My Car

A couple of Sundays ago, a squirrel jumped into traffic ahead of the family SUV about a hundred yards ahead in a two-lane highway. The squirrel scampered almost past the fast lane (on which I was driving) and then stopped as a car buzzed by it on the slow lane. The squirrel scampered back towards the median and then reversed back towards across the original destination ... as our SUV bore down on it.

A split second passed as I silently pleaded for it to get out of the way. I glanced at my rear view mirror and knew that with cars zooming behind me, I wasn't going to slam on the brakes.

The squirrel zig-zagged back and forth across my lane, seemingly confused, and as we drove past it we heard a sickening "thump".

"Arrgh, you killed it!" Sarah wailed, "Did you see that poor squirrel? The poor thing was confused and didn't know which way to go!" as I quickly defended myself, pointing out the cars that were tailgating me and not wanting to be our family at risk to be rear-ended by a stampede of cars.

My three-year old daughter sitting in the back apparently was too busy singing and missed out on what had transpired but wanted to know what the ruckus was and inquired, "What happened? What did daddy kill?" (Daniel was strangely silent with what I thought was a half-smile on his face. I'm pretty sure it was because he was just spacing out. Of course, if it was a case of nascent sadism, that's very disturbing, so I'll have to keep my eye on that.)

Before soon everyone was talking over each other, with my wife repeatedly lamenting "Poor squirrel! Why didn't you stop?" and Sophia continuing to ask repeatedly "What did daddy kill?" I managed to say between gritted teeth to my wife, "Honey, drop it - I don't need to relive it, and I don't want to scar Sophia."

So Sarah answered Sophia in Korean (which Sophia didn't understand), and Sophia quickly lost interest and resumed singing while Sarah silently mourned for the squirrel.

As for me, I did feel bad for running over the squirrel, and the more that my wife "personified" the squirrel, the more I felt worse - but I pretty much got over it two minutes after it happened. I did find it interesting how much my attitude had changed the three other times I was involved in squirrel road-kill incidents in my younger days. Yes, I remember every single one of them. There was the time my dad ran over a squirrel on Veterans Memorial Highway on the way to fishing when I was six - which distressed me and put a big dampener on that outing. There was my mom hitting the squirrel on the way to CTY in Lancaster, leading me to angrily berate my mom for not braking hard given that there were no other cars in sight. And there was the time I was driving to school as a high school junior and nailed a squirrel on that same Veterans Memorial Highway, making me depressed for the rest of that day.

Have I become jaded to believe life is unfair and life sometimes sucks, and sometimes you get hit by a car? Maybe recognizing the bigger problems in the world have made me less sensitive to the well-being of a random local rodent. Has my fondness for small fuzzy creatures dissipated now that I'm an adult homeowner who fumes at the damage that chipmunks have done to my yard? Maybe having kids have given me a new perspective on the "little ones" who are truly worthy of my protection?

For the record, I'm sorry I hit the squirrel.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

But He Was So Good on the Old "NFL Today"

Sportscaster Brent Musburger blindsided most of the sports world when he told a group of journalism students that athletes should be permitted to use steroids under a doctor's supervision. Musburger proceeded to tell the students that negative perceptions around steroids and its health risks were the result of uninformed "journalism youngsters" who "got too deeply involved in something they didn't no too much about."

It seems too much like a bizarre rant from someone who was suffering from a low-carbohydrate diet, which caused him to suffer a chemical imbalance in conjunction with consuming alcohol (inside joke referencing story here). Musburger apparently seemed to believe that the things that we read about steroids is tainted because any sort of doctor anecdotes are tainted as they are passed along by journalists. Whew, that's a relief, now that I know that it I ought to disregard any news passed along by journalists, I can significantly prune my reading material.

Now back to the odd premise, does Musburger really think that the use of steroids is a good thing? I guess to his point, "they work", but with the downside of significant adverse health effects. Doesn't anyone remember Lyle Alzado, who succumbed to cancer largely attributed to his steroid abuse? How about the well publicized case of teenager Tyler Hooten, who experience a host of mental health problems related to steroid abuse, leading to his suicide?

