Friday, January 28, 2011

Protecting the Defenseless

It seems to me that both political parties can be blasted for not doing nearly enough to care for the most helpless in society. The fact that both political parties take great pains in convincing the nation that the "other political party" is evil in ignoring the needs of those who cannot help themselves leads to a degree of hypocrisy, as blind-spots are ignored. The moral mandate in Western societies can be traced to the Judeo-Christian biblical mandate to care for the fatherless and the orphans scattered all over the Old and New Testaments, but even the most hardened atheist would find the practice of caring for those who cannot care for themselves laudable.

Democrats have been particularly vocal in labeling the GOP as malevolent nihilists, eviscerating the Republicans for "holding hostage" the unemployment benefits extension and their opposition to the current health care bill which would provide coverage for the currently uninsured. Democrats have pointed to these two examples as proof positive that the notion of the "compassionate conservative" is claptrap, and that these right-wingers are clearly more interested in lining the pockets of the uber-wealthy, special interests, big businesses and banks. Progressives are even more infuriated at the so-called religious conservatives who seem to ignore the imperative to love their neighbors, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry in the name of "fiscal conservatism" and "budgetary responsibility."

This blade cuts both ways, and what's ironic is that most of those same progressives tear their hair out around the oppression and destruction of the weak while callously ignoring the plight of the most helpless in our American society - the unborn. The unborn have beating hearts and developing minds and bodies, yet that have no lobbying power - they cannot vote, they cannot contribute to political campaigns, and they have no voice to protest. But yet many progressives stand silent - or worse yet, argue in support - while hundreds of thousands of these unborn children are killed every year. There's nothing humane or honorable about this, regardless of the societal spin. Recently, a horrible case emerged where viable babies at an abortion clinic in Philadelphia, where babies were killed by cutting their spinal cords with scissors.

What would even be more laughable, if it wasn't so tragic, was former Governor Ed Rendell's comments on the matter:
"It's a tragic situation, obviously. All of those of us who are pro-choice abhor this, because it casts a negative light on that movement. All of us believe abortion should be legal, but that it should be safe. Clearly, what this physician was doing is not safe. It's not safe for the mother. It's certainly not safe for the fetus."
Thank you, Ed. So you abhor this episode not primarily because it's barbaric and horrifying, but because it casts a negative light on the abortion movement. Furthermore, you lament that this practice of cutting babies' spinal cords with scissors isn't safe for the fetus. Really? When you pro-abortion rights folks come up with an abortion procedure that's "safe" for the fetus, please let me know. Now let's go back to this oppression of the powerless thing.

The common lame retort of progressives is that the woman's right to "her body" enables her to do whatever she wants - even if that means ending an unborn life. Is there a clearer example of oppression and the gross abuse of power than for one to "have the right" to take the life of another? Progressives throw their hands up in disgust when "callous and evil" fiscal conservatives insist that they should have a right to their own money and choose not to give to the poor, yet applaud when one human exercises their perceived right to take the life of another. Which sounds like the more extreme example of those who are powerful oppressing the weak? The conservative who greedily prevents the poor family from getting affordable healthcare, or the woman who terminates the life of an unborn baby because having a child is inconvenient?

I condone neither. The abuse of power and the oppression of the weak by those who have power should categorically be condemned. Conservatives and progressives both have a lot to learn about the care for the weak. Until all of us take the mandate seriously to care for the least and weakest of these, our brothers and sisters, can we really draw closer to a society in which the strong and weak, rich and poor, influential and marginalized with live in harmony - or as written in Isaiah, "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Beauty of Rest

I found that the long MLK weekend was a bit of a roller coaster for our family. It started off with the anticipation of a long weekend, followed by the scramble of Saturday morning errands including my wife's piano lessons and birthday party escorting, the craziness and fun of my son's birthday party, fellowship at church, the euphoria of the Jets beating the Patriots in a game that I had anticipated them getting creamed in, followed by everyone in our family getting hit hard by a stomach bug (with everyone except Sarah losing their lunch), spending Monday laid up in bed sipping Pedialyte (for the kids) or Gatorade (for the adults), and then concluding with the (sorta) relief on Monday night realizing that the bug was a 24-hour thing, and I was reasonably healthy enough to go back to work on Tuesday - a big deal since my work life is currently such that each day I'm out of the office seems to exponentially increase my workload.

