Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The June 2011 Taekwondo Promotion Exam Diary

In a nod to Bill Simmons' excellent running NBA draft diary series, I've decided to pen a similar running diary for my 6 year-old son's recent taekwondo promotion exam, the second of which I've had the privilege of attending.

6:25pm ET: As I walk in to the dojang (essentially the Korean dojo), I am greeted by an old acquaintance and his father, who I also know. We exchange pleasantries and I learn that my acquaintance's son is a White Belt finishing his testing for a Yellow Belt promotion. Given my problems with the social promotion at this dojang, I'm tempted to tell them, "Unless your kid moons the teaching staff while spewing racially-tinged expletives, they'll promote him," but instead opt for the much more appropriate, "What a good looking kid! I'm sure he'll do fantastic."

6:35pm: Master Yoo warms up the crowd with asking the parents how they're doing. Realizing that it's a rhetorical question, instead of saying, "You know, I'm a little concerned about the restructuring at my company and I need to have better quiet times", we all say, "Good, sir!" in unison.

6:40pm: We do a tape ceremony, where I identify an area of improvement that our son will need to commit to improve and I layer a colored piece of tape on his belt. If my wife got to do this with me since the day we got married, today I'd look something akin to a psychedelic mummy.

6:45pm: Master Yoo tells a moral fable about five fisherman which I completely don't understand, which eventually leads to the adults being directed to turn towards each other and saying, "You can do it!" The heavyset fellow next to me manages to do this with a straight face. Thanks, I needed that.

6:48pm: Master Yoo handpicks three of the Green Belt kids and proceeds to choreograph a role play of a mom, dad and disobedient child which looks like something out of a bad ABC afterschool special. Is Master Yoo just making this up as he goes along? The lesson he's apparently trying to teach here is that parents don't like being kids who are defiant. This is followed up somehow with a pitch to the parents to buy the summer-appropriate Master Yoo T-shirts, Master Yoo Slip & Slide and official Master Yoo sunblock. Okay, I made up the last two.

6:51pm: Master Yoo starts off with the Green Belts testing for promotion to Blue Belts. Master Yoo demonstrates a kick combination which is then replicated by the students, which actually looks pretty cute - sort of like that scene in Jurassic Park II where the mother T-Rex slays the, well, never mind. I've gotta say that Master Yoo's still got it. I'm no expert, but I think he'd hold his own in a street fight. And he manages to do these routines while keeping his Ted Koppel-like hair impeccable.

6:55pm: One of the student looks absolutely disinterested during the student-teacher sparring session, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Either the kid is on to the fact that he doesn't need to do squat to get promoted, or he's totally intimidated by Master Yoo doing a spin kick over his head.

7:00pm: We proceed to go into the "point out your parents in the crowd and run over to them and give them a hug" portion of the test and I can imagine John Kreese and Bruce Lee rolling in their graves. Thankfully nobody fails this, except for the kid who gets called out for lying about hugging his dad "100 times". He is summarily roundhouse kicked by Master Yoo and ordered to do fifty push-ups on his knuckles. Well, not really, but that would've been far more interesting.

7:04pm: The Green Belts proceed with breaking 3/4 inch boards with a running kick, which is interesting because they couldn't rip wet paper towels with the force they're exerting. All goes well except for one of the pre-perforated boards, which Master Yoo has to work a little harder in snapping himself. I think I mentioned before in my post around Social Promotion how much I hate this part of the exam... what a charade.

7:07pm: Eight more Green Belts stand up for testing, and Daniel still is waiting. As I look at my watch, I silently resolve that I need to do a chore swap with my wife so I never need to sit through this process again. It's not really that bad actually, and you do actually get used to the stink of kid sweat on gym mats.

7:09pm: The next set of student-teacher sparring begins, where the Green Belts somehow manage to hurl their Black Belt instructors on the floor who are twice their size. And I thought that diving in soccer and hockey was unconvincing and lame.