Does Musburger really equate the legitimate use of steroids in a therapeutic medical context with the use as a athletic performance enhancer?

It's not quite as bad as Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder's rant about black athletes, but it's clearly not a shining moment from the old "NFL Today" cast.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

When Freedom of Speech and "Hate Speech" Collide

It's not surprising that in the midst of picketing of Marines' funerals and plans to burn Qurans that the Supreme Court has had the question of how the constitutional right of free speech still applies in growing swell of incidents where people are calling for greater action against actions and speech that are considered to be hateful or offensive. Or put another way, our country is becoming increasingly polarized in terms of perspectives, views and values and the First Amendment may very well be caught in the crossfire between the sanctity of free speech and the growing instances where one group of people feel their civil rights are being violated.

I think Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer had it right when he made it clear that when it comes to speech and expression, things that we as individuals or a society may find morally wrong or ethically wrong must be protected as a fundamental protected right. This is going to become all the more critical as the diversity of thought and belief continue, and groups understandably use the law as an end around to marginalize those who believe differently then they do. The fundamental definition of "hate speech" is likely going to evolve depending on the epicenter of societal norms.

The case in Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell cuts to the heart of the matter. Shirvell, in a personal blog he kept outside of work, "lambasted 21-year-old Christopher Armstrong as a racist with a 'radical homosexual agenda.'" Shirvell, who is in some hot water given the context of his beliefs and his state position, is just one of a number of people who similarly under scrutiny for their actions outside of work. I'm not defending Shirvell or other people cited in the article (a state trooper who was a member of the KKK and a NJ Transit employee who burned a Quran), but I am concerned about the deprivation of people's livelihoods (and the government's tacit approval of this) based on nothing that goes on at work and a person's personal conviction and beliefs.

The issue then becomes: even if we agree that freedom of speech, even "hate speech" is protected from criminal prosecution, to what degrees to public or private employees reserve the right to punish that speech (done outside the workplace) through censure or termination? And when there's growing threat that a Christian biblical interpretation of marriage is being viewed as hate-mongering, how would that be different that any discriminatory hiring practice which has the same effect of penalizing orthodox Christians?

Depending on how the winds of change continue to go, the message will be clear for those who have "unpopular" beliefs or convictions: If you value your job, you'd better keep those beliefs to yourself.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

2010 MLB Championship Series Preview

Happily, my two favored teams swept through the Division Series with the Phillies using dominating pitching (and a historical no-hitter from Roy Halladay) to sweep the Reds. The Yankees ended the Twins season with a too easy playoff beatdown (in other news, grass is green and the sky is blue). Now both of those teams will face stiffer competition.

Philadelphia Phillies vs. San Francisco Giants
On paper, one would think that the pitching staffs are both terrific but the Phillies much better offense gives them the edge. Unfortunately for the Phillies, great pitching always neutralizes a great offense, thus giving the Phillies little margin for error. It's completely conceivable that the Giants, with their stellar four man rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner matching up favorably with the Phillies Big Three of Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, and it's quite possible for the Giants to win a series of 2-0 or 2-1 games.

The Braves didn't do any favor for the Phillies, with Brooks Conrad having an unbelievably horrid fielding Game 3, including allowing the winning run to score as a routine ground ball skipped between his legs. With that loss, the Giants were able to keep their rotation lined up and allow Lincecum to start Game 1.

At the end though, the home field plus the edge in playoff experience does make a difference, and the Phillies pull off a hard found series win to bring them back to the World Series for the third ear in a row.

Phillies in six.

New York Yankees vs. Texas Rangers
Unlike the Braves, the Rays actually did a favor for the the already-punched-their ticket-in-the-Championship-Series team by stretching the Rangers to five games, which meant that ace Cliff Lee won't be able to pitch until Game 3 of the ALCS (it's notable that Lee would be able to pitch Game 7). While it looks like the Yankees won't try to line up C.C. Sabathia for three starts (Games 1, 3, 7) and instead put A.J. Burnett in the rotation, the advantage still holds as it's entirely possible that the series could be over in five or six games, thus leaving Lee with only one start.