It's interesting - this was the second holiday in a row which was marked with me being sick. In this case, having us knocked out on MLK Monday kept us from a planned day trip down to Philly, visiting friends and spending time at both The Franklin Institute and the Please Touch Museum. When I made the call to cancel on Sunday afternoon, Daniel wasn't shy about whining (see previous post) his displeasure at my decision, though I was vindicated when he orally deposited his breakfast all over the kitchen table the next morning.

An old cliché is that getting sick is God's way of telling you to slow down and get rest. I think it's probably a stretch to theologically tie that to any specific Scripture or doctrinal statement, but there's biblical truth in that God does highly value rest - we see this in the creation narrative in Genesis 2 when God consecrates the seventh day for rest. One of my favorite passages in the gospels is Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28:30:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
That's just a beautiful invitation right there. And who can't relate with the feeling of being burdened physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally with all the cares of pressures of this world, and to have an invitation to come to Jesus to find it? And yet we still structure our lives (or allow our lives to be structured) in a way which isn't at all conducive to rest. We pack our schedules to the point that it makes us almost nervous to see open spaces in our calendar on our Blackberries or iPhones - gaps just look wrong and need to be filled. We overcommit and sleep is treated as a luxury and something that happens whenever, as opposed to being possessively guarded as foundational to our sanity and physical health.

There's a societal obsession, especially in certain circles, with being productive, which has evolved into an obsession with being busy (not the same thing). I think many of us have lost the good discipline of doing absolutely nothing. I find that 24-hour stomach bugs make a pretty good compulsory practice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Teachers, An Appreciation

My brother's salutatorian address was titled, "Teachers, an Appreciation", which was one of the finer graduation speeches I've heard in my life. Sure, his fellow classmates might have thought he was pandering and sucking up to a group that rewarded his hard work with grades that got him into Brown's eight-year medical program. In his defense, he already had his acceptance letter, so the logical conclusion was that he sincerely believed that teachers deserved a pat on the back, which at 17 years old, put him far ahead of his time.

In any case, as years have passed and many of our former classmates have grown up to become educators - or at least parents who recognize the work that goes into teaching children - we too have developed at least some greater appreciation for the hard work of the teachers in our community. Ironically, teachers are also getting a wave of negative publicity largely because of the battles many municipalities are waging against teacher unions. Right or wrong, governors and mayors seem to be winning more converts in the PR battle with the public, and in a still hurting economy, more and more people are resonating less with the mantra that "teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated", but "the economy and job market's in the crapper, and these public employees should absorb the pain like the rest of us."

Recently, an old acquaintance of mine posted something on Facebook which resonated with me:
A teacher somewhere in your neighborhood tonight will be grading & preparing lessons to teach your children while you are watching television. In the minute it takes you to read this, teachers all over the world are using their "free time", and often investing their own money, for your child's literacy, prosperity & future.
There's a lot of truth there. In full disclosure, I'm married to an educator, and while she isn't currently teaching in a public school, she has her masters degree in education and has taught at multiple private schools, and she's not shy in articulating her belief that the lack of appreciation (manifesting in insufficient pay and respect) of teachers is nothing short of a moral outrage and a black mark upon our society. I have many friends who are teachers.

But the fact of the matter is that for a society that talks about children being the future and the paramount importance of equipping the next generation morally, intellectually and creatively - we don't seem to be putting our money where our mouth is. The Facebook post above is compelling because it also speaks to the contrast between a public teacher and a private corporate employee. Believe me, I work very hard, but I subconsciously consider the many times that I need to crack my laptop open during the weekend or a weeknight "me being a hard-worker going the extra mile"; for teachers, this is a matter of course and completely not optional. Teachers dig into their pockets and use their own money to pay for teaching aids and crafts for the kids; I take a taxi because of a dinner at a nice restaurant recruiting event (paid for by the company, of course), I'm expensing that back to the company, per policy. I'm not being the "wallowing in guilt" corporate guy here, I'm just duly appreciating the sacrifices that teachers make, which aren't always obvious to the rest of us.