7:15pm: Daniel's turn finally comes up, and he nails his combination routine, which he does in sync with three other Orange Belt to Green Belt candidates. Good job, but the kid with the Purple Belt who is simultaneously being tested has a scratchy Bruce Springsteen-like voice when he screams during his routine that puts a little more oomph into the intimidation factor. I need to get Daniel to try to integrate that or maybe Monica Seles' grunt into his arsenal.

7:20pm: My boy's doing really well. He just did a 45 second routine solo and didn't freeze or get flustered, which is better than his dad can do under similar circumstances at work. I wonder if any of these combinations work in the real world. I mean, "low block, punch, low block, punch, high block, punch, punch, kick, punch, kick, HAI-YA!" sort of goes out the window if you get blocked or thrown on the ground. And it's not as if you're told which combo to use when you're confronted. Maybe I'll sucker punch Daniel during dinner and see how well he can improvise.

7:26pm: Now it's time for the mental testing, a.k.a. the oral exam. Daniel gets stumped when asked how many times he hugs me in a day. Rats, that wasn't on the cheat sheet so he didn't know it was going to be on the exam. That's the problem with the Tiger Mom education which overly relies upon rote memorization.

7:30pm: Daniel's time to break boards and spar, which he does against an instructor who looks vaguely like Soon-Yi Previn with glasses.

7:35pm: The newly-minted Green Belts (like Daniel) are given trophies. The Green Belts are given nunchuks, which will be surely used on younger siblings later tonight. I'll be sure to check the local section in our newspaper tomorrow to see what the fallout was. Or some of my local physician friends are going to get some business.

7:37pm: Master Yoo is happy to announce "everybody passed, promotions for everyone!" which is as shocking as an episode of Scooby-Doo ending with, "And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids."

7:41pm: Daniel proudly hands me his trophy, at which point I'm tempted to break it in half and say, "Second place is no place, you're off the team!" But realizing that he wouldn't get the Karate Kid, Part II reference and I'd probably scar him for life, I let it go.

Good job, son. My smart-aleck comments notwithstanding, you really did a great job and I'm proud of you.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Convenienced to Death

Any time I drive my car, I'm amazed at how many people blatantly ignore the prohibition against using handheld cell phones while driving. Of course, that's not the worst of it. People are apparently texting while driving or shaking their phone using their Urbanspoon app in an attempt to locate a good restaurant while going 65 on the highway while also activating GoogleMaps for directions. It's out of control and I worry about my friends or family becoming a victim in an accident where this is a root cause. Heck, I'm terrified that a teenage texting driver will cut a corner in my neighborhood as my kids ride their bikes.

In full disclosure, I'm not totally innocent. I do have an integrated Bluetooth speakerphone system in my car so my calls are routed through the speakers and steering wheel control when I'm within 10 feet of my running car, and there are occasions when I browse messages when I'm stopping at a red light. I duly note the studies that insist that using hands-free devices don't solve the problem around distracted driving, but just make it slightly more tolerable.

In a recent conference in Detroit, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration safety czar David Strickland became a voice of reason when he told business leaders in the automotive and electronics industries that companies in these fields need to be really careful that they don't pursue convenience at the expense of safety. He said:
I'm just putting everyone on notice. A car is not a mobile device. I'm not in the business of helping people tweet better. I'm not in the business of helping people post on Facebook better. It's okay not to be connected when you're operating a car. I'm not going to dispute that people want these services. They do.
I'm glad that he has such principles, because when it comes to automobile convenience, we may very well need someone like David Strickland to save us from ourselves. I'm a self-acknowledged Crackberry addict, and my Torch is constantly by my side if not slid open communicating with someone or browsing information. If there's anything that will allow me to effectively stay connected while in transit, I'm there.

Unfortunately, most of us have lost the love for driving. I have friends who are car lovers (some of which have some very nice cars) who take a great deal of pleasure just out of sitting in vehicle and maneuvering it through a route, feeling the car adjust as it makes turns and hearing the engine hum as it accelerates. For the rest of us, we'd like to turn the car into our living room, and the automakers are accommodating that. What used to be a simple radio has now evolved into full-fledged "entertainment and convenience" packages. Widescreen video screens show Blu-ray movies, which will certainly soon include On-Demand choices from Netflix personalized for each passenger in the vehicle.