Are the Yankees as good as they were last year? Maybe not, though it's clear that this team presumed Achilles' heel, starting pitching, isn't quite as bad as feared. In fact, it's reasonable to surmise that Sabathia and Pettitte are just as good as last year, and Phil Hughes, who pitched six innings of shutout ball in Game 3, might be better than A.J. Burnett last year. Time will tell.

Not having home field will be tough for the Yankees, but the vote here says that needing to use Cliff Lee in Game 5 in the ALDS costs the Rangers the series.

Yankees in six.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Passing it Down

A little more than a week ago, I had the opportunity to accompany my wife as her piano student played the Israeli and American national anthems before the exhibition game between New Jersey Nets and Maccabi Haifa. As the teacher, my wife received complimentary tickets and we decided to make a date night out of it. The game was was marked by heavy security (protecting against a "Munich"-type tragedy), a sparse crowd (I'd put it at 4000 Maccabi fans, maybe 1000 Nets fans) and a nice performance by stud rookie Derrick Favors (whom the the Nuggets may very will regret not trading for in the aborted Carmelo Anthony deal).

Anyway, my main musing isn't about the game as much as how cool it was to have my wife go to big event from her student. Cynics can point out that the student happened to be the nephew of the Haifa Heat's owner and scream nepotism, but the fact of the matter is that the kid played keyboard on center court in the Prudential Center with 5000 people watching and did it with ice water in his veins. He definitely proved that his mettle and artistry. It was great to see Sarah give him some words of encouragement and reminders to "tell the story" in his playing - to ensure that not only focus on the technical aspect of his play, but to weave emotion and narrative into a piece of music. I know my wife was proud of her student, and I was proud of Sarah.

There's great joy in passing along a skill to the next generation and seeing them grow and succeed with those same skills. For teachers who are fortunate enough to experience and witness manifestations of that phenomena (often it's much more subtle than a national anthem performance at a basketball game), it can become even a more valuable reward than the X dollar per hour that they get paid.

So the question I ask myself is: professionally, what will be my legacy? Who in my workplace can I say that I've been able to mentor, coach and grow so that they can achieve heights that they otherwise would not be able to?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wasteful Traditions

A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer criticized a long time tradition at my alma mater, specifically the fans throwing of toast onto the football field at the end of the third quarter of football games at Franklin Field. When the traditional school song "Drink a Highball" is sung, fans hurl these tasty projectiles on cue when the line "Here’s a toast to dear old Penn" is sung (Get it, toast? Aren't Ivy League kids clever?) - supplanting an older tradition many years back when apparently alcohol was downed.

In any case, some are blasting the tradition as being wasteful, and it's not hard to see why. The article cites that it's about $500 worth of bread which is wasted, but the monetary value isn't as relevant as the contention that there are urban poor west of campus and north of campus who clearly could use the bread more than the turf could. The tradition could be construed as a bunch of privileged and spoiled Ivy League kids rubbing their wastefulness in the shadow of urban decay while food stamp families struggle to ends meet. The author of the article goes on to discuss alternatives to the current tradition, such as making each home game a food drive.

All fair points, but the reality is that traditional celebrations, by nature, aren't usually intended to have a greater good besides commemorating itself. It's sort of like trying to put a dollar figure on aesthetics - you can't. I was recently in Chicago and saw two beautiful fountains - but on another hand could be seen as a terrible waste of water and electricity. On the tradition front, we kill millions of trees each year to celebrate Christmas with what some argue is a pagan ritual having nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Millions of eggs are wasted by colored eggs during Easter which are discarded instead of eaten. In the fall, valuable arable land which could have been used for greater edibles production is wasted on pumpkin planting and harvesting, most of which aren't turned into foodstuffs, but are carved up into jack-o-lanterns. How about giving flowers instead of plants? How about wasteful paper products like greeting cards and valentines which are quickly thrown away. Are we really going to base the legitimacy of traditions on whether they're earth friendly or sustainable?