Back to the current climate regarding teachers and their unions - I do think that the tenure construct needs to be revisited and some form of pay-for-performance which rewards the best teachers needs to be put into place. Yes, I appreciate that it's challenging to assess performance, but the answer, at least to me, isn't to institute a first-in-last-out policy based purely on seniority. If the unions show that their most important goal is about ensuring that their best performers are richly rewarded and equipped as opposed to protecting their weak performers, I think that's something everyone can agree upon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More Bad News for this LJS Junkie

In a personally bummer of a news flash for me, a recent report emerged that consumption of fried fish might be the culprit in significantly higher stroke rates in a region of coastal regions in American southeastern states. I've spoken in the past about my love for fried seafood chain Long John Silver's, and clearly I'd prefer not to jeopardize my life with an arterial blockage. Apparently, my lame claim that fried fish is still relatively healthy (omega-3 fatty acids, eat fish twice a week!) is more than offset by the high levels of fat, sodium and the actual reduction of omega-3 fatty acids when you fry the fish. Who knew?

Seems sort of funny to pick on fried fish, though. Is that really much more unhealthy than that Waffle House or Shoney restaurants that are scattered across the same region? Can people seriously tell me that hash browns scattered, smothered and covered for breakfast regularly is good for you? How about the Farmer's Breakfast specials? How about that same region's love for SEC football?

But the facts are the facts, I will sadly limit my intake to going to LJS a mere once every two weeks, which means I have some catching up to do to meet quota.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Wanting Cheese with that Whine

My wife and I have very pretty much exhausted our patience with whining from our children. I'm not sure we had a lot of patience with it to begin with, but clearly that tank is near empty, especially with our son, who could make whining an Olympic sport. Of course, it comes in bunch of interesting flavors:
  • Food: "This rice has so much green stuff on it! I don't want the vegetables!" Well, his antipathy towards vegetables is where the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree, but that's no excuse.
  • Activities: "I don't want to do taekwondo any more! I'm so tired!" Right, so we'll continue the pattern of you begging to do an activity, and you wanting to quit it after two months.
  • Church: (While sitting in a pew) "I'm so hungry!" or "I'm so tired!"
  • School: "I'm so tired! Do I have to go to school today?"
  • Playing Music: "I'm tired of piano! I never get to do any fun activities!"
  • Listening to Music: (While in the car) "Why can't we listen to kids music? We always listen to your music!"
  • Transportation: "It takes so long! It's so far! We have to go on three highways!"
  • Recreation: "You never let me do a fun activity! When can I use the computer?"
I could go on, but you get the general theme. I should also be fair in pointing out that the whining doesn't happen all the time, but enough that I can visualize it and break into hives as I type. Naturally, we've tackled this with a lot of dialogue, some not as patient and even-tempered as we'd like, but suffice it to say that there's a lot of conversation around us addressing his discontent in pretty much all areas of his life. We counsel him on the upsides and benefits of that which he is whining about, and talk about having a good attitude.

However, I've come to the conclusion that kids, including Daniel, aren't greater culprits and whining than me or most adults - it's just that we do it under our breath better. Or put another way, whining is simply an outward manifestation of a heart of discontent, which is the root (and worse underlying) problem - most adults have learned that people around them don't want to hear their whining so they simply shut up and internalize it. So as an adult, I'm a terrible whiner, it just doesn't happen to be audible, or I can do it in a way which sounds way more eloquent so it doesn't seem like whining at all.

Contentment is really a spiritual discipline. This is evident in Philippians 4, and our lack of contentment, when it boils down to it, comes down to a fundamental lack of faith articulated as a combination of "God, I don't think you know what's best for me", "God, I don't think you can do anything about it", and/or "God, I don't think you want to do anything about it." Clearly this doesn't mean that life isn't at times difficult, nor should we not acknowledge when it is. But there's a longer-term trust in the plans of a God who is greater and wiser than yourself, and rest of the soul which marks the content heart.