Of course, the driver is the other person who will need to be entertained and "convenienced", and that's where things get dangerous. The Bluetooth handsfree technology and the JBL stereo system already make it clear that taking a driver's audio sense away is fine, so will we see a proliferation of speech-to-text and text-to-speech technology which will easily allow people to hear and respond to e-mails, tweets and instant messages while driving? At what point does mental distraction become fundamentally dangerous? What is the minimum amount of mindshare that should be given in operating a motor vehicle going 70 miles per hour?

What limits will be placed upon how much visual attention can be taken away? Technology may soon provide "heads up displays" projected on the windshield directly in front of the driver which allow for video news briefs or condensed sports highlights to "pop up" when the vehicle is stopped. Is this the car experience that we want?

Our convenience and entertainment packages are going to get us killed if we're not careful.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Balancing Truth and Change

Two weekends ago in Detroit, a group of 2000 or so liberal lay Catholics gathered in Detroit for a American Catholic Council-sponsored conference to caucus and to discuss strategies to influence change in the Catholic Church, changes which include "... a greater say in church decision-making, which is often top-down, (with) many calling for women, gay and non-celibate priests, along with more of an emphasis on social justice issues rather than abortion or anti-birth control efforts."

There is another conference which perhaps not-so-coincidentally is happening on the same weekend sanctioned by the Archdiocese of Detroit, which will include priests and speakers who will affirm church doctrine and point out where the American Catholic Council goes astray in terms of fundamental and core church teachings. They leaders of the archdiocese has has sternly warned Catholics, particularly priests, against attending the American Catholic Council-sponsored conference, lest there's any semblance of sanction and support.

The arguments between the two sides aren't terribly novel. On one side, people are calling for change because they think that certain church views are certain issues are wrong either because their outdated, immoral in a the current enlightened age, or unpopular and irrelevant to modern-day populations. They put little weight on church tradition, and point to other instances where church teachings were rightfully evolved (only holding mass in Latin) and think that other issues should be treated similarly. I can only assume that they are genuinely concerned that this is a church which teachings are less and less consistent with society's norms that before soon, nobody will be there left in the pews.

On the other side, the argument is that church teachings represent absolute truth, and as unpopular as some of these things might be, you can't change truth to suit the audience or the congregants. To do so would marginalize the purpose of the church, which is not to be popular or to "win votes", but to pronounce the truth at all times. The top-down approach is right, say these folks, because that is how God has ordained His church to operate. (Granted, there's a little circular logic here, because to submit to that governance model, you need to submit to "top-down" church teaching in the first place).

So who's right? Well, it'd be easy to cast stones from the outside as a non-Catholic, but the answer isn't clear cut as it seems, and that's why every denomination has these sort of battles for its soul. Let's establish that truth is the core of what the Church is about, but how the truth is interpreted and where how that truth is applied is the core reason for all the church splits you commonly see.

The knee-jerk reaction from many Protestants as they see these Catholic schisms is to wag their finger and say, "Ah, if they only held to sola scriptura (or Scripture alone) as the core of their doctrine instead of man-made precepts and tradition, they would not be in this mess." But this conveniently ignores the fact that there have been far more schisms in Protestant denominations, most of whom would argue that they are in fact grounded on sola scriptura. There's plenty of areas of high emotion which are either not spoken to specifically in Scripture, or there's ample room for interpretation in more than one direction which leads to this phenomenon.