That's not to say that this shouldn't be part of the equation. If there's a more redemptive and less wasteful way to celebrate which maintains the spirit of the celebratory tradition, I'm all for exploring it. If our basketball team doesn't get back to respectability, I might support throwing toast on the floor of the Palestra as well.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

2010 MLB Division Series Preview

My favorite sports time of the year has arrived, nicely alleviating the dreariness of wetter and colder temperatures along with later sunrises and earlier sunsets - it's time for the Major League Baseball playoffs. Happily a couple of my favorite teams are in it, so this is my uneducated by as-objective-as-I-can-possibly-be stab at how things will unfold.

American League
New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins. For those of us who are Yankee fans, let's be honest that this is the best possible matchup for the Bombers, losing home field advantage notwithstanding. If you look at how the Yankees and Rays both struggled during the last week games of the season, it's easy to speculate they were both tanking to avoid facing Cliff Lee twice in the season. The Yankees losing twice to the Red Sox at Boston isn't a shocker, but the Rays getting beat up by Baltimore and Kansas City? C'mon.

So the Yankees get the Twins, who have had an amazing run considering they lost their star closer, Joe Nathan, at the start of the season and didn't have Justin Morneau for most of the season due to a concussion. Neither will make an appearance in the ALDS, leaving it to a banged up Joe Mauer to carry the team. Who else is going to hit? Delmon Young, a struggling Jim Thome? And after a great stuff but pressure untested Francisco Liriano, does anyone on the Twins staff remotely worry the Yankees? Surely not "American Idle" Carl Pavano.

Now the Yankees don't have great starting pitching, and insomuch starting pitching is the key to the playoffs, they're not in great shape. Is it possible that this is repeat of 2006, when the Yankees begged for and got a matchup with the Tigers, only to get sent home in four games aided by the revenge of Kenny Rogers (with Pavano playing the ex-Yankee revenge part)? It's possible. But I still think the Yankees match up too well against a team which has had zero success against them in the playoffs.

Yankees in four.

Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays winning the American League East earns them a home field advantage plus the pleasure of facing Cliff Lee twice. The Rays really struggled during the homestretch and Evan Longoria's been hurt. It'll largely come down to the matchup between David Price and Cliff Lee, which for our purposes will call a split. Assuming that the fans at Tropicana Field pack the stadium with cowbells to provide at least some semblance of a home field advantage for the Rays, I think the Rays will take the series in a tight series - doing just enough to get it done, setting up a battle between two American League East heavyweights. Speaking of American League East heavyweights, let me tip my cap to the hated Boston Red Sox. I've got to hand it to them - their team was absolutely decimated by injures but they still amazingly managed to win 89 games. That's impressive. That being said, please take your seats and enjoy the rest of the playoffs with the likes of the Royals, Pirates and Nationals.

Rays in five.

National League
Atlanta Braves vs. San Francisco Giants. The Braves needed to start their ace pitcher on the 162nd game to ensure they got into the playoffs and two of their best players (Chipper Jones and Martin Prado) are out for the season. The good news is that they did win that last game and punched their tickets for the postseason. The bad news is that based on how they looked in the last week against a Phillies team that had nothing to play for, they might not be here for long.

The Giants have very impressive pitching and with their midseason acquisitions of Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen, it looks like they've shored up their offense to at least look respectable. The bet here is that rolling out Lincecum, Cain, Zito and Sanchez along with home field advantage will be too much for the Braves to withstand.

Giants in four.

Cincinnati Reds vs. Philadelphia Phillies. I'm a Phillies fan, and try as I might, I can't really see the Reds taking this series. The Phillies have a three-man rotation which is unparalleled. I mean, when you have former NLCS and World Series MVP Cole Hamels as your third starter, that's saying something. Now in fairness, the Braves had as good of a trio in the mid-to-late 90's with Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, and they have only one World Series to their credit, so anything can happen. In theory, the Phillies bats could go silent and they could lose a series of heartbreaking 1-0 and 2-1 games. But possible isn't probable, and the bet here is that Citizens Bank Park will be hosting NLCS games.

Phillies in three.