So Daniel and I both can improve in this area of whining. But yes, Daniel, I'd prefer to hear a lot less of it, too.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Balanced Superior Parenting

Amy Chua's article in the Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" is creating quite the buzz in the social network and blogosphere, and part of me yawns. Haven't we already gone through this debate before, with the book "Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers--and How You Can Too" written Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim? My point then was that hyper-achievement-oriented parenting with psychological torture is stupid, and it's still stupid. What I think is equally stupid is throwing the baby out with the bath water, and ending up in the other extreme that child-led parenting when you let the kids do whatever they want because they have the best sense of their own capabilities and "what's best" is optimal.

By Amy Chua's definition, I was not raised by Chinese parents (her definition is extreme to say the least). I was never forced to play my violin two or three hours, though it was insisted that I play at least one instrument with enough dedication to be good at it - and I did, making Area All-State becoming my high school orchestra's concert master. I did get to choose my own extracurriculars, so long as they didn't conflict with the handful of compulsory activities that my parents felt were important. And I watched plenty of television and played a crapload of video games. My dad had some choice names for me when I was out of line (some were perhaps lost-in-translation Taiwanese swear words), but in retrospect I find those sort of funny and attribute them to his lack of command of the English language. By worldly standards (I say this realizing that it sounds like I'm pompously patting myself on the back), I've probably accomplished much of what "Chinese parents" want their kids to achieve. And my hobby of smearing myself with peanut butter while rapping notwithstanding, I'm not experiencing mental problems like depression or schizophrenia because my parents "pushed me".

Here's what it comes down to:

Point A) Setting goals for your kids and pushing your kids to achieve those gets results - much more often than not, if you push impose a training regimen and drill any creature or human - there will be an increase in performance. Whether you're Amy Chua or Marv Marinovich (who infamously groomed his son Todd from the crib to be an NFL quarterback, and Todd did eventually go on to a career at USC before being an NFL first round draft pick for the Raiders), chances are that the kid will (within genetic bounds) run faster, be better at math and be better at a given musical instrument.

Point B) Pushing your kids past a certain threshold will experience the law of diminishing returns, and significantly increase the risk of rebellion and/or mental breakdowns either during or after the time of the parental "push". Not pushing the kid at all will lead to failure, but pushing the kid too much runs huge risks. For example, the previously mentioned example of Todd Marinovich? He struggled soon after the joining the NFL, failed numerous drug tests before succumbing to drug and legal troubles, and is considered a high-profile bust. Also note that the "results" that are gained, even in the best case scenario, don't speak at all to key character traits either from a spiritual or secular lens. In other words, congratulations, you might have raised a narcissistic neurosurgeon who makes lots of coin who's a complete ass and is an epitome with what's wrong with society.

The truth of the matter is that both of these are often exaggerated. Academic achievement, even if attained, isn't a guarantee to worldly success, let alone deep-rooted contentment and happiness. On the other hand, people who claim that pushing kids necessarily leads to mentally-anguished and bitter kids are grossly exaggerating. For every scarred Asian kid, there are many who are mostly happy, contributing members of society and largely glad that their parents pushed them.

The single-minded focus on either of these two above points leads to two groups of people who I think make mistakes around drawing conclusions by focusing on one and not the other, and depending on how and how passionately they articulate their point, annoy me:

1) You have people like Amy Chua, Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim who perpetuate the "Asian parenting secret sauce" myth enough that they're willing to sell these for a buck. I find this incredibly irritating if not abhorrent. Give me a break. I hope it's your guys' publisher that's trying to whip up this controversy in a lame attempt to get desperate non-Asian parents to think that this is a silver bullet to guarantee their kid gets into an Ivy League school, as if that's the key to happiness. People like that are essentially selling handguns to people telling them "They're great!" without the proper warning and context of the dangers behind them. It's irresponsible and exploitative.