It's obvious that truth isn't negotiable and the foundational tenets of our faith - that which lead to salvation and holiness, and yes, those which are outlined by Scripture alone - are also non-negotiable, regardless of how unpopular those tenets may be (I don't remember Christianity being particularly hip in 50 A.D. either). As for the rest of it? Feel free to discuss, deliberate and tweak with due humility.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Fall of the King

This past Sunday night, I and about 98% of the country celebrated the failure of LeBron James and the Miami Heat to win the NBA Championship. It was a bit surreal, but a glimpse of the Twittersphere and Facebook universe showed a bizarre unity which rivaled the reaction of Americans when Osama bin Laden bit the dust (okay, it wasn't that unanimous). Overwhelmingly, the general public were thrilled, and you got the sense it wasn't so much that the Dallas Mavericks won, but that the Miami Heat lost. And these weren't just Cleveland Cavaliers fans or fans of other teams which were spurned during Lebron's free agency (Knicks, Bulls, Nets) or key competitors (Celtics, Magic) - it was an unpopularity landslide.

In an earlier post, I already argued that we ought to give LeBron a break, while also acknowledging that he poorly handled "The Decision". Of course, that didn't stop me from rooting for the underdog against a man who:
  1. Stabbed his home state and original team in the back on national television
  2. Took part in an over-the-top coronation celebrating the "Three Kings" of the Miami Heat before having a single practice
And when it was over, LeBron walked off the court, yet again, without a championship. Some random observations:
  • LeBron yet again looked awfully close to "mail it in" mode when his back was against the wall. This was a major critique in his team's flameout against the Celtics last year, and it came up yet again. As the Mavericks started to build their lead and precious time counted down the Heat's season, LeBron turtled and inexplicably started to pass the ball to role players instead of going down fighting.
  • Notwithstanding Scottie Pippen's laughable comment that LeBron James (without a single NBA title) could be better than Michael Jordan (with six), the bizarre twist is that James is actually more like Scottie Pippen... well, but not yet. At least Pippen was successful in being a wingman to a superstar who won titles.
  • Dirk Nowitzki simply had an awful shooting night(7 for 21), which was salvaged from "obscene" to "awful" only because he started to hit jumpers in the 4th quarter. I'm glad for Dirk, and yes, he hit some key shots when they mattered most, but here's what I don't get. A number of commentators applauded Dirk for his fearlessness in continuing to shoot the ball even when he couldn't hit the side of he barn in the first three quarters - in this situation, it's supposedly courageous. Knicks fans have painful memories John Starks in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals where he shot 2 for 18 from the field, but none of us were saying "It was courageous that he kept shooting despite missing his last 10 shots." So, is it only courageous if you end up winning? Or it that superstars should keep shooting even if they seem not to have their shot falling?
  • If it's the latter, here's where this ties into my criticism on LeBron being passive. If the theme is that superstars (or the best player on the team) should always be aggressive no matter how poorly they've shot the ball during the game, I wonder if that confuses LeBron given the presence of Dwyane Wade and - to a lesser degree - Chris Bosh. Or put another way, does LeBron subconsciously get paralyzed with, "I'm going to get aggressive because I'm the MAN... but then again, I have Dwyane Wade on the wing and Chris Bosh in the post who might have a better matchup... uh... " For Dirk, there's no question that he's the man on the Mavericks. Yes, Boston's "Big Three" played wonderfully together, but that's a testimony to Doc Rivers' coaching and their chemistry. LeBron and the other Three Kings haven't gotten there yet.
On the court musings aside, what I think is even more intriguing is the off the court drama between LeBron and the general public. LeBron didn't help matter when asked whether people rooting for his failure bothered him. He answered:
Absolutely not cause at the end of the day, all the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point.
Of course, the widely accepted translation of this was:
F*** you, you bitter and pathetic losers, because you'll all go back to their dreary lives and worrying about keeping your jobs and paying the bills in this economy while I have host barbecues at one of my ten mansions for my other phenomenally rich friends where I use cash for briquettes. You ordinary people will trudge own with your existences virtually begging to be euthanized while I satisfy every hedonistic desire I have because I can. I may not have an NBA Championship, but I don't believe for a second that you wouldn't trade your miserable, pathetic lives for mine in a half a second.
While his choice of words was terrible, the interpretation was a little unfair and over the top, and LeBron's PR people were quick to send a predictable "I was misinterpreted" press release out the next day. As I take a step back, I'm trying to understand exactly why LeBron is hated so much, and whether that degree of hatred is commensurate with his mistakes in judgment.

Is his arrogant? Sure, he is - big time, but isn't every great athlete? Does he have a "heart of a champion"? Not yet, but since when did that become a moral imperative? Does he think himself as someone who deserves more glory than he truly warrants? Sure, but so do all of us. Does he distance himself from the common man? Sure, but like my first point, most famous athletes and celebrities aren't exactly bending over backwards to show the world that they eat at KFC, shop at Trader Joe's and buy their cereal in bulk at Costco.

Let's face it, he can't emphasize this because that'll just dig himself a deeper hole, but of course there's some jealousy from all of us 'haters' out there. Let's be honest with one another. This is a phenomenally wealthy young man at the age of 26 who will achieve a level of worldly financial success, fame, glory and adulation that 99.999% of the world will never get remotely close to. We resent that he seems like an unworthy and undeserving beneficiary of his current good fortune and that which is to come. And with each verbal or decision-making misstep, he validates our rancor that "he just doesn't deserve it!" And the amount of schadenfreude is off the charts.

The guy's a 26-year old kid. He's not polished or mature. He's said plenty of things that he shouldn't have and he's made mistakes - and he will make plenty more. Let's give him a break and hope that he uses this setback as an opportunity to get simultaneously humble, hungry and even better. As someone who had the pleasure of watching athletes like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer play, we'll all be better off if we have the opportunity to witness anybody who can achieve that "arguably the best that ever played" status. So we'll hope for that - unless he's playing my beloved Knicks.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What Exactly is Workaholism?

There's a neat little diagnostic on CNN.com that allows people to self-diagnose whether they're a workaholic. After I completed 25 questions, I ended up rating just basely non-workaholic. I wasn't surprised, as I think I try to reasonably balance my work and life commitments, and at least as of this post, my kids recognize who I am and greet me happily when I return from work.

But it did get me thinking: what exactly is a workaholic? If you base it on the diagnostic, here are the attributes and telltale signs:
  1. You prefer to do most things rather than ask for help.
  2. You get impatient when you have to wait for someone else or when something takes too long.
  3. You seem to be in a hurry and racing against the clock.
  4. You get irritated when you are interrupted while your are in the middle of something.
  5. You stay busy and keep many irons in the fire.
  6. You find myself doing two or three things at one time, such as eating lunch and writing a memo while talking on the phone.
  7. You over commit myself by biting off more than you can chew.
  8. You feel guilty when you are not working on something.
  9. It's important that you see the concrete results of what you do.
  10. You are more interested in the final result of your work than in the process.
  11. Things just seem to move fast enough or get done fast enough for you.
  12. You lose your temper when things don't go your way or work out to suit you.
  13. You ask the same question over again after you've already been given the answer once.
  14. You spend a lot of time mentally planning and thinking about future events while tuning out the here and now.
  15. You find yourself continuing to work after your coworkers have called it quits.
  16. You get angry when people don't meet your standards of perfection.
  17. You get upset when you are in situations where you cannot be in control.
  18. You tend to put myself under pressure from self-imposed deadlines when you work.
  19. It is hard for me to relax when You'm not working.
  20. You spend more time working than socializing with friends or on hobbies or leisure activities.
  21. You dive into projects to get a head start before all the phases have been finalized.
  22. You get upset with yourself for making even the smallest mistake.
  23. You put more thought, time and energy into your work than you do your relationships with loved ones and friends.
  24. You forget, ignore or minimize celebrations such as birthdays, reunions, anniversaries or holidays.
  25. You make important decisions before you have all the facts and have a chance to think them through.
I have no way of assessing the scientific accuracy of this diagnostic, nor do I have know of a universally agreed-upon standard around the definition of a workaholic. But some of the traits above seem to be consistent with a healthy work ethic, others seem to be consistent with OCD and others seem to have less relevance to an attitude towards work as opposed to being an irritable jackass.