2) On the other hand, I also find annoying those who are self-hating Asian "achievers" who find it convenient to completely spit upon the upbringing that gave them a comfortable life which they soak with relish. For example, the Princeton-educated corporate lawyer living in Greenwich, Connecticut in a five bedroom house with a beautiful wife and kids whining, "Boo hoo! My mom should have let me go out for the lead in 'Grease' instead of doing SAT prep... Jeeves, please fix me another cognac in my study in so I can drown my sorrows" irks me. If you're burned out on welfare after dropping out of Yale seeing a therapist two times a week, yeah, you have a legitimate gripe. I just have an issue with the yuppie who joyfully and shamelessly indulges in every creature comfort that was paid for by this "terrible upbringing" and then blames it for how horrible life is the next second.

Balance, people. Setting goals is and encouraging your kids to excel to their potential is not a bad thing. It has to be done within the the context of (1) spiritual/character development is paramount and (2) a parent's love is unconditional.

Don't be a self-focused parent who hides behind Point A telling everyone that you love your kids by pushing them towards a hypothetical easier life made possible by a fancy degree, when it's really your own ego you're feeding.

Don't be a lazy parent who hides behind Point B, enslaved by a desire to be liked by your kids, wanting to take the path of least resistance, claiming that academic achievement isn't important, while living off the fruits of that same academic achievement.

Maybe the key to this is humility. My pointed tone, notwithstanding, I fully understand that I'm not an expert when it comes to parenting - just a guy who hopes that he's shepherding his kids' hearts, minds and souls in a way which is God-honoring and doesn't leave my kids smearing themselves with peanut butter while rapping at the end.

Friday, January 7, 2011

To Resolve or Not

I've been asked on a couple of occasions about my New Year's resolution for 2011. I usually stumble over a few words and then end up telling them that I've never been big on making New Year's resolutions, and I don't plan on starting now.

I suppose my rationale that anything worth doing (getting more exercise, dieting, have more consistent devotions, spending more quality time with the kids) is worth doing on December 27th, or as soon as I've decided that it's a good idea - why wait until the beginning of the year to improve something you should improve anyway? Furthermore, if I'm relying upon a calendar date to spur myself to do some self-reflection on ways that I can be a better husband, dad, son, colleague, Christian, etc. I'm probably not self-reflecting as much as I ought to. If I come up with a brilliant way that I should improve myself in March, I'm not going to wait nine months to implement it.

There's also the reality that New Year's resolutions, at least for me, tend to be quickly forgotten and abandoned. I've yet to see people place New Year's resolutions in the form of Microsoft Project or 16x11 poster which is plastered to their wall. Most are spur of the moment musings that are off-the-cuff answers while holding a glass of brandy or sitting in front of your New Year's Eve dinner plate after a relative has ambushed the family with a "Let's go around the table and share what your New Year's resolution is." By the time the holiday revelry, post-holiday cleanup and transition back to the everyday grind pass, these resolutions have fallen to the 17th-ranked item in the priority memory bank.

In fairness, there's nothing inherently wrong or ineffective about New Year's resolutions - they just don't particularly resonate with me. Of course, I could challenge myself by saying, "The reason why I avoid these resolutions is that I'd prefer to have amorphous improvement goals without any accountability to achieve them." To which I quote Homer Simpson: "You tried your best... and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try."

So thanks very much, but I'll stay the course with my continued mediocrity in all phases of my life, with any improvement being completely unintentional and coincidental.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What I Did Over Christmas Break

In the spirit of all those grade school kids that had to endure Christmas vacation with the specter of a 1000-word essay to write around "What I Did Over Christmas Break", I will try to articulate the highlights of my 12-day respite from my day job.

Sick. This Christmas and New Year was unique that I spent almost the entire time sick. I started having upper respiratory congestion and body aches starting on December 21st at work, and the sickness was at its worst by December 23rd. The illness really screwed up my ability to sleep, as post-nasal drip and congestion would impede my breathing, leading me to wake up coughing uncontrollably before I could drift to sleep. Unfortunately, I've yet to completely lick this. It didn't help that my wife suffered from the same ailment. As always, being sick made me appreciate the comfort and peace of health all the more. As a friend of mine tweeted recently: "Most people will have many things on their wish list this Christmas. People with cancer have just one."