I think the heart of workaholism basically comes down to this: How much do you enjoy your job or the benefits (e.g. money, power, sense of accomplishment) of your job compared to the rest of your life? Do you live to work, or do you work to live? Do you view your job as the primarily means of currency to allow enable you to have a life outside of it, or do you view the rest of your life as a secondary or parallel component of your career fruits and progression?

I'm not necessarily putting a value judgment on this. but rather speaking to an ethos which many people have. Many will say that work is its own reward, that if work had not monetary benefit, they'd still do it because it's the feeling of "productivity" and "accomplishment" and the process of work itself feels good, akin to a person who plays recreational sports not because they get a dime out of it, but because it's enjoyable. This is like the guy who wins the Powerball and decides to keep working because either (1) they still want more money or (2) they like the way that vocational work makes them feel, including the camaraderie, the activity and the feeling of accomplishment.

Reason #1 probably speaks to an insatiable desire to accumulate wealth. A'la Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko's exchange in the movie Wall Street (where Gekko really answers in a really abstract way):

Bud Fox: How much is enough, Gordon? When does it all end, huh? How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How much is enough, huh?

Gordon Gekko: It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one perception to another.

Reason #2 comes down to, plain and simple, liking your life at work more than your life at home. Would you prefer to spend time, eat meals and interact with your family? Or would you rather spend time, eat meals and interact with your co-workers, clients and your computer in a work environment. Maybe as much as people would hate to admit it, choosing the life where you need not emotionally invest in relationships and you can freely be self-focused or put on a fictional persona can be more alluring at times than real life. Maybe that's why some people throw themselves in SimLife, Second Life, and other role playing in virtual online worlds. Maybe that's why some people are workaholics.

Friday, June 10, 2011

How Social Promotion Ultimately Kills Self-Esteem

There's a phenomena in education called "social promotion", in which students who fail to achieve levels of aptitude around academics are still promoted to the next grade as a means of not stunting their self-esteem and allowing them to "catch up" academically through socializing them with people of their own age group. This is a pretty hot topic close to home, with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg trying to put a stop to social promotion in New York City schools, despite critics who claim that forcing kids to be held back or attend summer school is essentially an academic death sentence for students with so little support in the first place.

Even in the Jersey suburbs I see elements of social promotion, and I think it stinks. My son is taking taekwondo, and the standards of promotion are laughably bad. Like educational social promotion, students are given offers to get "promoted through testing" not because their instructions see them as awesome or worthy of the next level, it's because they've attended an ample number of lessons as marked through a little timesheet that they "check in" before each lesson. This is known as promotion by "seat time" in educational circles (in other words, you're rewarded for sitting in a seat, not because you've actually learned a thing or two).

It's clear that their promotion isn't based on any significant progression in either taekwondo technique, Korean language or moral training. The kids who are blue belts perform their combinations with no greater crispness than the yellow belts, and for a master who supposedly stresses discipline and good behavior, there's no discernible difference between the conduct of the black belts and orange belts. It's not as if the black belts never fail to say "Yes, sir!" or bow on cue. Nor do the black belts stand at attention awaiting their drills. They may have memorized a longer combination, but watching these supposed black belts make me pine for Johnny Lawrence and the Cobra Kai. Those guys may have been jackasses, but at least they showed discipline (in class) and they could effectively beat the crap out of scrawny kids from New Jersey.

But here's where it really becomes a problem. I saw kids who flubbed their promotion exams terribly - both in the technique and interview portions - and they were still given their belts. Not only does it send the "socially promoted" kid a bad message of "there are no consequences of lack of preparation or not performing well", it also completely undercuts the kids that actually do practice and prepare. So it's setting up a scenario where Daniel may look up and say to his mother and me, "Why did you make me work so hard to memorize my Korean phrases?" because it apparently doesn't matter. I find it odd that at a Korean-run taekwondo school that they'd somehow lose the core value that it's a fundamentally good thing to teach that hard work makes a difference.

But maybe that's a larger societal problem. Maybe parents have become so obsessed with self-esteem that we've turned achievement into a entitlement as opposed to reward that has to be earned. Maybe it's possible that Master Yoo feels the pressure of parents who imply that they'd yank their kids out of this extracurricular if the kids weren't blissfully happy, though it'd be unfortunate if he's putting tuition income over principle, turning his Dojang into a promotion-factory cash-cow. Of course, the last laugh will be on the students, when their self-esteem will be exposed as counterfeit "feel-good" nonsense, as opposed to a self-esteem based upon real accomplishment.

This societal problem is one that I wrote about in an earlier post about the spirit of entitlement which I think may very well push us even further down the ladder as our nation fights to be globally competitive. I worry about a generation of Americans who think highly of themselves and then get crushed when they compete against the best of the rest of the globe. Results matter in the real world, why are we shy about teaching that at a young age?

Bring back the Cobra Kai!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The "Disgraced" Uncle is Still Family

There are those who say that religion and sports don't mix. Many roll their eyes and gnash their teeth when football players kneel down in a prayer circle at midfield after the game, or when "look at me" wide receivers point to the sky and kneel after rumbling into the end zone after a touchdown. Devout Christian Michael Chang once remarked that he could hear sportswriters' pencils crack irritation when he would preface post-game interviews with, "First I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ..."

Even the most devout fans get really nervous when sports figures who make their faith a matter of public record because the reality is that humans are fallible, and any transgression will inevitably bring out screams of "sanctimonious hypocrite!" As long as Christians, fair or unfair, are equated with righteous and holy living and the desire for others to live righteously, moral failures will lead to a boomerang effect. And this is already happening with Jim Tressel, the former head coach of the Ohio State football team, who resigned in the wake of allegation after allegation of non-compliance with NCAA standards relating to player perks. The extra grease is that Tressel is a vocal Christian, who recent wrote a book titled, "The Winner's Manual: For the Game of Life" and as of last month was actively hawking this at signings, along with his previously written "Life Promises for Success: Promises from God on Achieving Your Best". And as the allegations rolled in, Christian sports fans cringed.

Yes, as a Christian sports fan (who doesn't have any affinity towards Ohio State), I'm pissed. I'm pissed that Tressel has put one more arrow in the quiver of those who count Christians as sanctimonious hypocrites. I'm angry that he made terrible decisions and sold out principle for the understandable allure of victory and the adulation of an entire state and fanbase. I'm disappointed that his actions will create additional cynicism towards any Christian, famous or not, who tries to encourage people to a higher standard of goodness and kindness. It's bothers me that he's thrown gasoline on the fire for those who revile the Christian faith and its followers. In response to one blog poster who stated that despite his mistakes, Jim Tressel was still a good Christian man, another poster retorted: "Tressel is definitely a good Christian: a lying, deceitful hypocrite."

But getting past my own self-righteousness clothed in moral outrage, I realized that my reaction to Tressel was actually pathetically self-righteous in of itself. I actually stumbled upon a post written by another blogger which captured this very well. Dave Burchett wrote in his own blog:
I used to get really self-righteous at moments like this and proclaim that “I wouldn’t have done that”. Really? I thought back on various moral dilemmas in my life. The ones I want you to know about were the ones where I reacted with integrity and honesty. But there are sad incidents in my life where I chose hiddenness and deceit.
This is true. The difference between me and Jim Tressel is that his life and testimony are in the public spotlight and mine are not. I choose sin, hiddenness and deceit, and the worse that I get is loving admonishment from my wife or my close Christian friends. Tressel screws up, and he not only gets excoriated by the public and the media, but Christians who hardly know the guy are picking up stones to throw in his direction. And for the Christian, there is no greater hypocrisy.