Food. There was a lot of food - way too much food. There were probably five celebratory meals plus four outings where we went out to eat. I confess that food is probably a guilty pleasure of mine, and in the spirit of the holiday, I was partaking in the celebratory breaking of bread. Lots of variety, too - Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine at my parents' place, American brunch at my brother and sister-in-law, Korean cuisine at my mother and father-in-law, and a couple of visits to Long John Silver's and other more distinguished outside eateries. I'm going to make a conscious decision to compensate for my holiday gluttony with a January diet.

Notable Gifts. I got some clothes and a portable dock for my iPod. Very nice. But I spent a heckuva lot more time playing with my kids' gifts. My daughter loved her tea set, so I dutifully played tea party guest as she poured tea and stirred sugar into my chai. What was much more fun was playing with my son's LEGO sets and Transformers. I have to say, the current generation of Transformers are much more polished and difficult than my generation's. Daniel got Sideswipe, which is now a Corvette instead of a Lambroghini, and transforming the Autobot into robot form was far more complex than the usual "pull down the legs and pull out the arms" typical transformation. Anyway...

The Great Blizzard of 2010. We got snowed in like most of the Eastern seaboard, getting stranded in Connecticut at the in-laws. In some ways, it probably was for the best, as the inclement weather forced us to stay home and do nothing. The storm did leave the family in a bit of a bind, as we were snowed in Connecticut and facing the scenario of driving back to New Jersey with a driveway packed with three feet of snow (with my snowblower and shovels inaccessible in the backyard shed). Thankfully, my dad came to the rescue but hiring a plow guy, allowing us to come back the next evening into a mostly cleared driveway.

Establishing Tradition. With Carissa experiencing her first Christmas, we're still very much into establishing little nuances to the Christmas holiday. We'd hope to go to a service, but the distance and timing didn't work for the family. On Christmas Eve, we found ourselves without an extended family dinner (which we've typically have done), so we went to our favorite local trattoria for a nice Christmas Eve dinner instead, followed by some singing of Christmas carols when we got home. My wife did a marvelous job yet again with her Christmas Day scavenger hunt for gifts - making the kids work for finding their presents as opposed to simply leaving it under the tree.

Child Bonding. With almost twelve days away from work, I had plenty of time to just hang out with the kids. I already mentioned tea parties with Sophia and LEGO spaceship building with Daniel. I also spent a lot of time with Carissa, who I've probably done the least baby-bonding time with out of my three children. It's nothing personal - just a matter of arithmetic. Daniel was at one time the only show in town, Sophia split time with Daniel and was the first girl, and by the time Carissa came along, the household was a circus. In any case, the break coincided with the eight-month "more responsive, almost standing and babbling" stage, which was great fun.

The Holiday Beard. So the next morning after my last day at work, I didn't shave out of laziness. By the next day, I figured I'd do something novel and see what an extended holiday of no shaving would do to my face. I knew darn well that my genetic makeup severely handicaps my ability to grow a robust beard - sort of like Cliff Claven on that infamous Cheers episode where he superglues a fake beard on himself to win a $20 beard-growing contest. I grew out a choppy and uneven monstrosity of hair, which looked something between a skin disease, coal mining soot and carpet dustballs attached to my face. Eh, it was nice to stroke my quarter inch stubble on my chin while I had it.

Reflection. I didn't do nearly as much reflection as I would've liked to, but I couldn't help but contrast last Christmas with this one. Last year, I was getting ready to head off to Urbana with a house half-filled of packed boxes that we were planning to move out of without a clear understanding whether we'd be in the UK or New Jersey in the immediate future. My wife was very pregnant, and our family of almost five was caught halfway between buying a house and waiting for my company to make a decision around my international assignment. As Christmas marks the coming of Christ, we are all grateful for the many ways He has manifest His grace and faithfulness in the past year.