As mentioned earlier, another exacerbating factor is that the Christian faith is largely equated with moralism, not grace. Some of this is the fault of the church, and some of this is the fault of selective sight and listening of the masses (e.g. Christians quietly serve as the vessels of healing and mercy all over the world, and the only thing that gets broadcast in the news is the philandering and embezzling televangelist). But the Church should do what it can to influence what it can control. Burchett also writes:
The church has too often communicated through our moralism that righteousness is because of our self-righteous behavior. No drinking. No cursing. No gambling. And so on. But the truth is that righteousness comes because of Jesus. Believers are saints by position and not by personal merit. When we sin we are still righteous even as we may suffer the consequences of those actions. We have been “declared” right in God’s sight because of Jesus. It is that unfathomable grace that is the distinctive of Christianity. If I fail miserably today it does not change the truth of the Gospel. All of us, celebrity and not, should point to Christ and not to our own works. We fail. God does not... Bill Thrall of Truefaced.com hit me with a paradigm shifter when he said this. “Most Christians don’t know that God has made us saints, who still sin, not sinners striving to become saints. This changes everything! If people knew about this treasure, churches everywhere would become safe places. Not soft places, but safe places, where we could be real, we could try out our faith, where we could fail and yet be loved.
Well said, and we can start with showing some restorative grace to Jim Tressel, a man who will endure just consequences for his mistakes, but should find the Church a refuge of safety in the same way that the rest of us sinners have. Much like that "crazy" uncle who is still family, Jim Tressel is still family.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Academic Path of Least Resistance

Okay, I admit it. I was somewhat of a slacker during my college and undergrad years. After working waaaay too hard during high school under the pressure of Tiger parents (swish, I might as well join the other Asians on the bandwagon blaming our parents for pushing us to hard), I figured that I would take the foot off the gas.

In fairness, it took my until my junior year at Penn to completely appreciate that I could afford to miss tons of classes and cram for the two exams which made up 80% of my grade. I realized that I developed enough writing acumen that I could bluff my way through writing passable papers. Business school was even worse given that our future employers never saw our transcripts (besides knowing if we passed or failed) and most professors and classmates agreed that getting good grades wasn't the point. Well, unless you were "Mitch", but that's besides the point.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that this is right. In fact, if any of my children are reading this: Don't do what daddy did. Study hard and make your parents proud. Get good grades and we'll be happy to return your pets to you safe and sound. Score well on your standardized tests and you'll be allowed to leave the basement and eat dinner with the rest of the family.

Anyway... I was reminded of all of this when I read a recent article on CNN.com about how our national capabilities in science, technology and engineering are being crippled partly because college students who are inclined to these areas are instead choosing field which are far less rigorous. It's hard to blame them - it's tough to sell the upside of staying in college a few extra semesters and to spend some of the most entertaining parts of your life crammed in a lab or a library while everyone else is partying or having rich social lives.

The general premise of the article is that a great number of talented students actually want to enter fields related to math and science but they end of choosing other fields. The biggest reason put forward by the author is that the educational culture around these fields is structured along the lines of Darwinism, with an eye towards weeding out he weak so only the very best survive, as opposed to a collaborative culture which emphasizes the possibility and hope that "everyone can and will graduate successfully and enter these scientific fields."

That may be the case, but I wonder if a larger part of it is simple case of economic and social incentive. The path of a career in mathematics and science is extremely rigorous, with those who want to reach the top of their profession needing to accumulate master's and doctoral degrees. Add to that the post-doctoral programs, and the timeline may seem long before the financial rewards start kicking in. And even as a staff researcher of, let's say, a pharmaceutical company, the salary will compare unfavorably to an MBA hire (who also had to spend four less years in school) at that same pharmaceutical company.

Granted, people are incentivized by more than money, but let's not be naive to think that the financial implications (or the social sacrifices necessitated by killer coursework) aren't a factor. But as my friends who are in education or government fields can attest, the phenomena of choosing a field because you love it - as opposed to the "return on investment" - is not a rare one, and I certainly hope that there are more and more people who are inclined in the sciences who are encouraged by the prospect of doing meaningful work that they love to do, as opposed to to being discouraged about the seemingly difficult mountain to be climbed.